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Opinion: Rahm Makes CNN Play by His "Chicagoland" Rules

'Eternally frustrated' producer learns what it takes to land access to the Mayor

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Opinion: Rahm Makes CNN Play by His "Chicagoland" Rules

When CNN set out to film the docu-series Chicagoland, producers desperately pushed for access to Chicago's made-for-television celebrity mayor.

The cable news network, which has been struggling in the ratings, sought to capture the famously combative side of Rahm Emanuel, whose blunt, F-bomb-throwing persona could provide the kind of juicy footage that gets people talking and goes viral online.

The media-savvy Emanuel apparently wasn't going to let that happen. Not on his watch.

A new Chicago Tribune report reveals tense email correspondence between City Hall and Chicagoland's production team, publicizing the filmmakers' tactic of buttering up the mayor to get more camera time. and playing hardball when it wasn't granted. It also shows that the two camps collaborated to stage scenes that bathed Emanuel in a positive light.

According to the emails, Chicagoland executive producer Marc Levin worked with the mayor's handlers to develop plotlines and film rare glimpses of meetings with high-level city brass including Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

"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," Levin told Emanuel aide David Spielfogel in the days before CPS voted to close a record 49 schools last May.

On the day of the controversial vote, CNN documented the joyous reaction from two schools saved from the closures.

Mysterious, no?

When asked about those weird odds, Levin said in an interview with the Tribune: "I don't know the answer to that. But we did go, 'Wow. That is unusual.'"

A candid Levin, defending his Robert Redford-backed series, denied the mayor's office had editorial control but admitted he was "eternally frustrated" about City Hall's tight leash on access to Emanuel.

"Everything the mayor does is stage-managed. Everything," he said. "That is the way he operates, so I'm not going to dispute that ... But at the same time, yes, we were sensitive that we were moving through this city and getting access to a lot of places because we had developed a dialogue with the mayor."

Other revelations, via the Trib: that Chicago-based PR firm Jasculca Terman's role as a liaison between CNN and Team Emanuel, which submitted storyline suggestions to the network via the company whose CEO, Rick Jasculca, is a longtime friend of the mayor; and that the firm forwarded CNN's Chicagoland press releases to City Hall for review. (CNN balked at the thought, saying in a statement Friday: "The mayor’s office was never granted editorial control over the content or the press communications for Chicagoland, and no agency was ever granted authority to offer the mayor’s office editorial approval for the content or the promotional materials for the series.")

Pressured to land extra time with Emanuel, by far the series' biggest star, Levin sent an email to mayoral aides arguing that restricting access would give "credence to the media pundits and the critics" lashing out against the school closures. (These include Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who's shown calling the mayor a "liar" while discussing her myriad problems with his education policies.)

In a mainly positive review of Chicagoland, which ended its eight-episode run Thursday, The Hollywood Reporter critic Allison Keene opined that the Emanuel segments felt "like fodder for a campaign ad" and were "rarely illuminating."

And that's just the way he wanted it.

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