People With Passion: Ben Joravsky

A People with Passion series

Chicago journalism

December 20, 2011: Ben Joravsky

Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader, with Mayor Daley. (photo by Hunter Clauss)

We are seated at a window table at Starbucks at the Irving Park/Lincoln/Damen intersection. Ben holds the tape recorder like a microphone as he speaks, as if he is dictating his autobiography. He speaks in person with the passion, knowledge, authority, and irreverence displayed in his work.

In the 20th installment of my Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series — and a return for 2012 — Chicago Reader political writer Ben Joravsky discusses the challenges in writing about Chicago’s tax increment financing program, the cluelessness of Chicagoans, the trouble with aldermen, and the beating down of the journalism profession.

I can’t go back to Dr. Seuss. My memory doesn’t go back really far. It’s sort of like my life began when my family moved to Evanston from Rhode Island. 1966. I was 10 but I was going to turn 11 soon. I have fuzzy memories of Rhode Island, but I have sharper memories of Evanston, and truly enjoyed the junior high years in Evanston. I went to Nichols Junior High – what up Nichols – and really enjoyed myself at Nichols. Had a lot of fun.

In those days, I read a lot of, like, kid biographies. I’d be reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln, but for kids. That kind of thing. I was always interested in historical figures, but by the time I got to Evanston I was really into sports. When I was in junior high, if there was a sport, I watched it. I watched football, basketball, baseball. Those were the big three. I watched track and field. I watched pro wrestling. I watched roller derby. If it was on TV, I watched it. I was just into sports. And hockey! I even liked hockey.

Sportswriters? I read all of them. See, the thing is, my family is a liberal family, so to us the Tribune was – how do I explain this so people will understand –


Yeah. Anathema. I mean, who would read the Tribune? Why? You’d have to be some right-wing lunatic to read the Tribune. Who would believe anything they wrote? So I don’t know the guys from the Tribune. I know there was a guy named David Condon who wrote for them. I would read their sports section in the library in school, just because I’m fanatic about sports, but I didn’t grow up with them.

We would read three newspapers. We got the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the New York Times. I remember Anthony Lewis in the New York Times, and Russell Baker and Tom Wicker. Those are the people I read in the New York Times. As far as the local papers, you know, there was Bill Gleason – I was a big Bill Gleason fan – Lacy J. Banks – I love Lacy J. Banks –

Lacy’s been around that long?

Yeah. Lacy was writing about the Bulls. I liked him. He was a black voice in the newspaper, which were very few. I still remember this, all these years later: the White Sox had a pitcher named Wilbur Wood who threw a knuckle ball, and he compared the knuckle ball’s flight to James Brown’s dance. I was really into that kind of music so I thought that was pretty cool.

I did not practice journalism until my senior year of college. I began writing for the student newspaper in Lawrence University, which is a small liberal arts school. Spent four utterly miserable years there. That’s a whole nother story. It was a liberal arts school, as I said, so having a class in journalism would have been considered too vocational. There were no journalism classes, as far as I know. There may have been a creative writing course, but I didn’t take it. Liberal arts, you write papers for English or history. That’s how you learn. I started as a hobby, writing for the school newspaper. That was my first experience writing.

I wandered around a lot for about four years after I was done with college, doing this, that, and the other thing. Ended up as a writer for a publication in Chicago that’s still around called the Reporter. In fact, my first story for the Reporter – and I like to re-read it to see if it’s as good as I remember it being, and it’s probably not – but it was a story about race relations in the Evanston public schools, something that I know a lot about. The segregation within an integrated public school system, how kids self-segregate themselves, why they do it. That’s kind of the thing I was really dealing with back then. That was my first significant piece of journalism in Chicago. The editor, the publisher of the Reporter, a man by the name of John McDermott, really liked the work I did and hired me on.

It was 1981. It ran in, I believe – don’t quote me – June of ’81. Well, you can quote me. And then he hired me in the spring of ’82. That was really my start. I started doing political stories for them, and you know, that’s when I began to evolve into the writer I am today.

