Rahm Emanuel, the scandal-plagued mayor of Chicago who passed on seeking reelection last year once it became clear that most of his constituents despised him, left his office for the last time on Friday. But worry not: He’s already lined up cushy gigs as a commentator for ABC News and The Atlantic. It’s unconscionable — and yet entirely foreseeable — that two of the nation’s most prestigious media outlets gave Emanuel a soft landing and a platform from which to pontificate on public affairs. And as he settles into his new role as a pundit, he’s setting a high bar for brazenness by lamenting that the nation's elites suffer no consequences for their irresponsible actions.
“It’s time to hold American elites accountable for their abuses” is the headline for Emanuel’s first essay as a contributing editor for The Atlantic. “The elite get all the breaks and are shown all the shortcuts,” writes the wealthy former White House chief of staff, U.S. congressman, and investment banking executive, without any apparent irony. “In the meantime, ordinary people are forced to pay full freight.”
But the elite accountability Emanuel now champions hinges on the ability of “ordinary people” to know what their leaders are doing — something Emanuel did everything he could to stymie during his eight years as mayor. As his administration worked to benefit the city’s wealthy at the expense of its poor and middle class residents, it maintained a seemingly monomaniacal opposition to fulfilling the public records requests from news outlets and activists.
This pattern of stonewalling crested with the cover-up that followed the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. For more than a year, Emanuel's administration withheld graphic video of the shooting that contradicted its initial accounts. By the time a reporter’s lawsuit finally forced the disclosure of the video in November 2015, Emanuel had been reelected.
Emanuel did subsequently face accountability from the “ordinary — the video’s release started a downward spiral from which his popularity never recovered, leading to his decision last year not to seek a third term.
But public opprobrium isn’t enough to hold elites accountable if other elites are willing to shower them with wealth and prestige after their disgrace. And the elites who run ABC News and The Atlantic were apparently much more willing than the voters to forgive someone who helped cover up the police killing of a teenager. Those outlets aren’t alone — Emanuel was also reportedly courted by MSNBC and CNN, among others, before taking the ABC job. Editors and news executives get to set the boundaries for what behavior they are willing to accept from commentators, and apparently concealing the truth about a dead Black teenager falls within them.
This is shameful but unsurprising. Emanuel’s hire is emblematic of the amoral revolving door between politics and journalism, in which former politicos are hired by major media outlets with little concern for ethical issues. As with Emanuel, news outlets seem willing to ignore the potential employee’s past dealings with the press, hiring people with a history of defending crackdowns on leakers or demonstrating open hostility toward — and even engaging in physical altercations with — reporters. Nor do outlets seem overly concerned with whether newly minted pundits are legally barred from criticizing the administration in which they served or are still on the payroll of the politician they were hired to discuss.
But the problem goes much deeper than the ranks of the pundits.
Eminent journalists may wax poetic about the importance of their industry in exposing the misdeeds of the powerful, but the industry itself is often woefully unwilling to hold its own members accountable, particularly where its most celebrated figures are concerned.
A seemingly endless series of #MeToo reports has exposed not only that some of the nation’s most prominent male journalists were able to prey on their coworkers and colleagues for years, but also that managers were often aware of the despicable, illegal behavior and did little to curtail it. Faced with scrutiny from other reporters, some outlets closed ranks around their stars and attempted to lawyer the stories to death, with some success. And even in cases where diligent reporting publicly revealed what those men had done and forced their firings, before too long they were floating comebacks and receiving sympathetic profiles and calls for their rehabilitation and return.
Any list of journalistic sins would have to include fabrication and plagiarism right at the top, and each has claimed the careers of many a violator. But the ongoing careers of Brian Williams and Fareed Zakaria show that if you are a big enough media star, you can overcome even those sins. A mere four years after Williams lost his job anchoring NBC’s "Nightly News" by making up a story about his helicopter being fired upon while he was covering the invasion of Iraq, he has his own MSNBC show, anchors the network’s coverage when major news breaks, and has resumed pitching NBC News to advertisers at the annual upfronts. Zakaria, meanwhile, survived the revelation that he had “made a years-long practice of weaving whole sentences and quotes from other publications into his work,” hanging on to his print and cable news platforms.
“Every one of us should have to live by the same moral and ethical codes,” Emanuel writes in his essay for The Atlantic. How lucky Emanuel is to have landed in an industry whose elites place so little emphasis on practicing what you preach.