My thesis was that the Chicago media were fixating on the possibility that protesters by the thousands would run amok in the streets. They were ready to cover mayhem—but not to cover the major international event taking place whether bedlam occurs or not. As Chicago became a global city, I proposed, Chicago journalism lowered its horizons and became parochial.
On Saturday I strolled the couple of blocks from our house to Rahm Emanuel's because I knew that in the name of decent local funding for mental heath, protesters intended to mass in the street where he lives and raise their voices. It was an approximately perfect May afternoon, the phalanx of police guarding the mayor's lawn (which he'd had cut to camera-ready length the day before) had arrived by bicycle, and the media presence was overwhelming. Among the large contingent of curious burghers from the hood who milled about, few disagreed with the proposition that decent mental health spending is worth raising one's voice over.
But try demonstrating for it when NATO isn't in town. You'd be lucky to attract a barking dog. So we respected the demonstrators for their opportunism, and we hoped the inevitable agitators who show up thirsting for bloodied noses and mass arrests would be kept in check. And they were.
If the whole weekend is as tranquil, I wondered, will the Chicago media shift gears and focus on NATO itself? But then I had my counterthought: If things get out of hand, will it be the cosmopolitan national and international media that shift gears? A good brawl is a lot more photogenic than men in suits sitting at a round table. It's also a lot easier to cover. And this is Chicago! Whatever simplistic notions we have about our city, foreigners double down on them. Word that blood is being shed in Chicago will assure the most sophisticated Europeans that some verities still prevail.
Sunday did bring some bloodied noses, not to mention limp bodies tossed in squadrols, though not by the wildest stretch of the imagination was Chicago consumed by mayhem. And on Monday morning I did a quick, dirty survey of the international press to see what angles their websites were leading with.
The Toronto Star put "NATO Summit protest greeted by calm, but resolute police" on page 4 and "Canada pressed to keep up Afghanistan training role" back on page 21—a judgment that says to me Toronto's played Chicago in so many movies its press has lost track of which city it reports to.
As I write, the home page of Britain's Guardian appropriately features "US-Pakistan rift widens over Afghan supply lines"—a NATO story out of Chicago—at the top of its story menu and "Chicago braced for more protests" right below it. Likewise with the distinguished national Spanish daily, El Pais.
It took some scrolling down the El Pais home page to find the primary NATO story, "Las tropas de la OTAN seguirán combatiendo en Afganistán en 2013." Beneath, it, in small print, was a link to a photo gallery, "Disturbios en Chicago."
But please look at this gallery. It would be too simple to say these pictures misrepresent the level of violence in Chicago during the summit. They don't actually show much violence. What they do show is the emotional intensity of protest. There is beauty in the passion that draws people into the streets, that passion is universal, and it is highly photogenic. Editors can be forgiven who hesitate to spike the best of these pictures in favor of a couple of hundred extra words of skeptical analysis of NATO's "new strategic plan" for Afghanistan.