I was at the Reporter until 1985. There were several things that led to me leaving. One, John left, and he was my man. He’s the guy I owe more to than anybody else. He saw something in me and cultivated it and encouraged me. He left, so why stay? Plus in those days, the Reporter had a very confined writing style. It was very journalistic. They wouldn’t allow much in the way of flair. It was like putting together investigative reports. I wanted to do more, I don’t know, “flair writing.”

But there must have been good lessons learned in having to work your work into that frame.

Oh my god, yeah. I learned so much at the Reporter about investigative journalism. See, my thing was that I never had a writing course or any kind of journalism course ever. I was learning as I went. When I was reading Royko, I was learning how to use humor and sarcasm and irony and storytelling, but I never thought about it in terms of the basics of journalism. If a person’s name is “John Jones” but his nickname is “Johnny,” you don’t call him “Johnny.” But Royko, it would be vernacular. Jane Byrne, “Mayor Bossy,” or “Johnny Jones.” Reading Royko, I didn’t learn the basics, the ABCs of journalism that you’re supposed to practice. It was at the Reporter that I would learn that you shouldn’t say “Johnny Jones.” It’s “John F. Jones III.” You get his proper name and you spell it right. Those basic things.

Beyond those basics, it was how to put together a story. That’s what I learned at the Reporter. Beat reporters are following a beat. They follow wherever the leader leads them, and then your big challenge is to accurately recount whatever it is they say, on a deadline, quickly and accurately.

But in terms of developing your own story, going beyond wherever they’re leading you, to see sort of what’s really going on, that takes a certain amount of digging. It takes time. You have to learn how to gather information from different sources. I learned that at the Reporter.

I’m a lifelong reader. You have a Studs Terkel book there, and I read everything by Studs Terkel. I talk about Royko, and it goes on: Jimmy Breslin was hugely influential in my life. Philip Roth was hugely influential in my life. Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer. And then we go to sports – I read Sports Illustrated, so all of their writers. All the New York Times guys. Russell Baker, huge influence. Molly Ivins a huge influence on me. Tom Wicker.

I read all of the contemporary books that came out. All of the breaking sports journalism of its time. Instant Replay, a book about the Packers in 1967 or 8 – I read that. The Year the Mets Lost Last Place was a huge influence on me. It was about how the Mets beat the Cubs in ’69, but it was told from the Mets’s perspective.

I read a lot. And I kept a diary. So I was always writing. I wasn’t writing for a newspaper, but I’d be writing in my diary. That’s writing. I had a sense of style. I had an ear for the rhythms of writing. So I was finally getting to practice it, and to really find what I thought was my voice, which is a 30-year and counting journey: What’s the best way to tell a story? What’s the most comfortable way? Natural way?

So much of journalistic writing is artifice. It just blocks you from, in my humble opinion, from really getting at the essence of something. The conventional way of writing a story just doesn’t work in a convenient way. The information is not proportioned in a rational, logical way. It’s disjointed, with the top-down – like, “Here’s your lede” – most people’s minds don’t think that way.

When you tell a story you put it in chronological order. There’s a narrative. “Start here, and follow me with this. Just be patient.” But journalistic writing is, “No! We can’t be patient! We gotta tell you this story right now!” And so most people go, “What the hell?” That’s part of the reason why the public is so clueless and ignorant. They’re depending on such a bizarre way of learning news, in my humble opinion. And of course there’s such limited space, so I was always trying to figure out how to tell a story in a way that people would want to read. That’s been a challenge for all 30 years of my journalistic career.

This was the mid 80s to early 90s, and a great freelance career for me. I wrote for everybody. I was hustling. I had no children at the time, so you know, I wrote for the Reader, Chicago Magazine, New York Times, Tribune, Sunday Magazine, and then so many publications that have since gone out of business. You wanted it, I wrote it for you. On top of that I did a couple of projects with my buddy Eduardo Camacho, one called Race and Politics in Chicago where I told the history of race and politics in Chicago.

