The Chicago Reader is being shuffled from owner to owner like a broken-down claiming horse in its last year at a tank-town racetrack. In 2007, it was sold by its founders to Creative Loafing, a newspaper chain that went broke the next year. The Reader ended up in the hands of Creative Loafing’s chief creditor, Atalaya Capital Management, which is now trying to peddle the paper to its fourth owner in five years.
Given its tenuous financial condition, and its attenuated size -- a tabloid considerably thinner than the fat broadsheet of its glory days -- it’s a good time to relive a moment when the Reader really made a difference in Chicago politics. It was 1983, and the so-called Lakefront Independents were key swing voters during Harold Washington’s 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor. They were the Reader’s core readership, but some were skeptical about Washington because of stories of financial mismanagement raised by his opponent, Bernard Epton. At one point, Washington had served time in jail for failing to file tax returns.
On April 8, 1983, four days before the election, the Reader published a story by David Moberg, entitled “Guide for the Perplexed.” It sought to reassure white voters who were willing to vote for a black candidate, but wondered whether Washington was organized enough to run a city of 3 million people.
Moberg pointed out that Washington’s tax offense was a misdemeanor, not a felony; that he had never been charged with defrauding the government; and that his law license had been suspended not over misappropriation of funds, but over accusations of “failure to render service.”
The election, Moberg wrote was “a choice between those who hope for change and those who fear change.”
In that pre-Internet age, the article was widely copied and stuffed under apartment doors. It was credited with helping Washington squeak to victory. Throughout Council Wars, the Reader remained in the mayor's corner. The paper's star reporter, Gary Rivlin, went on to write Fire on the Prairie, the definitive book on that divisive era in Chicago.
Neal Pollack, a Reader alumnus who went on to become a renowned satirist, believes that the Washington years -- the heyday of Chicago’s progressive movement -- were the Reader’s heyday as well. (Neal and I worked together at the Reader in the late 1990s and early 2000s.) The paper began to lose influence “the moment Harold’s head hit that desk.”
As desiccated as newspapers are these days -- they’re losing workers faster than any other industry -- it’s hard to imagine any newspaper story swinging an election. Which is why, as the rest of the Chicago media writes its annual “the Reader’s future is in doubt” story, it’s worth remembering the Reader’s greatest moment.
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