Wednesday, November 20, 2013

TOP STORY: Riding the line between journalism and activism

Windy City Times’ Tracy Baim organizes rally that helps lead Illinois to marriage equality
by Chuck Colbert

Like many Illinoisans, the publisher of Chicago-based Windy City Times closely followed lawmakers’ deliberations in the state capital of Springfield. But when legislators failed to take a vote May 31 on a same-sex marriage bill, Tracy Baim had enough. In a hard-hitting editorial, she took on the lead sponsor of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, taking him to task for not calling a vote. She went further, asking him to step aside as lead sponsor, and if the bill did not prevail in a fall legislative session, not to run for re-election. 

“The biggest blame has to be placed on the chief sponsor of the marriage equality bill in the Illinois House, Rep. Greg Harris, an openly gay man,” Baim wrote in early June when marriage equality was not yet reality in the Land of Lincoln.

“His arrogance and close-to-the-vest approach on an issue that impacts hundreds of thousands of people in the state is unconscionable — and unparalleled in our community’s history,” she added. “To be clear, this is not a call for Harris to resign (despite what many on social media and in the mainstream media have interpreted this editorial to say), but he will have lost the trust of the people he made commitments to, and it is very difficult to lead once that trust is gone.”

Baim was, by her own acknowledgment, pretty “harsh,” dishing out plenty of criticism all across the board, noting areas for improvement for just about everybody — lawmakers, public relations firms, organizational leaders and grassroots community organizers.

Still, she and Harris agreed not to make the short-term failure personal.  They issued a joint statement and urged unity in moving forward.

And yet Baim, also an author and film producer, was not satisfied to leave marriage equality to political insiders or professional strategists, locally that would be the group Illinois United for Marriage and its coalition partners. 

A veteran journalist and three-decade media presence in Chicago and beyond, she had an idea — a march on the state capital just as lawmakers would take up the marriage bill again. Outside pressure, Baim was convinced, combined with an inside game plan might do the trick.

Baim had more than the idea. She played a leading role in making the March on Springfield — the first ever LGBT show of outside force at the state capital — a success. 

In all, she recruited 13 co-chairs to field an impressive array of racial, ethnic and geographic diversity.

The effort was “bipartisan enough” and “all-volunteer,” she said. “All local LGBT media were asked to partner, and no one got paid.”
Apparently, outside pressure from the march had a positive effect.

While no one suggests that the march in and of itself nudged lawmakers into action, a general consensus gives the effort its proper due.

With the governor’s signature sealing the deal, marriage equality comes next spring to the state.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed the marriage bill on Nov. 20, but it does not go into full effect until June 1, 2014. Illinois approved civil unions in 2011.

Baim readily credits a variety of factors and players, including strong field operations from the Illinois United for Marriage, which coordinated phone banking, door knocking and lobbying lawmakers on the bill’s importance to LGBT people. She also acknowledges the insider game in the Statehouse.

Nonetheless, Baim said, the march was “one of the few critical things that made a difference between May and” Nov. 5, when the Illinois House approved marriage equality by a margin of 61-54. 

Hard-hitting editorials are familiar signposts along an all-terrain media landscape. But a publisher leading the charge and organizing a political march undoubtedly crosses the journalistic line into outright activism. 

All of which raises some questions. What prompted Baim’s extraordinary move? How did it affect Windy City Times (WCT) navigating the inherent shoals of march coverage and more? What lessons are there for LGBT media?

During a recent telephone interview, Baim, who also serves as WCT executive editor, offered her thoughts. 

“Shortly after the vote, I asked Greg, ‘If 10,000 people had showed up in Springfield on May 30 or 31, would that have a difference?’ And he said yes.”

Her next WCT editorial called for a march.

“I realized that last spring the whole process was an insiders’ game,” Baim said. “As a media person, I realized that external pressure was critical during the ACT UP years and city council years [pushing for basic city-wide non-discrimination protections] and other battles for civil rights. You cannot only play an insiders’ game for a variety of reasons. Legislators don’t really pay attention unless they feel large external pressure. But also, media coverage of [such pressures] exponentially increases your value.” 