In those days, there were more opportunities to write for freelance than there are today. So that’s what I did. And then the Reader offered me a full-time job in 1990, which I took. As the years wore on I did less and less freelance. I had kids, and so my life became basically doing my Reader and raising my kids. My kids are grown now, so I’m moving on to another phase of existence where writing is more paramount now in my life than at any other time, actually.

I read that great Roosevelt High School basketball story you did, and you were talking about how you just want to find a place to start, and you started right at the free throw line and then tracked back into the tryouts and moved forward from there –

That’s a narrative technique of telling a story, the kind of story that I would have learned from like a Dick Schaap. That’s sportswriting, but what I was talking about earlier was a little bit different. For a sports story, even a sports story about an obscure high school basketball team on the north side of Chicago that’s not going to win the championship, you have an audience because there are people who love sports, love basketball, love teenagers, love angst-ridden, anxiety-ridden adolescent stories with great characters, funny scenes.

But trying to get people to care about something like (laughs) the recent tax break that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange got from the state that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and will affect your life and affect everybody in this restaurant’s life, probably for the detriment – trying to get them to care about that and understand that is a real challenge. And that’s where the modern media fails. The narrative that they have to follow does not do justice to telling people what’s going on. That’s my opinion.

The Roosevelt story, which I’m very proud of and is maybe my favorite story of all-time, is a different story that has a different kind of audience. But you can use some of the same narrative techniques that I used in the Roosevelt story for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange story. You can. For me anyway, it’s taken years of practice to learn how to use those same narrative techniques for a sports story that’s heavy on great characters and scenes to a numbers-driven scam story, which is what the Mercantile Exchange is, which is what TIF stories are, which is what budget stories are.

I was covering the aldermanic elections in the 1st and 32nd in February. I was sitting in on a lot of town hall meetings and keeping my ears open more and listening to what the candidates were saying, and they were talking about TIFs and they’re talking about the parking meters, and people really had an understanding of what TIFs were. They weren’t just saying “I’m hearing something called TIFs, and what the hell is that?” which would have been great on its own, but they were saying, “What are you going to do to make sure that this money is getting to us and not getting to…” And you guys weren’t really using narrative techniques with those. You weren’t showing characters, for the most part. You were saying, “Here’s what’s going on.” You got people to care about something that is very technical and numbers-driven and not entertaining.

Well, there’s two separate stories there, the TIF story and the parking meter story, and they reflect different aspects of Chicagoans. Let’s start with parking meter. There are three big parking meter stories that I did with Mick. They were very Reporter-esque. Mick’s from the Reporter as well. Mick and I are a great partnership, because we bring different things to the table. Mick’s much more rooted – even though he’s younger than me – he’s much more rooted in the investigative reporting school. When we work together, our stories tend to be much more Reporter-like. A little less attitude, wisecracks, etc.

The reason the parking meters took off, in my humble opinion, is because it was hard (laughs) it was hard to conceal the deceit, because the deceit was slapped in the face of Chicagoans every time they fed quarters to those machines, okay? It just pissed them off. Chicagoans – I like to tease them – they’re not the brightest people in the world, but they do understand a basic thing: if you put quarters into the parking meters in the old days, you had the feeling that it went to the city. The city might waste it, but it was going to the city. Now, you put the quarters in it, it’s going to some rich guy! We get nothing out if it. What the fu – (lowers voice) What the fuck did you do this for? Chicagoans aren’t the brightest people in the world, but they got that.

You really think that?

Oh yeah. You don’t? What’s the evidence contrary? (Laughs.) Look at their behavior. Look at the people they elect. I mean – look! They elected Mayor Daley for 22 years. He ran –

Do you think we’re specifically more clueless than other big city populations?

That’s a classic Chicago behavior thing. I will point out how corrupt, wasteful, inefficient, and boneheaded Chicago is, and a Chicagoan will tell me, “Well, how do they do it in Cleveland?” Why the fuck do you care how they do it in Cleveland? They’re doing it stupid here! I spent four years getting questions like, “Well, it’s better than Detroit.” After a while, it’s like, “Why are you picking on Detroit? Why do you consistently pick the one city that has consistently bottomed out? Why don’t you compare us to Minneapolis?” This is a conversation with a Chicagoan. This is the Chicago mentality. “Well, Minneapolis is different than Chicago.” Well, what’s the difference? What are you really saying, Chicagoans? Why don’t you pick Seattle? Why not Vancouver? Why do you always pick Detroit? Or sometimes you go to Gary or Cleveland.

