"If it seemed as though some scenes of CNN’s documentary series “Chicagoland” were coordinated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall and the show’s producers, that’s because they were."
That sentence began an investigative report appearing in Friday's Chicago Tribune revealing that parts of the CNN documentary series about Chicago in crisis were staged to make Mayor Emanuel look as good as possible.
More than 700 emails reviewed by the Tribune reveal that the production team worked hand in hand with the mayor's advisers to develop storylines, arrange specific camera shots and review news releases officially announcing the show. The emails reveal how Emanuel’s senior aides shaped the mayor's image by manipulating how CNN portrayed their boss to their national prime time audience.
The production team for the series, whose final episode aired Thursday night, told Emanuel's staff that particular scenes would present the mayor in a positive light, with one of the producers expressing a desire to showcase the mayor "as the star that he really is." Creator and executive producer Marc Levin made a pitch to the mayor's office last May as Emanuel's hand-picked school board was two days away from a vote to close nearly 50 schools.
"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 wrote of the school closings to Emanuel senior adviser David Spielfogel and two 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." The first "Chicagoland" episode, televised in March, featured just what Levin had requested: slow-motion images of the mayor climbing into his SUV and talking on his cellphone, and Emanuel's meetings behind closed doors with Chicago Public Schools CEO Byrd-Bennett and Chicago police Superintendent McCarthy.
Levin explained that the production team found themselves "eternally frustrated" by the tight control over access Emanuel's office maintained, emphasizing the "stage-managed" aspects of their interaction with the mayor:
The emails, obtained through an open records request, show the producers were not always granted all the access they sought. And Levin said he was "eternally frustrated" that much of the behind-the-scenes access he got of Emanuel was controlled by the mayor's office.
"Everything the mayor does is stage-managed. Everything. That is the way he operates, so I'm not going to dispute that," Levin said in an interview when asked about his emails that requested specific scenes featuring the mayor. "I would be the first to acknowledge that you don't get into Chicago ... and get access without having to do a certain dance.
Producer Levin insists that the mayor's office did not have editorial control, but that does not change the fact that some of the scenes were manipulated. For example, one of the most poignant moments of the series featured the mayor's interaction with a high school student who interned in his office, Martell Cowan. In one scene Cowan is shown riding with Emanuel in his SUV:
...the mayor talks to him about college and jokes with him about picking up girls during a walk to City Hall. Emanuel also talks to Cowan in his office and shows the teen pictures of him and Obama before the two walk out of his office with their arms around each other as Cooper, the press secretary, looks on.
The mayor then hugs Cowan and says, "I love you." Later, Cowan is shown saying, "It did change my life. I'm grateful for it." In an interview, Levin explained that he asked for access to Cowan and Emanuel to show a different side of the mayor after he heard him talk about the teen at three different events.
"For us, yes, it was set up in that, 'the mayor is going to be riding with Martell today,' but it was a battle for us to finally get access to it," Levin said. "This, in a sense, yes, was under their control, but I think what's revealed here is a different Rahm Emanuel than you see at most of the staged events, and that's why I pushed for it." An email between Levin and Cooper reflects the request. "It was really nice to see the Mayor and Martell together in his office," Levin wrote. "Thanks for making it happen. Good stuff.
This report demonstrates that in the production of Chicagoland CNN was violating a key rule of news coverage and documentary filmmaking, they are on hand to record and report on events, not to shape or script them.