On the political beat, there are few stories easier to write than one that says Candidate X is just like Candidate Y.
All you have to do as a reporter is find a few facts or personality traits both candidates share, throw in a few suppositions, and viola! You’ve got a plausible story that says, in essence, there’s very little that separates two different candidates running for office.
That’s because, in a lot of cases, candidates from different political parties are often very alike. Whether Democrat or Republican, two candidates could easily share similar views on topics such as military spending, corporate subsidies, charter schools and so on.
Yet every once in a while, a race comes along where two or more different candidates couldn't be any less alike. In fact, one is shaping up here right in Chicago in the 2015 mayoral race between potential candidates Karen Lewis, Bob Fioretti and Rahm Emanuel.
That doesn’t stop stories being written in the media that suggests these candidates are really almost one and the same. Or that one or the other says they’re different, but really isn't telling the truth.
To be clear, let’s stake out who we’re talking about. On the one hand we have our current mayor, who, while positioning himself as a liberal Democrat, has in fact enacted policies that benefit corporations and campaign donors, slashed social services and public education, starve neighborhoods of resources, diminish public service pensions, spy on political enemies and more.
There’s a reason why, in this town, Rahm Emanuel is known by some as “Mayor 1%”.
On another, we have Chicago Teachers Union president and potential mayoral challenger Karen Lewis. Despite the fact that she hasn’t even announced yet that she’s going to run, the Chicago media has created a bit of a feeding frenzy around her, all in search of copy for political reporters.
Lewis, for her part, has made it clear she is almost diametrically opposed to Mayor Emanuel on a number of key issues facing Chicago. As head of the CTU, she advocates for public education funding and resources, and opposed the shuttering of 50 schools under Rahm. She speaks out against inequality affecting dozens of Chicago neighborhoods, calling for mere equitable allocation of resources. She’s against balancing budgets by slashing pension benefits, much like what is being proposed in City Hall, Springfield and elsewhere. And she favors taxing financial transactions to help rebalance budgets, a move that puts her squarely against the richest taxpayers in Illinois.
Yet to some political reporters, such positions are nothing more than somethign to ignore when filling up column space on a newspaper page. Take a look, for example, at a recent piece in the Chicago Tribune entitled “9 Things Rahm Emanuel and Karen Lewis Have in Common.”
“[T]he bitter rivals have striking similarities,” the Trib tells us, before going on to point out that both of them are Jewish, were once set up on a blind date and have run for some kind of office in the past.
While such an example can perhaps be written off a the kind of fluff reporting usually offered in the middle of a political season, other examples aren't so benign. The city’s other daily, the Chicago Sun-Times, recently dropped a one-two punch against Lewis and another potential mayoral challenger, 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fiortetti, that appear designed to undercut both candidates’ reputations as reformers.
The one on Lewis, entitled “3 homes, $200,000-plus pay for possible mayoral candidate Lewis”, takes great pains to point out that the trappings of a solidly middle class lifestyle Lewis has earned after a lifetime of teaching and union service is somehow the equivalent of the multi-millions of dollars Emanuel made during previous careers as an investment banker and power broker in national Democratic politics. And that perhaps Lewis isn't the champion of the disadvanteged as she claims to be.
The other story on our third candidate offers a dispute over pay that was resolved by the Illinois Department of Labor for two campaign staffers who say they didn't get paid on time seven years ago. The story suggests that Fioretti is dishonest and shouldn’t hire anymore staff without “accepting responsibility” for the whole matter.
The underlying message in both of these stories? See, the current crop of potential mayoral challengers can be crooked and corrupt just like the current mayor. Or the former, who left office under the weight of a series of scandals we haven't yet finished unearthing.
There’s only one problem with this: by tarring everyone with the same brush, it blurs the lines between candidates and paints over very real differences in their positions and how they would differ in policies and programs if they were elected.
Even worse, lumping everyone together runs the risk of creating apathy in the minds of voters who are led to believe that all of the candidates in a race are alike, even though they represent starkly different views on how Chicago should be run. And for whom.
That’s not the job of journalists. Unless, of course, they’re just looking to fill some column space.