A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a conversation about Chicago Public Schools with a group that learned about our schools mainly through the media. No one in the audience ever attended CPS school. Most were white. Most were affluent. Most were honest about their perception of our schools when I asked. “CPS schools are either good or bad,” one person admitted she was led to believe. They mentioned the struggles, the lack of funding, the low academic success. Unsurprised, I knew why. We form our opinion based on the information we receive. Tonight, CNN’s Chicagolandcontributed to the constant one-sided journalism that highlights only the violence, only the failures, only the stereotypes that taint our low-income students in Chicago Public Schools.
The show focuses on scandalizing the violence of our struggling neighborhoods for an audience who will likely discuss the show on Friday expressing disappointment, astonishment, disdain. Their conversation will, then, likely shift to plans for fun on Friday night.
This is the audience the producers had in mind. The giveaway: the narrator explained what O.G. means—“Original Gangster.” Producers did not create Chicagoland for those of us who know.
Instead of using the stories of students and administrators at Fenger High School on Chicago’s far South Side to emphasize how there can and should be an escape from the violence, the show’s producers emphasize the violence—it makes for good television. Violence, after all, gets black people on T.V.
Of course, they chose to focus on a student who had a troubled first couple of years in high school, reinforcing the idea that every low-income black student causes agitation.
How would tonight’s show have been different if the story were about a Fenger student with a record of good behavior and good grades?
Violence exists in our city, no doubt. But reporting the deaths and struggles in tonight’s show will not attract leaders, community members, celebrities, or even affluent Chicago residents to work with troubled communities. At the North side bar, the principal’s conversation about establishing a Friends of Fenger board became overshadowed by the Blackhawks’ championship win. The conversation, because of careful editing, perhaps, ended there.
Fenger’s peace march seemed to solve the problems for this episode anyway. The mayor—definitely—appeared relieved.
Chicagoland perpetuates the oversimplified perception I regularly see of our city and our schools—good or bad. After the Blackhawks’ win in tonight’s episode, intoxicated white North side crowds partied so much that Chicago police rode in on horseback. Not one person in Wrigleyville arrested that night? Not one fight reported? Not one call to 9-1-1? Not according to the camera crews. Chicagoland shows that white people can party responsibly; black people, however, get shot.
Or, according to Chicagoland, black students find ultimate success at prom. Editors crafted the storyline to evoke more shock when black teens make it to the end-of-year party, when they strut in white tuxedos and sexy dresses. “Wow, look at them,” some viewers must have said. The North side drunken debauchery, however, became carefully minimized without long close ups, without any individual focus on the rowdy behavior that becomes acceptable—if one is white and drunk and young.
The most interesting choice the editors made tonight, however, was juxtaposing Fenger’s far South side peace march with footage from the Englewood funeral. The audience who does know what O.G. means likely did not catch the fact that the neighborhoods, while both afflicted with violence, are miles apart. Based on the editing, Liz Dozier’s students appeared to be marching a few blocks from the casket. To those who don’t know Chicago, Chicagoland is about one riveting South side mess.
Even the narrator sounds unmoved by what he sees. His dry tone carries a condescending undercurrent. What else would you expect? He sounds like a reader bothered not by what he reads but by having this to read.
Despite the close-ups and profiles, Chicagoland disassociates viewers from Chicago’s reality. The principal comes off heroic but almost inconceivable. Chicagoland makes her appear completely self-sufficient. Maybe the show is right. Maybe she is. The mayor, on the other hand, comes off, haughty. (He is.)
Good and bad again. Extremes that will make distanced viewers with the connections and resources to help feel less compelled to act and more entitled to watch. Chicagoland succeeds in telling a classic Chicago story.