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The View From the Projects/ Critical Mess 

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By Michael Miner

The View From the Projects

Three years of covering public housing convinced Ethan Michaeli that plenty of CHA residents could tell their stories better than he could. But when the CHA two years ago offered him the job of creating a newspaper for them to write in, he hesitated. "They had told me they wanted an independent paper," Michaeli says, "but I was not sure our definitions of 'independent paper' were exactly the same. I asked for a written statement that the newspaper would remain independent, which they signed wholeheartedly."

The guarantee is right there in the mission statement on page three of every issue of Residents' Journal. "This publication will contribute to the American media's mission of faithfully providing balanced, truthful accounts and information....The Chicago Housing Authority will not censor this publication in any way and is committed to the First Amendment."

Says Michaeli, "The explanation they gave me as to why a government agency would want to create a newspaper that would almost certainly criticize them was that they were tired of the way the media had portrayed public-housing residents. They knew that the residents, while they'd beat up on the agency, would not beat up on themselves and would go at least part of the way in recrafting the image of public-housing residents."

He launched Residents' Journal as a quarterly in October 1996 and this year made it bimonthly. It circulates free of charge to 40,000 CHA and Section 8 households scattered across Chicago. "We tend to see the CHA as a monolith," Michaeli says. "The fact is, residents of Cabrini-Green rarely communicate with residents of the Robert Taylor Homes and certainly not in a very formal, organized way. Through Residents' Journal--and this is not just my theory; it's occurring in practice--a resident undergoing redevelopment in the Robert Taylor Homes can get information on all stages of the process, from relocation to demolition to redevelopment, from reading articles about Cabrini-Green or Henry Horner."

He adds, "I think also that residents don't find anywhere else in the media where their lives are portrayed accurately, frankly. The stereotypes associated with the CHA are almost always negative."

Michaeli explains how a "white, Jewish guy" from suburban Rochester, New York, wound up in his job. He'd studied English lit at the University of Chicago and graduated in 1989 with "wide-eyed dreams of being some sort of writer." He had no idea how to support himself. After two and a half years as a substitute teacher and two dismal weeks as a marketing consultant, "a friend came to me and said he was working at a small newspaper and wanted to leave and heard I was looking for a job and wanted to hook me up."

The paper turned out to be the Chicago Defender. Michaeli knew virtually nothing about it. "So I walked through the door wearing a friend's borrowed suit, and the place was so interesting--I mean so different from anything else I'd encountered--that I was kind of magnetized." Michaeli impressed the Defender with his U. of C. degree, alarmed it with his gaping ignorance of black Chicago, and got a job editing copy. "I sat there with a dictionary and an AP style book, and I believe I did improve the mistakes for which the Defender was sometimes legendary. But I still got calls from readers complaining about misspelled words and lousy headlines. But it was such a good way to be indoctrinated into the African-American community."

After a year he moved up to reporter, and public housing eventually became his beat. Out on the streets he began to take the measure of other reporters, and he concluded that the problem with them was that they were all of a type, a type pretty much like his own: "white, young, college educated, most likely of a suburban background." He recalls a critical court hearing in the battle Henry Horner residents were waging to stay in housing the CHA wanted to raze in favor of a United Center parking lot. "This was very, very important, very complex. In addition to the CHA and residents, HUD was involved, and the Gautraux attorneys also had a say. This was a story with not even two sides. This was a story with at least four. And it takes a reporter with a certain insight, background, and experience--which is sorely lacking in the media today--to bring that story home."

One of the dailies sent an intern, and Michaeli recalls that the intern was beside himself because Jerry Garcia had just died. "We don't expect reporters to just regurgitate information," Michaeli says. "We expect some analysis and prioritization." But not that day, not in that newspaper.

"I love Mary Mitchell's writing," Michaeli goes on, speaking of the black Sun-Times columnist. "But there's only one Mary Mitchell in Chicago. And Mary Mitchell, not coincidentally, is a former public-housing resident. I would like there to be ten Mary Mitchells for a city the size of Chicago."

Maybe he'll produce them. In early 1996 Joseph Shuldiner, the executive director brought in after HUD took over the CHA, told Michaeli during an interview that he wanted to start a residents' paper. Michaeli applied for the job of running it. He put together a not-for-profit corporation to oversee Residents' Journal, cornered enough federal money to keep it going for at least five years, and recruited a staff of CHA residents to write for pay. "The conventional wisdom is that this community can't support a publication," he says. "The advertisers won't come, and the people won't read it. But what we're finding is that if residents write the paper they'll know what their neighbors are interested in."

Advertisers have come--the January issue contains, among others, ads for a detox center, a "grief recovery support group," a medicaid health plan, and the public schools. Michaeli thinks advertising will grow until it covers the cost of operations. But he wants to train the residents working for the paper to become professional journalists, and for that he needs foundation money he hasn't located yet. He likes the way his writers have begun to objectify the issues that confront them. "Initially I was very much encouraging people to write," he says, "and if people wanted to insert commentary, I just wanted them to make it clear it was their opinion. But without my coaxing, the commentary has started to drop away. I think it's because people are looking at the issues in their communities from a much more balanced point of view.

