Good Days for ‘the People’; Bad Days for Political Hacks

Written by Chuck Gruenwald on June 28, 2014

“Today is a sad day for the people of (insert your home state here)”. As a resident of Illinois, these words are frequently parrotted by prosecutors who had just helped convict another former state or local politician of a felony. Or, as Illinois politicians perceive it, a job perk. The convictions of ethically-challenged politicians and bureaucrats are not dark moments in history. Instead, the days on which elected officials are properly convicted of crimes are great days, since the criminal justice system proves that those who exploit the power of their office will face judgment.

There are sad days, though. These sad days are reminders that some prosecutors are not immune from the tendency to use their offices for partisan and/or personal reasons, instead of upholding the law.

On June 19th, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisolm’s office engaged in a document dump regarding the “Son of John Doe” investigation of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. This action is disturbing for two reasons: it is an abuse of power by an elected official in the name of partisan politics, and it is a shameless display of journalistic complacency and misinterpretation of a story for the sake of agenda-driven news coverage.

By the time that the contents of these documents were revealed, two judges had ordered the termination of this investigation; one judge said that no probable cause existed. Individuals who had been targeted by investigators were subjected to pre-dawn raids of their homes by sheriff’s deputies, intimidation of their families – including small children during these raids, the seizure of personal computers, and a gag order that forbade the targets from going public with their accounts of what had happened.

The release of the files by the District Attorney’s office was more of a scorched earth policy; if Mr. Chisolm could not continue to use his office to discourage financial and public support of Governor Walker, then he would patch together the remains of this witch hunt in the form of a smear campaign.

With the assistance of a willing media, the headlines from last week’s activities in Milwaukee had taken the general form of “Wisconsin Governor at the Center of a Corruption Investigation,” instead of “Milwaukee DA Ordered to Drop Investigation Due to Lack of Probable Cause.”

Several accounts of this story, including the interpretations from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, New York Times, and WLS-TV Chicago did not mention until near the end that the investigation had ended long ago. When given the opportunity, partisan politicians will use their offices for partisan reasons, and members of the media will either find a non-story within a larger, real story, or allow those politicians to “write the story” for them.

However, here in Illinois, we need not fear the investigation of most politicians at the state level, or the twisting of facts by the media.

The top of the steaming legal heap in Illinois is Attorney General Lisa Madigan, step-daughter of the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, Michael Madigan. With his political office and private ventures, Mr. Madigan has a high level of power and influence. With such a close family member occupying the office that is supposed to act as a system checks-and-balances, his chances of facing scrutiny for his actions are theoretical, at best.

As for the Chicago media conducting any investigations of our dear leaders, “it ain’t gonna happen.” Present-day reporters hold close their access to politicians; an unflattering story about the gatekeepers will lead to the end of a chummy relationship.

When reporters refuse to investigate politicians’ questionable behavior out of fear of losing access to that person or anyone else, the media has officially reached obsolescence by choice, since a feeling of privilege has superseded the sense of duty.

In the seventies and eighties, local TV reporter Russ Ewing had a reputation as being a figurehead who fugitives felt comfortable turning themselves over to; he was a mediator between criminals and law enforcement. In other words, Mr. Ewing was trusted. Today, nobody in Chicago media – or even national newsreaders — appears to have earned such a level of trust.

The individuals who engage in agenda-driven activities are not as much of a problem as they are a symptom. Voters and viewers who choose right and wrong according to the letters “D” or “R,” or summarize a story with only a headline or opening paragraph, vindicate political and journalistic “hackmanship.” Dark days in politics, or happy days, depending on your point of view, may end with a conviction, but they start with a majority of uninformed votes.

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Born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Cook County, Chuck Gruenwald developed an unfavorable opinion of machine politics quite early in life. In addition to cars, electronics, law enforcement, and politics, Chuck enjoys writing, and is also a horse racing fan. He has recently written op-eds for