They always pick the city that’s doing the worst. Why stop at Detroit? Why not use Baghdad? I mean, if you’re going to find the poorest city with the most retched living conditions, why limit yourself to the continental United States? Come on Chicagoans! Why don’t you ever compare yourself to Evanston? Or Oak Park? Or Lake Forest? Or Winnetka? Or Wilmette? They get garbage service without seeing corruption. They have great schools. They have the finest facilities in the world in Wilmette. Why do you continually compare yourself to Detroit? Why don’t you compare yourself to Wilmette?

I’ve written two stories doing this, comparing Chicago to Wilmette. I think I’ll do more now that we have the mayor from Wilmette who is running Chicago. That’s why I’m saying, “Chicagoans” – it’s like, they’re so happy. “We just love our city so much, and our mayor, and it’s a clean city…” What are you saying? I once took my daughter through Chicago. We went all around the city. I was pointing out dirt on the street, because this was in ’07 when Chicagoans were really in love with Mayor Daley in kind of a weird – I mean, Chicagoans’s love for Mayor Daley, I never quite got.

Either one, or specifically the second one?

This kid. The baby mayor. The one who just left. We didn’t get rid of him, he left. We would have kept voting him in forever! (Laughs.) Okay, you ask me about the cluelessness? Here’s how clueless people in Chicago are. They voted for this guy 22 years running. 22 years running. Would have voted for him again, no doubt in my mind. The minute he leaves, the new mayor says, “I’m going to change all of the things that he did, which we know were wrong, but I’m not going to mention his name because we’re all going to pretend that we revere and love him, because only he could have gotten us here.”

Well if he did all these bad things that you’re going to have to change, why are we revering him so much? Why would you endorse him? Don’t you think that this is a little clueless and inconsistent, that Mayor Rahm, who’s changing everything that Mayor Daley did and is being cheered on by the major media for changing everything that Mayor Daley did, was all set to endorse Mayor Daley for re-election, as was the major media, if Mayor Daley had run? Don’t you think that’s bizarre? Don’t you think that’s a twisted mentality?

So how do you explain that in a normal narrative? How do you explain the irrationality of Chicago voters, who continually vote for a guy who is driving their city to ruin, and reveres him? How do you explain the mentality of Illinois voters who continually vote for corrupt governors? We’ve got one governor in jail and another one going to jail.

I’ve come to this conclusion – and this is Chicagoans I’m talking about, so don’t ask me about Clevelanders, and don’t ask me what it’s like in Newark, don’t ask me what it’s like in New York – I’m talking about Chicagoans, okay? (Smiles.) I think Chicagoans have this twisted attitude that somehow or other, you can’t get something basic done without corruption. They’ve not only come to tolerate it, they kind of like it. It’s a weird, twisted, sadomasochistic thing, and I don’t want to get into it too deep, but they’re really weird. I’m telling you! You guys are weird!

Ameya Pawar. (Photo by Jim Newberry)

In this ward, where we are right now, Ameya Pawar ran for alderman as “I’m gonna clean it up. I’m gonna vote my conscious. I’m not gonna participate in any of the smoke-and-mirrors…” Gets in office, and the first thing he does? He gets absorbed by it. He’s voting for all of the budgets, he’s having fun at fundraisers with Mayor Rahm. It’s like everything he said before he was elected is completely contradicted by everything he’s done since he’s been elected.

Here’s the other thing about Chicagoans, and it’s probably not that much different from other people, but I’ve not done the scientific history – Chicagoans walk through life in a sense of cluelessness. They could tell you so much about the latest iPad, or, what are those things called? iPhones? They know more about Apple products than any man possible, but city politics, “Oy! It’s so confusing! Who can keep up with this stuff? He seems like a nice guy. I saw him at a restaurant. He said hi to me!” That’s Chicago.