"If you live in the CHA community, it's very hard to avoid what might be called a political opinion on something. But what I'm finding is that someone who, for example, came into the paper supporting radical redevelopment now sees the other side of the issue also. That's a real transformation. On the one hand, it's making people into cynical journalists. But on the other hand, it means that access to information really does promote, I would argue, a greater and more thorough understanding."

Critical Mess

Last Friday Roger Ebert broke one of the rules that movie critics live by: he reviewed a movie months before its commercial run. Ebert's transgression did no tangible harm and perhaps was an inadvertent kindness to the Music Box--which now won't have to worry about Ebert dumping on the movie the day it opens there. Nevertheless, some noses were pushed a little out of joint.

The movie was Taste of Cherry, cowinner of the Golden Palm at last year's Cannes film festival. Directed, produced, written, and edited by Abbas Kiarostami of Iran, it was screened Saturday at a Film Center fund-raiser. Kiarostami was present, answering questions and being honored at a dinner party.

Ebert gave the film one star. He called it "excruciatingly boring."

The Tribune's Michael Wilmington called it "precise, psychologically subtle, serenely controlled," and gave it four stars. But constrained by the protocols of film criticism, he published a mere two paragraphs in "Screengems" last Friday, the day before the Film Center screening. The Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum didn't call it anything. Believing critics to be even more constrained than Wilmington did, he acknowledged the screening only in a poker-faced capsule listing that didn't betray the fact that he'd already seen it and considered it a masterpiece.

Now Ebert's had his say. Wilmington and Rosenbaum are still free to write at length when Taste of Cherry opens May 29 at the Music Box.

What sort of protocols are these, which three critics responded to in three ways? Well, they're highly situational. But reasonably enough, they're designed to protect the people with the money on the line--a movie's distributor and exhibitors. "The idea is to help the film with your review at such a time as the largest number of people have the option of going to see it and judging for themselves," said Barbara Scharres, director of the Film Center.

To protect the Music Box and itself, Zeitgeist, the tiny New York-based distributor of Taste of Cherry, forbade the Film Center to show the film to critics (of course Ebert, Wilmington, and Rosenbaum had already seen it) or to do anything else to solicit reviews. The delicate PR challenge facing Scharres was to attract the public (which came in such high numbers that the movie was given an unscheduled second screening) without inciting the critics. If there'd been no Zeitgeist and no Music Box--the fate of most Iranian movies--the Film Center would have welcomed every review it could get. Who knows? Lavish critical praise might have attracted a distributor. It's happened. But once a film has been booked, a premature review only poisons the waters.

"We were allowed to do a special screening because we were bringing in Kiarostami for a personal appearance," said Scharres. "We don't want to abuse the generosity of people who make it possible for us to screen the film one time. I'm mystified why [Ebert] did that. I can only imagine he made some kind of mistake."

What of the Critic's Choice Rosenbaum didn't write? "It doesn't quite fall into the same category, though the distributor would have been very upset--and possibly the Music Box as well," Scharres said. "A Critic's Choice always brings us better business, but if it was something we were forbidden to get press on, then we'd have some fancy explaining to do."

And what of Wilmington's citation in Screengems? "Smaller mentions are a gray area. Mostly it's full-length reviews that are forbidden in situations like this," Scharres said. "But there's no law that says a critic can't review the film when and if it shows. That's his prerogative."

But Ebert wasn't asserting a prerogative. "It is not easy to determine the correct list of movie openings. There is no central clearing-house. We have someone at the Sun-Times who compiles a master list," he E-mailed me. "In the case of 'Taste of Cherry,' I was told it was opening at the Film Center, and acted on that information. I did not know it was coming to the Music Box. If I had looked at the MB's advance calendar, I would have seen it, but it did not occur to me. If it had been made clear that it was a not-for-review preview screening before a regular run, I would have abided by that request." To his knowledge, Ebert went on, no one from either the Film Center or Music Box called the Sun-Times to head off a review.

"I have a feeling," he concluded, "that if I had given the movie four stars, there would have been no problem from the Film Center. As for the Music Box, they are probably thinking, well, if the review was going to be that negative, better now than on our opening day."

Yes and no. Brian Andreotti, the Music Box's programmer, blamed himself for not getting the word out. And he said, "If it had been a four-star review, I would have been upset. Given it was a negative review, it was probably the best." But Nancy Gerstman of Zeitgeist told me, "I think no matter what, a critic should run a review when it opens. All the other critics can weigh in with their opinions. Roger Ebert is certainly entitled to his opinion, but it should be with everybody else's opinion."

She added ominously, "Definitely there will be an inquiry as to why it happened." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ethan Mitchell photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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