On February 14, 2018, the latest issue of Chicago’s newsweekly the Chicago Reader was deposited in boxes across the city. The cover-story concerned comments made during 2008 phone calls between Illinois gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and then Governor Rod Blagojevich, which were wire tapped by the FBI as part of an investigation into Blagojevich that ultimately yielded a conviction and 14-year prison term for corruption. The conversations were uncovered by The Chicago Tribune.
True to Illinois politics form, Blagojevich dangled various political seats in front of Pritzker, who eventually had a suggestion of his own pertaining to the open senate seat left by President Barack Obama.
“I’m sure you thought of this one but Jesse White,” Pritzker said. “It covers you on the whole African American thing.”
He added that White would be “the one that’s least offensive.”
After the tapes were released, Pritzker went into full-time damage control mode. While he didn’t fall back on the timeworn and equally meaningless “out of context” excuse, after begging forgiveness, he did say that the call wasn’t reflective of who he is today.
The Chicago Reader was having none of it.
On February 9, celebrated columnist Adeshina Emmanuel asserted that Pritzker is “the guy who talks crap behind your back.”
“The type of subtle racism revealed in Pritzker’s conversation with Blago hurts on a personal level more than the bigoted words from some politicians on the right.” Emmanuel added. “Beyond the coded language, as the two men brainstorm ways to mitigate or eschew black political power, a smug and mocking tone permeates the conversation.”
It was an eloquent argument. But Emmanuel’s own editor, Mark Konkol, hired less than two weeks earlier by the Reader’s parent company Sun-Times Media in order to maintain “the Reader’s history as the social justice and cultural voice of Chicago”, then went and completely undercut Emmanuel’s sentiments.
For his debut issue, Konkol employed illustrator Greg Houston—an artist who prided himself on never working “in a style that is inappropriate for the client or the subject matter” in order to create a cover for Emmanuel’s piece.
It featured a giant Pritzker sat on the back of the racial stereotype of an African American while tangled in phone cords leading to the earpiece of a sinister looking FBI agent.
“There was a time in America when certain things were socially acceptable without any thought to how dehumanizing they were to someone else,” Houston wrote, explaining the offensive cover. “The image of the lawn jockey symbolizes the wink-and-a-nudge ignorance that puts racism into context historically and in this contemporary situation.”
Konkol then patted himself on the back for daring-do necessary to “an American conversation about racism” that “should hurt, like a punch in the gut.”
Instead, he punched-out with a pink-slip after three-days-worth of outrage, not the least of which came from Emmanuel himself.
“When I look at that cover, it feels like I’m that red-tipped lawn jockey and Konkol is the powerful white man on his back,” Emmanuel reflected in the Columbia Journalism Review. “I believe my voice as a black man was exploited, used to lend credibility to what ultimately is another example of the type of racism my articles called out. I feel used. It hurts.”
“We wish Mark well,” Sun-Times Media CEO Edwin Eisendrath stated after he eventually emerged from his hiding place under his desk. “We will put in place interim leadership and plan for the future.” Eisendrath also added that the company believed it was “necessary in this instance to apologize to anyone who was offended by this week’s cover.”
But the problem, Emmanuel countered, wasn’t isolated but systemic. “Things like that cover,” he said, “are increasingly likely to happen in settings where there are not black people participating in editorial and production processes that can flag them.”
Tio Hardiman, the sole black candidate currently in Illinois’s gubernatorial race, was similarly dissatisfied with Sun-Times Media. “I’m a viable candidate but the media continues to black me out,” Hardiman told Tablet. “For example, when it comes to the Sun Times and the Tribune, they’ve given cover stories to all the candidates except Tio Hardiman When the first stories came out about J.B. Pritzker’s comments about black leaders, I interviewed with the Sun Times and they used not one of my quotes. Zero.”
Both the Chicago offices of the Anti-Defamation League nor The Chicago Urban League declined to address the Pritzker controversy. After I placed an email to the Pritzker campaign to ask for comment, I received the following response: “Not really, lol.”
Less than ten minutes later, my phone rang. Apparently, the email was not intended for my eyes. Ultimately, I was sent a rehash of Pritzker’s remarks at an event earlier in the week.
“I knew that they intended to be provocative at the Reader,” read the statement, “but I think this is not the right approach As you know, I’ve tried to focus on issues, the issues important to the African American community—things like job creation and making sure that we get a quality education for every child in the African American community as well as very child in the state.”
There is no doubt that the Reader cover briefly took the spotlight off Pritzker’s remarks and into Konkol. I wondered if now, just as then, his campaign has breathed a sigh of relief.
Gretchen Rachel Hammond is an award-winning journalist and a full-time writer for Tablet Magazine.