Street Smart Chicago

Thought Police: Anti-Social Media

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By Hildy Johnson

Legendary journalist Mike Wallace, who spent a formative decade in broadcasting in Chicago before moving on to a career at CBS in New York, died Sunday at ninety-three. Long before he became known as the dad of that Fox News guy, Chris Wallace, original “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace pioneered, along with producer Don Hewitt, a tradition of hard-hitting television journalism on their show that connected back to Edward Murrow and forward through Watergate, only to die somewhere along the time that Geraldo Rivera hit the scene. Most memorable was their devising of the televised ambush interview, wherein they would stake out, with cameras running, a subject who’d refused to respond to their request for an interview through traditional means, catching them at home or at work. As often as not, the refusal to answer their questions would be more damning than if they’d just sat for the interview. In a 2005 conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross (rebroadcast this week), Wallace said they eventually retired the technique when it became more about the theater than about getting to the truth. That might be the case, but in a world where seats of power and wealth have successfully built thicker walls between them and an increasingly timid press, this is a particularly effective tool in leveling the playing field in the public’s favor. At least Michael Moore keeps the ambush in his toolkit.

Speaking of ambush, I bet former Chicago bartender Jessica Elizabeth Harr is wondering what just rocked her life. Consider the scenario. Read the rest of this entry »

Thought Police: Lost Voice

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By Hildy Johnson

Like just about everyone of a certain age who got into the alternative newspaper racket, I found my inspiration from the Village Voice. I’d moved to New York in my early twenties for a Wall Street training program and, though then far to the right of its political sensibilities, found VV’s untidy collection of powerful voices irresistible. Its writers not only took on the powerful (“New York’s Worst Landlords”) but also each other, in its letters column, which often made for the liveliest reading in the paper. After its founding by Norman Mailer and a couple of his pals, it went through a series of owners, including Clay Felker and Leonard Stern; even Rupert Murdoch, who counted among them, could not tame this unruly publication.

As billionaires seem to have a knack to do, Stern sold the paper, along with several others he collected around the country, at the peak of the market in early 2000 to an investor group. With the media economy soon in free fall, things did not go well for the new buyer, and before long, New Times, a Phoenix, Arizona-based group of alt weeklies led by Jim Larkin and Mike Lacey, had merged the two companies, forming the national powerhouse the two rival chains had long coveted. Read the rest of this entry »

Thought Police: Olden Daze

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By Hildy Johnson

With the nation awash in the lingering effects of war and recession, it’s boomtime for nostalgia in the cultural world. “The Artist” and “Hugo,” two films that romance the very earliest days of cinema, won big at this year’s Academy Awards on Sunday. And here in Chicago, recent publication launches give credence to the notion that there’s no time like the past to seek the future of print media. Couple that with the concurrent demise of the Chicago News Cooperative, an attempt to develop a new model for creating journalism, and we’ll soon be firing up those old linotype machines.

The two new undertakings—the rebirth of The Chicagoan magazine, from the creator of the now-defunct Stop Smiling magazine, and Printers Row, a new literary weekly from the Chicago Tribune—fall under the influence of Dave Eggers, a onetime local who turned bestselling riches from his novel, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” into a mini-empire of publishing enterprises known for creating outstanding literary works that often combine clever ideas with a highbrow smirk and a lush, retro design. Read the rest of this entry »