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Mayor's Office Worked With CNN To Make Emanuel 'The Star He Really Is' On 'Chicagoland'

By Chuck Sudo in News on Apr 25, 2014 2:30PM

Photo by Patrick Pyszka/City of Chicago

If you watched CNN’s “docu-series” "Chicagoland" and came away with a polished presentation of Rahm Emanuel that apparently was no accident. The Tribune obtained more than 700 emails through Freedom of Information Act requests that showed the mayor’s office worked tightly with the series’ producers “to develop storylines, arrange specific camera shots and review news releases officially announcing the show.”

That’s a lot of work for a non-scripted series but it paid off as "Chicagoland" presented Emanuel “as the star that he really is,” according to one producer. This should surprise very few and reinforces Emanuel’s reputation for carefully crafting his public image, particularly for a national stage.

The Tribune exclusive, which is hidden behind a paywall, reveals producers asked Emanuel’s press team and advisers to “help them set up key interactions” for "Chicagoland" and, in one email, creator and producer Marc Levin pitched the series to Emanuel as “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 then set up some possible scenes.

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.

Coincidentally, the first episode of Chicagoland featured all that. Levin told the Tribune he discovered “everything the mayor does is stage-managed” but said editorial control remained in his hands. “But at the same time, yes, we were sensitive that we were moving through this city and getting access to a lot of places because we had developed a dialogue with the mayor.”

Even with that behind-the-scenes access, Levin said he and producers were frustrated because those peeks behind the curtain were carefully controlled by the mayor’s office

“I would be the first to acknowledge that you don’t get into Chicago … and get access without having to do a certain dance,” Levin said.

Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton told the Tribune their interaction with CNN was standard for working with a media outlet. (Except that local media often cannot gain that type of access to the mayor.)

”As we do with any news outlet working on a story, we work with them to highlight the great work being done in Chicago. This was no different,” Hamilton said. The producers of ‘Chicagoland’ were not from here and, as such, had very little background on the city and the work being done.”

Talks for the series between the mayor’s office and producers began in February 2013 and soon Emanuel’s press secretary, Tarah Cooper, sent out an email to producers labeled “DocuSeries Characters.” The Tribune also notes that Levin and co-executive producer Mark Benjamin were represented by William Morris Endeavor, the agency run by Emanuel’s brother Ari. (Levin and Benjamin said William Morris Endeavor didn’t represent them on this project to avoid a conflict of interest.)

Several hundred of the emails obtained by the Tribune were redacted by the mayor’s office, citing “an exemption in Illinois’ open records law for preliminary correspondence among city employees in which opinions are expressed or policies are formulated.”

The revelation of how closely the two sides worked together, and how tightly Team Emanuel controlled that access, raises the issue of how genuine "Chicagoland" is detailing the troubles facing the city and how deep Emanuel wants a national audience to peer beneath the surface. Mitchell Block, an expert on documentary films, told the Trib, “If the access was managed, and it sounds like it was, then everything looks perfect all of the time.”