You mentioned you’re in the 1st ward. This is on my mind. I think voters in the 1st ward would vote for Joe Moreno forever, simply because he goes to Pitchfork.

Oh yeah. We love Moreno.

Yeah! You love Moreno! You don’t know anything about his political stands. You don’t know anything about his stands on taxes, schools, charters, TIFs, the CME budget balance –

He voted for the budget.

Yeah he voted for the budget. He’s voted for every single TIF that’s ever come down the way. So if you’re against TIFs, why would you be for him? If you think that the TIF is an inefficient, unfair, inequitable way to divvy up the pie, if you think that it leads to corruption and waste, why would you vote for an alderman who continually votes for TIF deals?

Because he’s a –

Because he likes to go to Pitchfork! (Laughs.)

No, no, he’s a nice guy. He’s like, a 1st ward guy.

You are now proving my point.

No, every – he’s got a really open office. People come in to talk to him.

You proved my point. The difference between you and me is that I think that people are weird for behaving that way, and you think it’s normal! (Laughs.) So anyway, how do I explain that in a narrative form? How do I explain that? You can’t.

Okay, so parking meters, fine. TIFs?

Here’s a really important distinction. The parking meter was a done deal. For better or worse, Rahm Emanuel said, “I’m against it, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” which I don’t believe for one minute. I believe that if he wanted to end the parking meters right now, he could end it. There’s ways around it. There’s ways of forcing that company to re-write the deal, there’s ways of suspending payment –

“This is bullshit. It was the last guy’s stupid idea.”

Photo from Chicago News Cooperative.

Yeah. “I’m not gonna do it. See you in court. My lawyers against your lawyers in a Chicago court. Let’s see who wins. With judges that we appoint. Good luck.” You know? When Rahm wants to go to a longer school day, you never see him say, “We can’t force the teachers to take a longer school day because there’s a contract that we signed.” Suddenly, contracts don’t matter. But contracts matter when it comes to the parking meters. Isn’t that funny? We’re selective about contracts.

And here’s Chicagoans: “Oh yeah, we can’t do the parking meter thing, because Rahm says the contracts matter.” Well Chicagoans, I’m just asking you this: why do you accept what Rahm says when it comes to the contracts for parking meters, but not when it comes to the contracts for teachers. This is why I struggle with my fellow Chicagoans, and I really do. I just feel very alienated from Chicago. Maybe all writers do to a degree or another, but I really – and that’s politically. People are really nice in Chicago, by in large, but politically I’m very alienated.

TIFs is harder to understand because it doesn’t face you. You don’t put quarters in. It’s a bill. And it’s a bill that not everyone receives. If you’re a renter, you don’t even get a property tax bill. Most renters have never even seen a property tax bill. They have no clue what property taxes are. So it’s a perfect scam for the city, because a good portion of the people have no idea what you’re talking about.

And the people who get property tax bills, the TIF is lies. It says, “TIF gets nothing.” The receipt that they give you is part of the fraud. One of the things I’ve been fighting for, eight years and counting, is to put truth on your property tax bill. I think that’s fraud. I think that any statement that so obviously conceals where your taxes are going is itself a fraud and should be ruled illegal.

You tell me that people were asking about the TIFs – I consider that a great advancement, okay? But just to have a small segment of the population that actually shows up for a debate as opposed to the great mass of people who show up to Pitchfork asking about TIFs is not going to change it. It will get all of the aldermen in that room – like Ameya did, and maybe Proco Joe for all I know – to say, “Yes, Ben is right. We have to change this TIF thing.” And then as soon as they get elected they just go about the way it was. That’s the difference: TIFs are an ongoing thing that are hard to understand, whereas parking meters is a dead thing that everyone understands. It still infuriates people. I think people are still pissed off at the parking meters, the symbolism of it all.

So trying to get people to understand something that’s really complicated, something that the city denies is a fraud – that’s the other thing. I spent so many years fighting with the city’s official explanation of TIF. If you went to the city’s official website, the documents there completely contradicted everything I was reporting in the paper. So if you’re a reporter at a regular mainstream newspaper, you have to decide, “Am I going to be calling the city a liar?” That’s a tough question to answer. You have to say, “Who am I to call the city a liar? My editor’s not going to believe me.”