As she went on to say, “There is value in those external events. The media rarely covers a phone bank.”

Anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 people showed up at the state capital on Oct. 22, according to various estimates. 

Sure enough, even mainstream media paid attention. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington explained in a recent piece, “Hero tops list in gay-marriage effort” (Nov. 11):  “Wind City Times exhorted them,” she wrote referring to the “diverse and deeply grassroots coalition” that turned up that day. 

“It was a one-two punch, in parallel with Illinois United for Marriage, the mainstream statewide coalition that was also pushing the bill,” wrote Washington, who went on to note that a former mayor’s liaison praised Baim, who “made the difference.” 

As Washington pointed out, “Tracy was busy organizing among youth, blacks, Latinos and women here and across the state culminating in the march, which visually demonstrated that the bill was not an exclusively Boys Town issue.”  (Chicago’s Boys Town neighborhood is the city’s most visibly gay area.)

Oddly enough, the local gay establishment did not buy into the march idea.

“I got frustrated when I got turned down by the coalition,” Baim said, referring to Illinois United for Marriage. “I had to take off my journalistic hat and editorial-writing hat and say maybe they [coalition leaders] don’t understand how big this could be. I trust and have faith in the citizens of Illinois, the LGBT people and our allies. Maybe they [coalition leaders] don’t have a sense, especially given the anger over May 31, that people will actually show up.”

Nevertheless, Baim said, her activist role as march organizer put WCT reporters in an “awkward position” even though “we are considered an advocacy press” as “we come at journalism with a gay lens that gay is positive.”

For march coverage, she explained, reporters Kate Sosin and Matt Simonette “did their own stories,” covering “what was said at the march,” as well as  WCT “running photos” and providing live “video streams that allowed people around the world to watch.”

“We were pretty transparent about the budget, too,” Baim said. “There was no bloated infrastructure to deal with, and we were bipartisan in who we invited to speak, representative of all aspects of the community.”

For his part, Matt Simonette “did not approach [coverage] any differently than other stories even though Tracy had a hand in the events,” he said over the telephone.

A freelancer for WCT until he came onboard full time in late September, Simonette added, “I didn’t feel like we were being asked to sell the idea of the march. It didn’t feel like I was working around any awkwardness.”

However, it was complicated for reporter Kate Sosin insofar as “the tension between the march and Illinois United for Marriage and Greg Harris,” she said during a telephone interview. “Tracy being very critical of him and being very public about that.”

Approaching Harris and others Tracy criticized was “tricky,” Sosin said, having to remind them “Tracy is Tracy, and I am a reporter covering the story itself.”

Like Baim, Sosin credits three forces at play for the big win in Springfield on Nov. 5: “Tracy’s grassroots strategy, field operations and the Illinois political push.”

“How this bill passed with those three sort of strategies pushing is the interesting part of this story,” said Sosin.

At the end of the day then, what’s a take-away message for gay media?

“There are rare circumstances where the pressure you exert as an editorial writer sometimes takes itself off the paper and into the realm of either sponsoring or supporting events,” Baim explained, “In my case, running it.”

“I didn’t do it lightly,” she said, “mostly thinking of my own reporters and the position I was putting them in.”

Still, Baim said, “I don’t regret it at all.”

Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal lauds the role Baim played in marriage equality efforts in Illinois. 

“We’re LGBT publications,” he said over the telephone. “That in and of itself means we’re advocacy. Is there any LGBT publication out there that does not support full and equal rights for LGBT people?”

“If you are advocacy journalism, you should advocate,” explained Segal, adding in the same breath, “Advocacy journalism does not mean you don’t report news unbiasedly.”

To be sure, said Segal, “It’s not our job in media as full-time professionals to co-opt and be involved. It’s our job to report. ... Many of us were and remain activists and therefore are involved. As a rule of thumb, if you are writing a story about a subject and your publisher or any reporters are involved, you must disclose that person’s involvement.”

On balance, Segal said, “For advocacy journalism, what Tracy did was absolutely correct, and I commend her for it.”

TOP STORY
Volume 15
Issue 8