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25 Years

By PAM BERNS
    As we were approaching this, our 25th anniversary, it was uplifting to look at the highlights of our years publishing Chicago Life. We have been fortunate to have done interviews with some of the most remarkable figures of our time, including being the first magazine to feature Barack Obama on the cover when he was running for the Senate. We were honored to have interviewed these extraordinary men shortly before they died: Senator Ted Kennedy, Milton Friedman, Senator Paul Simon and Studs Terkel. We were the first local magazine to cover Mad Cow, rBGH and the Blue Gene supercomputer. And I am thankful we can reach our readers through the The New York Times every eight weeks.

Follow the Money
    I have watched many changes in media over these 25 years. 
    One of the biggest eye-openers in this industry has turned out to be how media, corporations and publicists operate today. Except for a few exceptional magazines and the esteemed journalists that write ground-breaking stories for them, most editorial presented on television and in magazine print today is mere pandering to advertisers. Advertorial is everywhere.
     Between the advertorial and media “spin,” most publications and news programs are mere shadows of the muckraking media of yesteryear. Video press releases hawking the latest lingerie store are shown on nightly news. Lazy, under-financed and understaffed newscasters air these video press releases in place of balanced news reporting.
    At Chicago Life we have a strict policy of refusing to sell our editorial.You may have noticed the legal disclaimer on the pages of Chicago Life, “Advertising Supplement to the The New York Times.” We do not sell editorial to anyone.
....We are constantly told by potential advertisers that they won’t advertise unless they “get editorial.” That’s what it’s like in Chicago. Pick up most local publications and see what they cover. A few publications write a paragraph on every advertiser. Others have their advertisers on the cover. Some even let the advertiser write a column next to their ad. Others promise a page of “editorial” for every page of advertising. Can you trust this “editorial” to be objective?.Is everything purchased today? 
     I will never forget my first introduction to corporate propaganda. In 1993, Hillary Clinton was putting her health care committee together. A day after the announcement, we received a Fed Ex package, roughly two inches thick, of negative propaganda written for the press, consistent with the “Harry and Louise” commercials that eventually killed the plan. It takes a lot of corporate money wound around our political system to manipulate the common man into believing something that is so contrary to his best interests. Corporate propaganda is even more sophisticated today.
    If you want to check out the source of news features, go to Sourcewatch.org. It is a fascinating site to check on “astroturf” activities.
“Astroturfing” is a term used to describe fake political, public relations and advertising campaigns that are designed to create the impression that a movement is created by a upswelling of grassroots support. Often, the creative efforts are contrived by the political consultants who  are trying to influence policy. The term is based on a brand of synthetic carpeting created to look like grass. “Rent-a-crowd” is another term used to describe this false means of propaganda. Another tactic is to create the appearance of authenticity by quoting “experts” from think tanks that are funded by the industries whose profits support these groups.
    On Sourcewatch.org, you can look up front groups and right-wing think tanks that are funded by wealthy individuals and corporations with an agenda, like FreedomWorks, Environmental Defense, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, Global Climate Coalition, American Enterprise Institute, Center for Consumer Freedom, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Club for Growth. There are some liberal think tanks, too. It’s just that they do not attract the corporate money that the Right has.
    Money talks. The pending health insurance legislation of 2009 has been challenged by the entrenched insurance industries to the tune of $1 million per week in recent months. The sick and those rejected by health insurance companies are at a terrible disadvantage to compete with the marketing and lobbying dollars of huge corporate industries and their propaganda. Two recent “studies” on health care have been produced by what they call “objective” data, conveniently produced by industry front groups.          
    Always consider the source. When you are wondering about the validity of studies by so-called independent sources, check on the key players and the donors of the groups producing this propaganda. According to sourcewatch.org, titles of think tank “experts” such as senior fellows and adjunct scholars may not necessarily have academic degrees in their areas of so-called “expertise.” 
    Question any groups with names like “friends of sensible...” Usually industries that pollute and are against environmental safeguards heavily fund front groups that disguise themselves as being “sensible” environmentalists. For example, the “housewives” for rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormones) were actually rent-a-crowd flacks representing the marketing company hired by the very corporation that produced the hormones that no sane person would cheer to have in their milk. 
    JFK described public relations manipulation best when in 1959 he wrote in TV Guide: “Television is a medium that lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. Political campaigns can actually be taken over by the public relations experts who tell a candidate not only how to use TV, what to say, what to stand for, and what kind of person to be.” 
    Today’s sophisticated polling and the internet have stretched the limits of manipulation possibilities. Can a poor man with no corporate money behind him win an election today? If he wins, who will want special favors?
    Today’s “spin doctors” can make any dangerous product sound healthy for the right price. We must be our own educated advocates if we are to seek the truth.
    
Looking Back
   Over the past 25 years, certain pieces we have published keep being mentioned by our readers. I was tempted to keep the list to 25, but I couldn’t narrow it down. Here are just a few among my favorites:

1)  Shot in the Dark: The inoculation of 100 million children with tainted SV40 polio vaccine
2)  Ornithology: Andrew Bird Takes Off
3)  The Crusader: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
4)  The Whistleblower: Wendell Potter on Health Insurance Abuse
5)  Blue Gene Baby: Illinois’ New Supercomputer
6)  Ira Glass Goes Electric
7)  Mad Cow: It’s a Cow Eat Cow World
8)  An Interview with Senator Edward Kennedy
9)  The Talented Mr. Trippi
10) The Urban Revolution: Farming in the City
11) The Grass is Greener: Dangerous Lawn Pesticides 
12) Doped: Performance-enhancing Drugs
13) How Safe Is Our Milk? The rBGH Controversy
14) MTBE Found in Illinois Wells
15) An Interview with Al Gore
16) Living Downstream: Chemicals Leaking into our Water
17) Food Fight: Oprah Winfrey vs. Dangerous Foods
18) Three Chicago Murders Reexamined
19) Not-So-Sweet Aspartame 
20) The Big Money in Illinois Politics
21) The Ugly Side of American Beauty: Chemicals in Cosmetics
22) Remembering Ed Paschke
23) Malpractice Insurance Hoax
24) Dr. Quentin Young on Universal Healthcare
25) The Great Gallery Fire of 1989 in River North
26) Coyotes Invade Chicago
27) The Demise of the Toboggan Run
28) Paul Krugman Interview
29) The Urban Heat Wave
30) Robert Altman Interview
31) An Interview with Helen Thomas
32) A Voice Crossing the Divide: Alex Kotlowitz
33) What Lies Beneath Lincoln Park: Cemeteries Discovered
34) Urban Economics: An Interview with Milton Friedman
35) Barack Obama: Under the Lights
36) Cabrini’s Youth: Interviews with Child Residents

    We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for our loyal readers’ support.
    Thank you all for 25 great years!

Published: December 09, 2009
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide

Comments

Publisher's Letter
The publisher's letter on 12/9 was outstanding, if not truly disturbing. I would like to see this information on the front page of the NY Times. All Americans should be made aware of how "the marketing and lobbying dollars of huge corporate industries and their propaganda" are eroding our democracy. Thank you for helping you open your readers' eyes.
Linda Neumann, Dec-11-2009
"25 Years"
Ms. Berns is incredibly courageous in calling out other publications for their trading of edit for dollars. This was a truly phenomenal editor's letter.
Bridget Garwitz, Jan-03-2010