Monday, October 05, 2009

Here's to whatever comes next

By David Heinzmann

I always get annoyed when I have to listen to someone with deep ideological leanings—more often than not they are to the right—harangue the press for its perceived liberal biases. Most of the good political reporters I know have been around long enough, and seen enough of the sausage being made, that they really don’t lean one way or the other. In fact they all lean heavily in the same direction—toward general skepticism.

Along the same lines, in the last weeks of my time covering Chicago’s failed Olympic bid, people kept asking me whether I was for or against the city winning the 2016 Summer Games. I had a hard time persuading some of them that I really felt disinterested in the outcome last Friday in Copenhagen.

When the word came in that Chicago had been knocked out of the competition by International Olympic Committee members in the first round of voting, I was as shocked as anybody. But I didn’t feel disappointed or elated. I merely felt the urgency needed to get our first report ready and posted online.

I was sitting at a keyboard in the Tribune newsroom, playing the role of rewrite guy, taking reporters feeds from Copenhagen and Daley Plaza, cleaning them up and fitting them into our stories going online.

When the smoke cleared after lunch, a colleague and I sat down to rewrite the Sunday “now what?” story we had already prepared. Before the IOC vote, the story had been geared to telling readers what to look for first as Chicago started to build up for the Games. We rewrote it to tell people what little lasting legacy there would be in the wake of the failed bid.

Mostly, the answer to that question is the 37-acre Michael Reese Hospital campus on the near South Side, which the city paid $86 million for in anticipation that developers would snap it up to build the Olympic Village. Now, it will be developed as regular old real estate, and since Chicago didn’t get the Games, the price for the land goes up to $91 million. And real estate experts say that, in this market, no developer is going to want to touch that land for about five years.

Covering the Olympics would have been a roller coaster ride, for sure. But by the same token, seven years is a long time to report about the buildup to anything. One of my first jobs in journalism was working in the Associated Press’ Atlanta bureau two years before the 1996 Olympics there. I covered a lot of Atlanta Committee to Organize the Games press conferences and don’t remember relishing any of them.

My firmest memory of that time is one Saturday morning sitting in a conference room at the ACOG headquarters for a “press conference” with IOC officials. When I got there, it was me, three or four other reporters and a handful of TV cameramen, our attention directed to the speakerphone sitting on top of the polished wood conference table. The IOC members were on the line from Switzerland. I’ll never forget those poor TV guys focusing their cameras in on that speakerphone in an empty room.

In the aftermath of the Chicago bid, there could be some good stories. For instance, what discussions went on between bid chairman Pat Ryan, Mayor Daley and the White House? Did Chicago people promise the White House that it was safe for President Obama to go to Copenhagen because the city had the votes? On Meet the Press yesterday, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post suggested as much. And as he pointed out, boy, were they wrong.

But that’s not likely to be my story. On Friday, I gave a phone interview to BBC radio on the Olympic decision. I had figured I would be asked about the reaction in Chicago, but when the interview started—live—I was thrown into the role of national political analyst. All they wanted to know was how damaging this incident would be to Obama’s efforts to pass health care legislation. I winged it.

Anyway, there are plenty of next stories out there. And I will admit to being a bit relieved to have a normal work schedule back for a bit. My novel, A Word to the Wise, comes out in two months and I really need to spend some of my energy focusing on getting out there and pushing it.

I start in earnest this weekend, heading to Booked for Murder in Madison for an event Friday night, and then to Books & Co. in Oconomowoc on Saturday. And I’m hoping to meet a bunch of you, readers and fellow bloggers, at Bouchercon the following week.