I remember a writer for a neighborhood newspaper in Hyde Park who effectively told me, “The people aren’t ready to be told the truth about TIFs.” It is kind of deep. You’re saying, “Your city is lying to you on an ongoing basis about how taxes are spent, how taxes are collected, and this program is incredibly important.” I mean, how can you do that in a normal narrative?

Every time you tell a story about how TIFs are used, you have to explain it. And you know that there’s a good chunk of your reading population that’s already read it, and you don’t want to bore them, but then if you just skip over the explanation, there’s all the people who are maybe coming to it for the first time. It’s a challenge. The TIF thing was, in some ways, more of a challenge than the parking meter, because with parking meters, everybody was on our side, because they were feeding those meters.

On parking meters, Mick and I had a big impact. That was very gratifying. An immediate impact. We shaped that story from the get go. People came to the story ready to be educated. But TIFs, it’s harder, because people – it puts them off a little bit. It’s like getting them to eat broccoli. “You gotta eat this! It’s really good for you!” “Uh, okay,” and they’ll take a nibble, and then they’ll take another nibble.

But I feel as though TIFs in some way, as a journalist, has been my greatest contribution to understanding Chicago. I think it’s an issue that mainstream politicians have to deal with, and I think they have to deal with it because I’ve pounded that drum for so long. Now, they’re dealing with it in the most superficial ways at the moment, where they pretend they reform something but of course they’ve just left it the way it was, so I guess we have to move to the next phase where you actually elect people who challenge the system instead of being swallowed by the system.

I read a quote from you that said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been to the city hall press room. I don’t even have a press pass.” Is that still true?

Yeah. Well, which part?

Do you not have a press pass?

I don’t have a press pass. Yeah, I know, I should get one. I don’t have one. And city hall press room, yeah – they’re both true. I’ve been by the city hall press room. I’ve seen it, but I’ve never been in it.

Okay, and you had that great story about Rahm Emanuel hanging up on you, and before that saying, “Now you have four minutes.”

(Laughs.) My man Rahm. Love him, like a brother. Go ahead.

This is like Royko and Daley, or Hunter Thompson and Nixon, one of those things?

I wouldn’t go that far, because I just truly cannot even begin to compare myself to Mike Royko. He’s a hero of mine. But Rahm, in Chicago, he’s the man. Before him it was Daley. Everything emanates from him. He’s a total power freak, controls everything. He’s the guy. Why would I waste my time on somebody else? To a certain degree, the aldermen’s only significance is that they bow down to him. That’s why I concentrate on Rahm, and I find him (laughs) – he’s such a character. He really is. He’s so driven, and he’s such a (laughs) – I don’t know the guy, I’ve only met him once, and I talked to him for – did I get the full five minutes? I think I did.

You got the full five minutes, but it included like time updates, and small talk, and probably seconds 4:59 to 5 were spent hanging up the phone.

Yeah, yeah. (Laughs.) Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say I got eight minutes, okay? I’ve talked to Rahm Emanuel for eight minutes in the last ten years. No! Nine years. Because I did that story in ’02 on him, where we got to spend a little bit more time together. So I don’t know him. But people that claim to know him tell me that he’s really arrogant and treats people like crap. So this is our mayor. (Laughs.) I mean, we the people of the city of Chicago have elected a little arrogant guy who treats people like crap!

Photo by Frank Polich/Bloomberg

I think I know the budget better than Rahm. I know TIFs better than Rahm. I think I know how the schools work better than Rahm. But Rahm doesn’t need to master details. I have to do an analysis and show credibility, because they’re going to send every little factoid guy after me. I have a higher standard than Rahm. I mean Rahm, in a debate, said about charters, “Six of the top seven” or something, some incredibly inaccurate statistic about top-scoring schools that showed a complete ignorance of everything about Chicago education, and he still got elected mayor! Okay? Going back to my fellow Chicagoans, who I love dearly – we will vote for anybody who’s rich and powerful.

