Internal emails uncovered by the Chicago Tribune reveal that CNN producers working on the documentary series “Chicagoland” worked intimately with Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s office in order to make him “look good.”
On Friday the Tribune reported that more than 700 emails were exchanged between Emanuel’s office and the CNN producers working on the 8-part documentary, whose final episode aired Thursday night.
While many of those emails were blacked out, the available correspondence reveals a startling level of coordination between the mayor’s office and CNN — including working together to develop a favorable storyline, arrange flattering camera shots and edit the documentary’s official press releases.
Executive producer Marc Levin wrote extensively to Emanuel’s office throughout the series’ development, from preproduction to marketing the finished documentary.
In one email, sent days before Emanuel’s school board was due to vote on the closure of nearly 50 Chicago public schools, Levin pleaded with mayor’s office to help present the mayor favorably.
“This is a real opportunity to highlight the Mayors leadership – his ability to balance the need for reform and fiscal reality with compassion for affected communities and concern for the safety of Chicago’s school children,” he wrote to Emanuel senior advisor David Spielfogel and press aides.
“We need the mayor on the phone in his SUV, in city hall with key advisers and his kitchen cabinet and meeting with CPS head BBB (Barbara Byrd-Bennett) and with CPD (Superintendent Garry) McCarthy,” he explained.
That shot appeared exactly as described in “Chicagoland’s” first episode, which aired in March.
Other excerpts show an express willingness to showcase the mayor in a positive light. “I know i [sic] am needy but we want more Rahm in the series,” producer Mark Benjamin wrote to Emanuel’s communications director. “I know I sound like a (broken) record, but in the Feb. ’14 broadcast, Rahm will look good making ‘his’ points.”
In another email Levin sent to Spielfogel, he wrote that, “Right now, we’re not doing justice to the Mayor’s real bold leadership style, ambitions and policies. I know we still have time to round out the Mayor’s story and present him as the star that he really is.”
“Everything the mayor does is stage-managed. Everything. That is the way he operates, so I’m not going to dispute that,” Levin explained to the Tribune. “I would be the first to acknowledge that you don’t get into Chicago . . . and get access without having to do a certain dance.”
But experts called that explanation a poor excuse. “The question is did they really have full access?” said Mitchell Block, a documentary expert at the University of Southern California, in a conversation with the Tribune. “If the access was managed, as it sounds like it was, then everything looks perfect all of the time. I personally don’t make those kinds of films.”
But the coordination between Emanuel’s aides and CNN appears deeper than complimentary camera angles and selective access to events. Emails which were redacted under an exemption in Illinois’ open records law contain evidence that the mayor’s office was directly involved in crafting the storyline for the documentary itself.
A local PR firm, credited with “open[ing] the right doors” for CNN in Chicago, wrote to Emanuel press secretary Tarah Cooper early on in the process, asking for “the list of story/interview ideas that you and your team were going to put together.”
Cooper responded positively, and at least one of the many blacked out emails sent between her and nine other Emanuel aides over the coming days contained a file attachment titled “DocuSeries Characters.”
Later emails also indicate that involvement between CNN and Emanuel’s office didn’t cease when the cameras stopped ruling. One set of correspondence even indicates the cable news network was providing editorial access to the Chicago mayor and his aides.
As CNN was finalizing its official press release announcing the series, the same PR firm forwarded the draft on to Emanuel’s press office. “This version is considered final for CNN,” they wrote. “Thoughts?”
“Thanks! I’ll have edits for you shortly!” Cooper wrote back. “Perfect! Thank you!” the firm replied.
In a statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation, CNN claimed that “the mayor’s office was never granted editorial control over the content or the press communications for Chicagoland,” suggesting that the PR firm in question exceeded its authority by passing the press release on to the mayor’s office.
CNN spokeswoman Jennifer Dargan also explained that her network never pre-screened “Chicagoland” for the mayor, as the Tribune suggests.
“The series was screened publicly at the Sundance Film Festival in January and the Mayor’s office sent a representative to the film festival,” she told TheDCNF. “The Tribune decided to not make that clear.”
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