Emails show Emanuel aides, producers coordinated CNN 'Chicagoland' scenes [Chicago Tribune :: ]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 25--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.
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.
Producers asked the mayor's office to help them set up key interactions in what the cable network has billed as a nonscripted eight-part series, including Emanuel's visits with the school principal who emerged as a star of the show, emails show.
City Hall's frequent correspondence with the producers illustrates how senior aides to a mayor known for shaping his media image managed how CNN would portray their boss to a prime time national audience.
The production team for the series, whose final episode aired Thursday night, 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." Creator and executive producer Marc Levin made a pitch to the mayor's office last May as Emanuel's hand-picked school board was two days away from a vote to close nearly 50 schools.
"This is a real opportunity to highlight the Mayors leadership -- his ability to balance the need for reform and fiscal reality with compassion for affected communities and concern for the safety of Chicago's school children," Levin wrote of the school closings to Emanuel senior adviser David Spielfogel and two press aides. "We need the mayor on the phone in his SUV, in city hall with key advisers and his kitchen cabinet and meeting with CPS head BBB (Barbara Byrd-Bennett) and with CPD (Superintendent Garry) McCarthy." The first "Chicagoland" episode, televised in March, featured just what Levin had requested: slow-motion images of the mayor climbing into his SUV and talking on his cellphone, and Emanuel's meetings behind closed doors with Chicago Public Schools CEO Byrd-Bennett and Chicago police Superintendent McCarthy.
The emails, obtained through an open records request, show the producers were not always granted all the access they sought. And Levin said he was "eternally frustrated" that much of the behind-the-scenes access he got of Emanuel was controlled by the mayor's office.
"Everything the mayor does is stage-managed. Everything. That is the way he operates, so I'm not going to dispute that," Levin said in an interview when asked about his emails that requested specific scenes featuring the mayor. "I would be the first to acknowledge that you don't get into Chicago ... and get access without having to do a certain dance.
"I'm not saying these people had editorial control. They didn't," Levin said of the mayor's office. "But at the same time, yes, we were sensitive that we were moving through this city and getting access to a lot of places because we had developed a dialogue with the mayor." That dance for access is not uncommon, said Mitchell Block, an expert on documentary films at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. While Block said he hadn't watched "Chicagoland," he said that in any documentary, if a filmmaker's access to a subject is managed, and not free-ranging, it affects how that person is portrayed.
"The question is did they really have full access?" Block said. "If the access was managed, as it sounds like it was, then everything looks perfect all of the time. I personally don't make those kinds of films." Emanuel aides declined to answer specific questions about the administration's involvement in the series' production. Instead, Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton issued a statement that suggested the administration's work with CNN was typical.
"As we do with any news outlet working on a story, we work with them to highlight the great work being done in Chicago. This was no different," Hamilton said. "The producers of 'Chicagoland' were not from here and, as such, had very little background on the city and the work being done. They asked for examples of work taking place and events they could attend, which we provided. This is no different from information we provide reporters -- including the Tribune -- every day." Local media rarely are granted behind-the-scenes access to the mayor.
Getting green light Prior to "Chicagoland," Levin and fellow executive producer Mark Benjamin both 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.
The "Chicagoland" producers got the green light for access to Emanuel and City Hall after a meeting arranged by the Chicago public relations firm Jasculca Terman, records show.
That firm's chairman and CEO, Rick Jasculca, is a friend of Emanuel's dating back decades, and both worked together in the Clinton White House. When Emanuel announced he would run for mayor in 2010, it was Jasculca and his daughter Aimee Jasculca who fielded media calls on behalf of the budding campaign.
In February 2013, records show, Rick Jasculca contacted Tarrah Cooper, the mayor's press secretary, to set up a meeting with Levin and Benjamin, whose Brick City TV teamed up with actor and producer Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn's Sundance Productions to pitch the "Chicagoland" project to CNN.
Jasculca said he has known Redford since meeting him when the actor campaigned for 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
"I did this because Bob is a good friend," Jasculca said. "I just thought they're going to do this production anyway, the least we could do is help open the right doors and help them understand Chicago." Asked whether his friendship with Emanuel played a role in the producers asking him to set up meetings with City Hall, Jasculca said his firm introduced the producers to many people.
"I'm proud to call myself a friend of the mayor's, but the mayor's got a lot of friends and that can be an overused term," Jasculca said. "What I think we did is use our 33 years of experience being a public affairs firm to say, 'Let us introduce you to Chicago.'" After the meeting at Jasculca Terman's offices, producers Levin and Benjamin emailed Cooper and Clothilde Ewing, Emanuel's chief of strategic planning.
