Just how realistic are “reality” series, anyway? Every broadcaster features these shows because it avoids having to pay actors their SAG-AFTRA rates to be on screen, and at least in theory avoids having to pay writers, too. That’s only in theory, because most of these shows are not entirely unscripted. That turns out to be the case in Chicago, too, as the Tribune discovered when it went through e-mails between Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office and the producers of the supposedly “unscripted” CNN docu-series Chicagoland:
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.
The Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart starts off the review of the e-mails with a custom-ordered shot from executive producer Marc Levin to Emanuel’s office, which the mayor delivered at the apex of the debate over closing 50 Chicago 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.
Needless to say, this violates a key ethos in both news coverage and documentary filmmaking. Documentarians and journalists are on hand to record events, not to shape them or to script them altogether. This crosses the line from documentary to propaganda, and it’s not even a tough call where Levin ends up.
Levin shrugs this off by claiming that Emanuel’s people didn’t have editorial control:
“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’s a dodge, though. Getting friendly with the mayor to gain access is part of the trade. Scripting shots to make the documentary subject look good is propaganda, not a documentary or “reality TV.” And that’s not exactly a singular example, either. Another executive producer e-mailed Emanuel’s office to set up a visit to a school in order to “get more Rahm in the series,” promising that “Rahm will look good making ‘his’ points.” The single-quotes around his comes from the producer, making it pretty clear that the documentarians wanted to use Rahm to make their points.
If CNN and these filmmakers wanted to produce that kind of series, they should have been honest about it. This is a serious error for a news channel to make, and CNN should answer for the dishonest presentation that these e-mails expose.
Update: Breitbart’s John Nolte calls this “yet another black eye for Jeff Zucker”:
Under his leadership, CNN has become a laughingstock, even among its left-wing colleagues in the mainstream media, for its bungled attempts to cover serious news and bizarre obsessions with whales, missing planes, and ferry disasters.
Just last year, CNN was caught using its network to push anti-gun legislation.
CNN presents itself as an objective cable news outlet.