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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1 year ago
Posted by tblackstudio

Seems to be lost that Ms Shteir was supposedly reviewing three books about the city and utterly, laughably failed in the most juvenile way. I read the NYT Book Reviews to learn about books and the people who write them, I go elsewhere to discover the shortcomings of the cities that I love/loathe live in and visit. Good riddance to bad writing!

1 year ago
Posted by carlosd

Let it go man. This story is played out. But as for mean responses to a mean article,its called the digital age. That is gonna happen over everything online from Beyonce's hair to this. Thin skinned, boosterism or a genuine defense? It's all in the eye of the beholder but nobody writes an article on anything these days and doesn't get a zillion responses.Shteir knows that. She counted on it. Doesn't mean she wrote anything new, good, thoughtful or valid. Even if she had she'd have gotten plenty of angry responses. BTW, do you think the people who really run Chicago or could impact its economy are listening to a drama prof? Might be worth reminding everyone she was supposedly writing a "book review."

1 year ago
Posted by Joseph Weber

Carol, thanks. The tempest we at BW ran into 13 years ago was troublingly like what Shteir is running into, and your account has that spot on. I very much hope Chicago can face up to the problems Shteir named, as it faced up to some of the challenges we at BW pointed out. One small factual matter: Paul O'Connor and I did appear on "Chicago Tonight," as I recall. But I'm not sure that Diane Swonk did; she may or may not have, but she definitely was on a panel at the Chicago Fed about the piece. She was critical of our work. As in Shteir's case, many folks who respond to what see they as broadsides against Chicago don't deal with the specifics, just reflexively defend a great but troubled city that I still very much love.

1 year ago
Posted by carlosd

An awful lot of people here in Chicago know we have loads of problems. In the end, what is being said in the article above points to some of the real issues we face and need to be addressed. However, I just do not believe all of us here are lost in a world of illusions about the city. If you are talking about the movers and shakers, I will say again, who of them is going to listen to or even read a book review in the NYTimes? Is Rahm Emanuel going to invite her to dinner and listen to her criticism? Does anyone think her book review will get an auto plant built on the south side or reverse global economic trends? Does anyone think that was her actual intention? I saw nothing constructive in her criticisms. I've heard nothing from her suggesting that was her intention. She's a writer, folks. She wanted attention. She got it. Sometimes an attack is an attack. Read the article she actually wrote and see if you really think she had a serious intention beyond hating the city. I don't.

1 year ago
Posted by Jay

Carol, for the record, the Chicago Tonight program from October 9, 2000 did not "pit" Mr. Weber against "a panel of boosters." We had two guests from Business Week, Mr. Weber and Roger Crockett, having a conversation with Paul O'Connor and Jerry Roeper from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

1 year ago
Posted by Joseph Weber

Jay, thanks for the reminder about the 2000 show. It was lively, but Paul and Jerry put their case forward like gentlemen -- aggressively but not obnoxiously. The panel of critics came later, at the Fed, and I was not invited to make a presentation there but just to attend.

1 year ago
Posted by Sousaman

The article from 2000 by Joseph Weber and two others states that Chicago missed the boat by not "innovating" and engaging in the risky and unethical fast-growth financial schemes of the New York banking industry at the time that eventually broke the back of the American economy. I really don't understand why this would be reminisced upon as a piece deriding Chicago justifiably. To me, it is a piece about how utterly journalism failed this country and a reminder that real, honest journalism is mostly dead and has long ago been replaced by pay-per-click content farms.

1 year ago
Posted by You'Nique

"Rachel Shteir Got It Right, Says a Veteran Chicago Journalist"

No you did not. As your only rebuttal is to dig up old and trite information from 12 years ago of dubious quality.

Furthermore, Ms. Shteir's "modern" journalism fails to mention that the murder rate has dropped to its lowest rate since 1950.

Or, the fact, that the downtown area has experienced more growth than any other city in the U.S.

It's funny how those seem to be missing from her diatribe.

All this bloviating reminds me of Aaron Renn, leaving Chicago after a nasty divorce and an untimely sale of his Gold Coast condo.

"Depression is the inability to construct a future"....and that's their problem.

1 year ago
Posted by MissingNYC

This article and the response to Prof. Shteir's column are demonstrative of the problem with Chicago. It's not so much that Chicago has problems. Chicago, like other cities, does. It's that Chicago hates New York. I've been here a year and I have been told by countless Chicagoan's how they hate New York, yet my New York friends only have positive things to say about Chicago. Rather than concentrating on how Chicago is better than New York, (it's not) Chicago should just try to be Chicago. It's not a surprise that an article in New York Times generates such vitriol. As an example in this very magazine, New York bike share bike is the worst looking bike in America! For the record two similar bikes in different shade of blue, but, of course the New York bike is the worst. Just the other day I was told that someone didn't like Jay-Z, with a specific reference to "that New York song". I think they meant "Empire state of mind". Hate Jay-Z's music, but don't hate him becasue he's a Brooklyn boy. What is it with Chicago hating New York? And yet, Chicago tries so hard to emulate what happens in NYC. For example, you're all looking forward Mario B. opening an Eataly restaurant here, (it's not really a restaurant), but it is a nice italian market in NYC. I could ramble on, but please, Chicago, look in the mirror and as far as NYC, fugetaboutit!

1 year ago
Posted by SheepsheadBayBklyn

Living in 3 of the NY boroughs through my mid-20's (now in Chicago), it's true, we had no resentment towards Chicago. Actually, we had no concern for other towns, whatsoever. After all, we lived in the center of the Universe, even in the David Dinkins era!
I think it's this oblivious arrogance that generates Chicago's and the Midwest's dislike of NY. I find that Chicagoans know and care about things other than Chicago. That was not the case for NYers. Perhaps it's changed since 9/11, I hope.

We acknowledge Chicago has serious problems. But comparably, especially income, Chicago is still a more livable city which I can enjoy and appreciate. The joys of daily life as a well educated, average NYer were few. Except for the bragging rights to say "I live in NY". Oooh, ahhhhhh.

I don't care for Jay-Z, but I love "Empire State of Mind".

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