CNN Now the Chicago News Network?

by Greg Pollowitz

The Chicago Tribune has a bombshell of a report detailing contact between producers of CNN’s documentary series Chicagoland and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staff, with the promise from CNN of positive coverage of Emanuel.

The opening salvo:

Emails show Emanuel aides, producers coordinated CNN ‘Chicagoland’ scenes

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.

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.

(See email samples)

Producers asked the mayor’s office to help them set up key interactions in what the cable network has billed as a nonscripted eight-part series, including Emanuel’s visits with the school principal who emerged as a star of the show, emails show.

City Hall’s frequent correspondence with the producers illustrates how senior aides to a mayor known for shaping his media image managed how their boss would be portrayed on CNN to a prime time national 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.

The rest from the Tribune here.

Keep in mind Chicagoland is a joint project between CNN and Robert Redford’s Sundance Ventures. Here’s what Redford had to say about the current state of journalism and the importance of Chicagoland back in February:

“Entertainment has overtaken real journalism,” Redford told an audience at January’s Sundance Film Festival. “What we end up with now is sound-bite information, distorted information passing as the truth, too many voices out there interrupting each other, barking like dogs. There’s so much noise out there, and it’s so sound-bit, you don’t hear anything. So you wonder, where are you going to get the truth?”

Redford believes he’s doing his small part by getting into what TV executives like to call the “nonfiction programming business” via his Sundance Productions, cofounded with Laura Michalchyshyn in 2012. But when describing his company’s first project, Chicagoland, an eight-episode series that debuts March 6 on CNN, Redford prefers a more old-fashioned term. “I believe the real truth can come through documentaries,” he says, “because you have the chance, with films like this, to dig in and have more than a second to get information that gets deep into the issue.”

Yes, Robert — where are we going to get the truth? Because Chicagoland ain’t it.