I have to read a lot, and go study the budget document, and talk to people who are not within government but who are historians or academics who study government and will talk to me. Usually off the record. I don’t rely on access. People who rely on access are important, don’t get me wrong. I learn by reading them. You learn what Rahm wants you to think by reading what the people who have access to Rahm tell you. You learn about what image he wants to project.

I don’t have access. I have the same access that you have, or (pointing) that girl over there has, or that woman on the street has. Public documents that are on the internet. In fact, a great quote from the great Mick Dumke, we were doing the water sewer story, which was a very complicated story to put together about how the city spends water sewer funds. I remember we found a key piece of evidence in the budget, and he goes: “Great investigative journalism! I read the budget.” I thought that was a great line, and too bad he thought of it and not me.

Mick’s point is very well taken: most of the stuff that I study is public information that’s on the internet. I used to have to go to the library. Now I don’t even have to do that anymore. Getting lazy. So yeah: I have access to public information.

For all of our war metaphors, and this was just something I thought about as we were talking, the “war on poverty” and the “war on drugs” and the “war on teachers” or whatever – do you think that there’s some sort of “war on journalism” or “war on journalists” or “war on information”?

I’m very careful about using a metaphor for war, because there are journalists getting killed in Russia, you know what I mean? These are really courageous people who I am in awe of, who will stand up to do what I do in a country where you can get thrown into jail for doing it. I’ll get ostracized, the candidate will hang up on me, and then they won’t return my phone calls. I will never get a job at a mainstream newspaper. You can’t have my attitude and work for a mainstream newspaper. Have you ever seen anybody vaguely like me at a mainstream newspaper?



And of course most people are reading mainstream newspapers.

See, you keep coming back to the whole “Chicagoans are clueless” thing. You’re going to be right there with me in a little while. (Laughs.) You already admitted that 1st warders only vote for Proco Joe because he likes rock music. It doesn’t matter what your voting record is, as long as you’re nice and you like rock music. I’m with you man!

(leaning forward) Hey listen, I voted for Blagojevich three times, alright? I got no shame. I’m not smarter than anybody else. I’m just pointing out the obvious, that we’re all clueless. We do stupid things. And we get the government we deserve. Now, having said all that, I do believe that under Rahm, his attitude toward reporters, which he brings in from Washington, is to control them through access. You give them access, and they’re so thrilled that they have the access – because by in large, access is limited – that they tend to write favorable things in order to continue having the access. And then if you violate his standard, if you irritate him, you’ll never have access again.

If you ask somebody in the Rahm Emanuel administration a question about policy, you will get a runaround that’s unbelievable. It’s worse than it’s ever been, and I spent 20 years covering the Daley people. I dealt with all sorts of press aids. Asked them questions all the time about all sorts of policies, and there were varying levels of cooperation. But the worst people in the Daley Administration are sort of the norm today. I think that’s just the way Rahm wants it, to limit control.

Everything’s background. (ED NOTE: Information that a source does not want attributed. Off-the-record.) You talk to press aids and they go, “We’re going background.” Like, you’re a press aid. What’s background? This is your job! Background? (Laughs.) You know what I mean? I’m talking to my wife: “We’re going on background today.” It makes no sense!

A typical conversation with a Rahm Emanuel press aid goes a little bit like this: Ben: “Is the mayor endorsing this TIF program?” Aid: “This is for background only.” First of all, I’m floored. What the hell does that mean? You’re a press aid. Background? “Well you can’t quote me.” Now I’m like, “What are you going to tell me?” Wow, I gotta know. “Okay, I agree. I won’t quote you.” “You can’t name me.” “I won’t name you. Now, what’s the information going to be?” “We’re studying the matter.”

That’s the background? (Laughs.) That? You sure you want to go out on a limb and say that on the background now? Come on. “We’re studying it.” Let me know when you’re done studying it. Are you gonna cram? Is it an all-night thing? Or is it more like a take-home test? I mean, it’s ludicrous. It’s insane. They don’t give out information anyway. You can’t learn anything from them. I don’t think they know what’s going on. I think like three guys in the whole administration understand any of this stuff. Half of them come in from out of town.