"We are thrilled that City Hall and the Mayor have agreed to assist our production team, help steer us to strong stories and participate directly in the CNN series," the producers wrote. "We look forward to working with you and your office to capture the citizens of Chicago and their mayor in a sustained and determined effort to improve the education, safety and economic well-being of all Chicagoans." Storylines A few weeks later, Emanuel's office indicated it would soon suggest story ideas for the series, emails show.
Another Jasculca daughter, Lauren Foley, emailed Cooper, the mayor's press secretary, to ask her to send "the list of story/interview ideas that you and your team were going to put together" for the "Chicagoland" producers.
"I'll be in touch in the upcoming days to further discuss characters and story lines that we suggest," Cooper wrote a few days later to the producers. "We look forward to working with you!" Emails show nine senior Emanuel staffers exchanged emails on the series early on, with one to Cooper including an attachment labeled "DocuSeries Characters." The mayor's office redacted those messages and hundreds more sent between administration officials, citing an exemption in Illinois' open records law for preliminary correspondence among city employees in which opinions are expressed or policies are formulated. The mayor's office did not respond to questions about its decision to redact the emails.
Foley served as the liaison between City Hall and the production team, emails show. On Jasculca Terman's website, Foley is listed as a vice president who "acted as the stage manager for the inaugural of the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel." Foley said she was paid as a field producer on the series by Levin and Benjamin.
"I was someone helping them get their ducks in a row here, really helping with City Hall and that kind of stuff," Foley said. "We have connections there, obviously." Once the "Chicagoland" crew began filming, their cameras frequently appeared at Emanuel media events but also captured typically private moments that showed a warmer side of the mayor, including talking with children in classrooms, playing with them at recess and watching arts performances in city parks.
Among the most poignant of those moments was Emanuel's interactions with high school student Martell Cowan.
Cowan, an intern in the mayor's office, is shown riding with Emanuel in his SUV, and the mayor talks to him about college and jokes with him about picking up girls during a walk to City Hall. Emanuel also talks to Cowan in his office and shows the teen pictures of him and Obama before the two walk out of his office with their arms around each other as Cooper, the press secretary, looks on.
The mayor then hugs Cowan and says, "I love you." Later, Cowan is shown saying, "It did change my life. I'm grateful for it." In an interview, Levin explained that he asked for access to Cowan and Emanuel to show a different side of the mayor after he heard him talk about the teen at three different events.
"For us, yes, it was set up in that, 'the mayor is going to be riding with Martell today,' but it was a battle for us to finally get access to it," Levin said. "This, in a sense, yes, was under their control, but I think what's revealed here is a different Rahm Emanuel than you see at most of the staged events, and that's why I pushed for it." An email between Levin and Cooper reflects the request. "It was really nice to see the Mayor and Martell together in his office," Levin wrote. "Thanks for making it happen. Good stuff." In addition to Emanuel, another major storyline in "Chicagoland" followed Fenger High School Principal Elizabeth Dozier. Producers pushed to have both characters intersect for the cameras, records show.
A scene showing both sides of a phone conversation between Emanuel and Dozier aired during the series, and in July, Levin thanked the mayor's staff for the access. "The phone call with Principal Liz Dozier is great," he said.
As the production team wrapped up filming in October, executive producer Benjamin requested for the mayor and Dozier to interact again. Another scene in the series shows Emanuel and Dozier watching a Shakespeare play at a park together, but this time Benjamin wanted Emanuel to visit Dozier's school.
"Still need more Rahm," Benjamin wrote to Hamilton, Emanuel's communications director. "Need the mayor at Fenger High School with Liz also. I know i am needy but we want more Rahm in the series. I know I sound like a (broken) record, but in the Feb. '14 broadcast, Rahm will look good making 'his' points." On Oct. 25, Cooper emailed Benjamin to tell him, "We're also working to have him (Emanuel) drop by Fenger, no promises but we'll try to make it happen. He loves Liz and those student." On Nov. 8, Emanuel's official calendar shows he was, in fact, scheduled to visit Fenger with "CNN crew only." Footage of Emanuel at the high school was part of Thursday's final episode, Levin said.
School closings "Chicagoland" offered plenty of scenes that are far from a chamber of commerce video for the city, from violence in the streets and criminals in Cook County Jail to the open-casket funerals of shooting victims and the efforts of a surgeon to save those with gunshot wounds rolled into the emergency room on a gurney. But the mayor often was shown in controlled environments, either at news conferences or in settings arranged by his press staff.
When it came to the school closing issue, protesters were shown in the streets and interrupting a City Council meeting, while Emanuel was shown in an interview, saying he was comfortable with his decision to close the schools.
Records show Emanuel's interviews came after Levin's email to the administration that said the closings were an opportunity to highlight the mayor's leadership.
