‘Chicagoland’ wasn’t on the level

Chicago LandCNN should be ashamed. I know I am.

“Chicagoland,” the much-ballyhooed documentary series that completed its eight-week run on CNN Thursday, turned out to be as manipulative as its critics suspected.

A front-page story in Friday’s Chicago Tribune revealed the extent to which producers kowtowed to City Hall for what was billed as “a non-scripted, eight-part original series about a heartland American city.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t journalism.

“If it seemed as though some scenes of CNN’s documentary series ‘Chicagoland’ were coordinated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall and the show’s producers, that’s because they were,” reporter Bill Ruthhart wrote. “More than 700 emails reviewed by the Tribune reveal that the production team worked hand in hand with the mayor’s advisers to develop storylines, arrange specific camera shots and review news releases officially announcing the show.”

According to the emails obtained through an open records request, producers “told Emanuel’s staff that particular scenes would present the mayor in a positive light, with one of the producers expressing a desire to showcase the mayor ‘as the star that he really is.’ ”

It also was noted that “Chicagoland” executive producers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin had been represented by William Morris Endeavor, the Hollywood agency run by the mayor’s brother, Ari Emanuel. “The producers said they were not represented on the project by William Morris to avoid any conflict of interest, but Levin said they likely would be represented by the firm in the future,” Ruthhart reported.

In response to the Tribune story, CNN released a statement Friday asserting that the “mayor’s office was never granted editorial control over the content or the press communications for ‘Chicagoland,’ and no agency was ever granted authority to offer the mayor’s office editorial approval for the content or the promotional materials for the series.”

Mark Konkol

Mark Konkol

My initial impressions of “Chicagoland” were extremely favorable, based on the scope of the project and the production values, which were indeed impressive. That judgment also was based on my confidence in Mark Konkol, the veteran Chicago journalist who was credited as a producer, writer and narrator of the series. Both publicly and privately, Konkol offered personal assurances the series was “NOT a Valentine to Rahm Emanuel.”

“Those who’ve dismissed the series sight unseen as a reality-show paean to Chicago or simply a love letter to Emanuel don’t know what they’re talking about,” I wrote here before its debut March 6. “I’ve watched the first four episodes, and this is no chamber of commerce travelogue by any means. Besides, I know Mark Konkol, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman who narrates the series with gritty authority, and believe me, he’s nobody’s patsy.”

Clearly, my confidence was misplaced. I’d like to believe Konkol was unaware of the collusion between other producers and Emanuel’s staff, as documented by the Tribune. (Although that might make him appear to be something of a patsy after all, wouldn’t it?).

I reached out to Konkol, who respectfully disagreed with my change of heart and said he remains proud of his role in the series. “The one thing I don’t want people to lose focus on is that you got to see the small stories of real people struggling against major issues in Chicago that make national news,” he told me. “That’s what’s important to me.”