The schools right now are run by people not even from Chicago. Wait, is that right? The big three? Brizard, the curriculum lady is not from Chicago, and, he’s a Wilmette resident! What’s his name, the dude from – Cawley. He lives in Wilmette. Remember he got the – (laughs) What a city! In Chicago they prosecute teachers – union teachers – if they’re not living in Chicago. Literally. They’ll do investigations, spend money. You’re not allowed to be an employee of Chicago because you’re not living in Chicago. The guy who’s running the school system right now for all intents and purposes, like the third-ranking guy, Tim Cawley, he doesn’t live in Chicago. They gave him a waver. You didn’t read about this?

(blank stare)

Yeah you’re right, who cares. Anyway –

No, I care, I just didn’t hear about it.

Yeah. He’s like the chief financial guy at the Board of Ed right now. Very influential guy at the Board of Ed. He came from the same outfit that gets all the contracts –

And he’s a Wilmette guy?

Yeah! He lives in Wilmette! His argument is, “I don’t want to pull my kids out of the schools.” Well you know, maybe you shouldn’t be the dude running the schools. I’ve not even written about it. I learned that from the newspapers. I didn’t even need access! It was from the newspapers! (Laughs.)

I believe it’s such a bad time for journalists. They’re not unlike teachers. They’re very vulnerable, because the market’s so bad. They’re beaten down as a people, and so it’s easier to control them. I think that the real danger in terms of journalism right now is that it’s so hard to make a living at it. I keep coming back to teachers. If you can’t make a living at it, people aren’t going to do it. It’s not a career you can build a future in. Why would anybody want to be a journalist at this point? You’d get out of it. Public relations? Go work for Rahm? I mean, Rahm runs the world, right? So I don’t know.

Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama’s inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

Eye on Chi‘s Chicago journalism People With Passion series runs every Wednesday.
Coming next week: a three-part series with’s Sam Smith.

Monday, January 23, Part I: THE EARLY DAYS

Wednesday, January 25, Part II: THE JORDAN RULES

Friday, January 27, Part III: BULLS.COM


(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)

December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky, Chicago Bulls play-by-play announcer (EXCERPTFULL)

December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain, ESPN personality (EXCERPTFULL)

December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg, ESPN Chicago, columnist  (EXCERPTFULL)

October 21, 2011: William Lee, Chicago Tribune breaking news reporter (EXCERPTFULL)

November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder (EXCERPTFULL)

November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder (EXCERPTFULL)

October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor (EXCERPTFULL)

September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder (EXCERPTFULL)

September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer (EXCERPTFULL)

September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO  (EXCERPTFULL)

September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher  (EXCERPTFULL)

August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist  (EXCERPTFULL)

September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor  (EXCERPTFULL)

August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor  (EXCERPTFULL)

August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer  (EXCERPTFULL)

August 18, 2011: Rick Telander, Chicago (EXCERPTFULL)

August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader, investigative reporter  (EXCERPTFULL)

December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)

August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist  (EXCERPTFULL)

August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune, columnist  (EXCERPTFULL)





Parking meters



10 Replies to “People With Passion: Ben Joravsky”

  1. Nice job, Jack. I read your short version posted on your Tribune-backed Eye on Chi website and the ReadJack long version. Now I undertand the dynamics behind Ben’s writing. I’ve been reading The Reader since its beginnings as a U of C/Hyde Park alternative paper run by Roth and have read Ben’s columns over the years. Glad he’s still such an idealist in his 50’s. He’s right to complain that traditional journalism and even electronic media have structural limitations–stories can only be told in two-dimensions (eg. good vs evil, for & against) with no room for gray. That’s why Mailer’s, Wolf’s and Thompson’s New Journalism was so revolutionary- their stories highlighted shades of gray. Anyway, I could go on. Sometimes let’s have a beer at Pitchfork and talk about it. Keep speaking Truth to Power, Ben.

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