"You're not going to write a note to City Hall and say, 'We need your help to make you look bad,'" Levin said of the email. "With the school closings, they were well aware of all the demonstrations and vocal parents and a lot of the negative stuff happening. We made it clear: We're not ignoring that." On the day when the school board held its final vote, "Chicagoland" focused on parents and students objecting to the closings at two schools -- Manierre and Garvey elementary schools.
The schools were two of four spared in the final hour before the vote, and "Chicagoland" shows footage of tearful Manierre parents rejoicing outside CPS headquarters and a Garvey student celebrating by dancing. While 53 schools were on the chopping block, the documentary crew ended up following two that were saved. Asked how that happened, Levin said he and fellow producers have asked themselves the same question.
"I don't know the answer to that," Levin said. "But we did go, 'Wow. That is unusual.'" Emanuel's office declined to discuss the issue.
An issue of access CNN's producers and photographers did not always receive the access they sought, emails show.
On July 1, Levin emailed Spielfogel, the mayor's senior adviser, and Cooper telling them that for the series to reach its full potential, "we need to go to the next level with the Mayor." "Right now, we're not doing justice to the Mayor's real bold leadership style, ambitions and policies," Levin wrote. "I know we still have time to round out the Mayor's story and present him as the star that he really is." Levin said he was trying to get the administration to give him more time with the mayor, and he hoped to capture Emanuel's well-known fiery side. Block, the documentary film expert, said such persuasion tactics are common among producers.
"Everything in documentary that is character-driven is a matter of access, and the filmmakers did what every filmmaker does with time and money constraints, they tried to make their life easier with those kinds of requests," Block said. "And if they can get access, they have footage, and if they have footage and interesting characters, they have a story." After Levin's email, Emanuel aides exchanged several messages to each other, but they were redacted by City Hall. Soon after, Emanuel had a 30-minute, on-camera interview with Levin, records show.
In mid-August, Levin sent another email to Cooper, Hamilton and Spielfogel pressing for more access to Emanuel, Byrd-Bennett and McCarthy. Levin wrote that because his crew didn't have enough behind-the-scenes access, it gave "credence to the media pundits and the critics" who claimed the city had no plans to protect children when schools reopened.
Hamilton, the mayor's communications director, forwarded the email to mayoral aides Cooper and Spielfogel and wrote, "Is this a threat?" Other emails in response were redacted, but Levin eventually received another interview with the mayor, records show.
While the emails the Tribune received give a glimpse of the interaction between the mayor's office and the production team, how CNN producers developed scenes at Fenger High School and while following McCarthy and other Chicago police officers is not as clear. CPS and Chicago police did not provide documents in response to a Tribune open records request filed six weeks ago.
Some emails that were provided show City Hall worked closely enough with CNN that drafts of the network's news releases about "Chicagoland" were shared ahead of time. When the network prepared to announce the series in the spring of 2013, Jasculca Terman's Foley twice forwarded copies of CNN news releases to Emanuel's office.
"This version is considered final for CNN. Thoughts?" Foley wrote to Emanuel press aides, to which Cooper responded, "Thanks! I'll have edits for you shortly!" Foley wrote back, "Perfect! Thank you!" Foley initially said the email exchange was reflective of CNN's desire to have a good working relationship with the mayor's office, but later he said the city was not allowed to edit CNN's announcement. Cooper and the mayor's office declined to answer questions about the email exchange. A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment on the series.
Once "Chicagoland" was ready to hit the airwaves this spring, CNN hired Jasculca Terman to put on a screening of the first episode at the Bank of America Theatre, an event that drew a who's who of City Hall insiders, public officials and business types.
Foley walked the red carpet. So did Levin and Benjamin, posing for pictures with McCarthy and Principal Dozier.
Afterward, they gathered for an afterparty at Underground, a nightclub owned by Billy Dec, who was included in the series as a friend of Dozier's and a promoter of the city's entertainment scene. Dec, McCarthy, Dozier and the series' producers and photographers celebrated late into the evening as images of Emanuel and other stars of "Chicagoland" were shown on a giant video board behind the club's DJ.
Before the first episode aired, emails show, Emanuel's top aides asked to view the first "Chicagoland" episode ahead of its debut at Redford's Sundance Film Festival in January.
"Will we (the Mayor, Sarah and myself) be able to see the first episode before it premieres?" Cooper, Emanuel's press secretary, wrote to Levin. The producer replied, "I have a call into CNN now to discuss screening episode one for the Mayor, Sarah (Hamilton) and you. I'm assuming they would be open to it." Levin said he couldn't remember if the screening happened. A CNN spokeswoman said she didn't think so. Emanuel's office declined to say.
After the first episode aired on television in March, Emanuel was asked what he thought of the series.
"I haven't watched it," he said.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @BillRuthhart ___ (c)2014 the Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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