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Column: Lightfoot doesn’t tread lightly when it comes to the press – Chicago Tribune

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When acknowledging her second anniversary in office, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s provocative effort to bring equity in reporting opportunities for reporters of color had newsrooms buzzing.

Lightfoot’s decision to grant one-on-one interviews about her anniversary to only minority reporters, whether a political ploy or genuine attempt to foster fairness, may well be a double-edged sword.

Aside from outright challenging newsrooms and the very keystones of impartial news coverage, Lightfoot’s decision to limit reporter access purely based on ethnicity is chancy. It’s never good for a politician to clash with local media markets. Some news-watchers and journalism purists believe that interjecting politics and race into what should be unbiased news coverage possibly runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

In a recent op-ed, retired Chicago journalist Jay Levine strongly objected to Lightfoot’s action, saying “The very fact that she’s trying to limit access is an example of the same discriminatory practices she says she wants to correct….” Levine isn’t alone, and other media types believe that the responsibility for news reporting assignments falls strictly within the newsroom purview.

If Levine’s reaction and the ensuing commotion and divisiveness resulting from Lightfoot’s controversial pronouncement are an indication, Lightfoot may have plodded into dangerous territory. It also doesn’t help that Lightfoot’s temperament described by the Tribune’s Editorial Board as a “tendency toward the thin-skinned, the defensive, the short-tempered,” appears to be playing out.

If Lightfoot’s action is a political stunt or an attempt to conjure powers and influence the media, the mayor first needs to galvanize the support of Black media professionals. That’s because besides the resentment precipitated by Lightfoot’s declaration, there’s a growing faction of Blacks who believe the mayor’s action ironic, especially since, according to them, Lightfoot has done little to improve the quality of life for Blacks. And hardliners see the mayor taking up the cause of Black journalists as little more than a political ploy and maintain that Lightfoot’s favoring of journalists based on ethnicity rings hollow.

Anthony Stanford.

Anthony Stanford. (Anthony Stanford / HANDOUT)

Some go further, saying that meddling in the day-to-day operation of newsrooms and attempting to control the ethnicity of newsroom personnel assigned to a story is equivalent to a government-controlled media. Instead, they argue that, if anything, political leaders should insist that when reporting on the Black community, particularly as it relates to Black-on-Black crime, that the backstory gets told. Often left out are contributing factors like socio-economic conditions, substandard housing, mental health issues and the rippling effect of crime throughout impacted communities.

Granting interviews to journalists of a certain race creates acrimony and does little to advance racial equity across all media forums. Moreover, if fairness in the media depends on the ethnic makeup of the press, without the inclusion of pertinent background information, it sounds a lot like fake news.

Digging in her heels, Mayor Lightfoot recently said during a podcast segment with the New York Times podcast Sway that she would “absolutely” exclude white journalists from interviews again. The Democratic mayor said, “I’m the mayor of the third-largest city in the country. Obviously, I have a platform, and it’s important to me to advocate on things that I believe are important – going back to why I ran – to disrupt the status quo. The media is critically important to our democracy … The media is in a time of incredible upheaval and disruption, but our City Hall press corps looks like it’s 1950 or 1970.”

Perhaps Lightfoot and other would-be political power brokers should consider that the public recognizes the attempts by politicians to manipulate the news. So, elected officials might want to heed what British-American political journalist Mehdi Hasan said about perilously striding into the affairs of America’s newsrooms. According to Hasan, “What we want is responsible journalism. We want to avoid bigotry.”

Anthony Stanford, who was named the 2014 Outstanding African-American of the Year by the Aurora African-American Heritage Advisory Board, is a columnist and author of the book, “Homophobia in the Black Church: How Faith, Politics and Fear Divide the Black Community.”

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