Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rachel Shteir Got It Right, Says a Veteran Chicago Journalist

Joseph Weber, a former Chicago Bureau Chief for BusinessWeek, once edited a Chicago-challenging cover story that got a similar knee-jerk local reaction.

photo: heather charles / chicago tribune

 

When I checked the comments under my post about the controversy surrounding DePaul prof Rachel Shteir’s Chicago-bashing front-pager in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, there was one that stood out. It was signed by a stranger-to-me named Joseph Weber. I soon learned that Weber was a 22-year veteran of BusinessWeek; that he managed the magazine’s Chicago bureau, and served as chief of correspondents until 2009. That’s when he left Chicago to move to Lincoln, Nebraska, to become a University of Nebraska journalism prof.

In a telephone conversation from there, Weber told me that reading the Shteir story gave him “a remarkable bit of déjà vu”; that he and his cowriters had faced a similar frenzy of outrage after the publication, in 2000, of a BW cover story titled “Chicago Blues.”

The story took the then-contrarian position that Chicago was losing its way, falling behind. “It’s a great, livable city, but it’s fading as a business and financial capital, ….still struggling to find the spark that will ignite it as a 21st century city.” Following the Shteir flareup, Weber wrote that while “Chicago is a delightful and vibrant city,” it has “serious” problems.

“Its biggest shortcomings include its thin skin and a deep-set inferiority complex that can blind it to its problems. The vitriol Shteir has experienced is …. a replay of the stunning furor we ran into—a tempest that just confirmed our reporting.” He lamented to me the city’s propensity to “compensate with bluster, sticking chest out, pulling shoulders back and saying, `Screw you!’”

Like Shteir, whom he says he doesn’t know, Weber is a native of New Jersey. He calls his birthplace, Newark, a “great urban tragedy.” He lived there as a young boy before his family moved to central New Jersey—his father continued to work in Newark—and he went to college at Rutgers and journalism school at Columbia.

Unlike Shteir, who really does seem to dislike Chicago, Weber says that he and his family “loved” living here, and notes that one of his three children has settled in the city. While working for the magazine, the Webers lived in Evanston, which, he explained, had a great public school system. The problems with CPS, he says, is the reason they didn’t find a place to live in the city.

Weber certainly counts as a voice in the wilderness—he pronounces the Shteir piece neither “mean spirited nor surprising. She hit on some of the city’s tragic flaws. She said some uncomfortably true things about Chicago … Chicagoans don’t want to see the flaws. They might talk about the flaws among members of their own group, but not outside the group. They’re like ethnics reacting to a comment; fine to say it within the family, but God forbid someone else says it.”

(He does fault Shteir for not including “enough of the positives,” and he calls her warning of the danger of Chicago turning into Detroit “naïve.” He adds: “I don’t think she appreciates the economic differences between the cities; Detroit, unlike Chicago, being dependent on a single industry.”)

The BusinessWeek cover dealt exclusively with business and the economy—the unemployment rate was then four percent, and Weber et al were still critical; “other cities have seen sharper slides in joblessness.” The story honed in on the subject of modernizing the futures exchanges. “It was absurd to have three separate exchanges,” Weber told me. He had warned back then that Chicago was becoming second-rate in what was once its strength. He doesn’t take credit for the eventual combining of the exchanges, which, he says, fixed the problem. “The CME,” he adds, “is now a global powerhouse, a titan.”

Weber enumerates other problems that he and his colleagues identified back then which persist today—“lagging badly” behind other cities in high tech, for example; losing such corporate behemoths as Amoco, Illinois Central, Inland Steel to “global merger sweepstakes.”

“That piece didn’t get everything right, but it got a lot of things right,” he says.

On social issues, Weber argues, Shteir was totally justified in calling out the debilitating impact of shootings. “Chicago needs to look at 15-year-old girls being killed in the street,” he says (not having heard that a 15-year-old boy was also killed this week), and of a limping public education sector which Weber calls “one of the great tragedies of Chicago.”

He laughs as he recalls Rich Daley—there was a Q & A with the mayor as part of the cover story—touting Chicago’s schools. Weber asked Daley, “What are you proudest of?” Daley replied: “Education … It’s the only priority we’ve had in this city.” (In a post-publication letter to the editor complaining about the cover story, Daley wrote, “the schools are improving” and “Chicago’s education reform efforts are looked to as a model for the country … We have an entire city behind our efforts to graduate students … who are prepared with the reading, math, and other skills needed to join the workforce. Life is good in Chicago, and it’s only going to get better.”

In 2000, people certainly used email, but most of the response to the piece came in a “whole lot of letters” via the mailman. The reactions, recalls Weber, were “not as vile” as many of the comments that Shteir’s story provoked. But the reaction was loud, and it caught the attention of the producers of WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight.” Weber, like Shteir (who appeared on Tuesday night’s program), was invited to defend his view of Chicago against “a panel of Chicago boosters” including Diane Swonk, then the chief economist of Bank One Corporation, and Paul O’Connor, then executive director of World Business Chicago.

I asked Weber what he recalled about the WTTW appearance. His reply: “The article being ripped to shreds.”

Update: The The WTTW “Chicago Tonight” episode from October 9, 2000 referenced in my post was a discussion between the BusinessWeek cover story reporters Joseph Weber and Roger Crockett and World Business Chicago’s Paul O’Connor and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s Jerry Roeper. Diane Swonk was not part of that program but, according to Weber, was part of a Chicago Federal Reserve panel at which the cover story was discussed and criticized. I regret the error. 

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