Ages ago in Internet time–specifically in February–I walked away from a blogging gig at Tribune Media Group’s ChicagoNow, and caused a firestorm of controversy by going public about the concerns I had as a former blogger there. Even among those who agreed with my reasons for leaving, many in the Chicago blogosphere told me in this town, it’s better to leave well enough alone.
It wasn’t the first time, nor has it been the last, that local mediaphiles have taken me to task for questioning the lockstep status quo that sometimes seems to define the Windy City’s deeply intertwined blogging/reporting/PR fishbowl. (See posts here, here, here, here, and most recently, here, and additional comment threads here, here, and here.)
Admittedly, I can be a firestorm in and of myself. No one ever needs to wonder where they stand with me, or where I stand on an issue. That clearly is the New Yorker in me, and it’s a nature borne of a previous life spent in a city where fishbowls of every sort tend to be transparent. Whether you’re writing about politics, the press, local nonprofits, or anything else, everyone there has an opinion that they’re willing to share, and no institution or official gets a pass on explaining their actions and the motives behind them.
That, of course, is the opposite of the way things work in Chicago. We elect politicians–and their children–for life in this town and county. We don’t talk back to our elders–or our foundation funders. And we certainly don’t question whether The Powers That Be could perhaps, just a little, Be doing things a little bit better. That’s just the way it’s always been. It Is Written.
And that’s where many Chicago locals leave it. Turn off the ol’ brain, let the neurons fire down, keep a low profile and let the way things are stay that way. Or else you’ll be cleaning your alley and dragging your trash to the dump on your own. And, of course, as is the multiple mantra of many similarly fearful Chicagoans, “You’ll never work in this town again/get another contract again/get anything moved through city council again.”
There’s truth in all of this. From Daley pere through Daley fils, city administrations have never taken well to disagreeing subjects citizens. And I’ve been in more than my share of PR meetings watching nonprofits and community groups speak of local grant funders in the same tones of fear, reverence, and fealty ordinarily reserved for God. Or the mayor, for that matter.
It’s all a great setup for keeping people in their place and keeping things keeping on exactly as they are. It’s a terrible state of affairs if, however, things aren’t as good as they could be, because without dissent there’s no viable way to make change happen. In systems like Chicago’s, people don’t just refrain from rocking the boat, they do their best to keep anyone else from rocking it either, to make sure they don’t get collaterally splashed by the damaging waters of a funding cut-off or a municipal blacklisting.
I have personal experience in this regard. There is a specific local nonprofit I used to champion (and who just last year championed me) whose own powers that be avoid me now because I had the audacity to question the grant decisions of one of their funders. (See: fear of collateral damage.)
And that’s fine. In the end, as a blogger, a Chicagoan, and a human being, I don’t owe allegiance to anyone else’s funders, nor to the public officials from whom they may be seeking approval or the blog networks with whom they may be partnered. I take my cues from my sense of what is fair and what is not. If some others think concepts like fairness, or justice, or (oftentimes in Chicago) honesty are less important than keeping themselves clouted, so be it.
But it sure would be a lot easier to make change happen in Chicago if the knee-jerk reaction even from the people who might benefit from such change wasn’t so often, “We know, but please keep your voice down.” It’s a little like the “If you don’t like it, leave!” that some particularly mindless Chicagoans spout whenever anyone not born in a local area code dares to suggest things could be better here.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had bloggers, reporters, and nonprofit professionals tell me they wish they had the courage to publicly take some of the same stands I’ve taken here on Chicago Carless, say some of the same things I’ve said about local funders, or local officials, or local blog networks. Even if I could count them, I couldn’t tell you who they are. But there have been many.
If ever they all decide to tell their funders, officials, and readers what they actually think about things instead of just quietly telling me and each other all the time, Chicago’s media space would be a lot more transparent. But knowing this landscape like I do, I fear that would be expecting too much from it.
And who really wants thirty-foot weeds in their back alley, anyway?
(Photo: Macy’s State Street July 4th flag. Credit:jodola.)