Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog



By Shawn Healy
I'm often teased by my coworkers for my admiration of the intellect and scholarship of Cass Sunstein, a law professor at Harvard and head of the Obama White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His work transcends ideology, applying intuitive solutions to perplexing problems, and representing the ever elusive "third way" in our polarized political environment. His latest work, Nudge (co-authored with University of Chicago Business Professor Richard Thaler), stands as an exemplar of his growing body of trailblazing work.

Sunstein and Thaler build a model premised on "libertarian paternalism," at oxymoron at first blush, but a middle path between an unencumbered free market championed by the right and the command and control ideals of the left. It is libertarian in the sense that it enables individual choice, but paternal in that it attempts to influence choices via financial incentives, explicit encouragement, or at minimum, a default setting. In many cases the government would be the body charged with providing a "nudge," but there is a role for the private sector, too.

The authors begin with an example of the way in which food is arranged in a school cafeteria and how it impacts student purchases. As a former high school teacher and lunchroom supervisor, I was appalled by the two most popular student lunch selections each and every day: 1) pizza and an order of fries, or 2) skip the pizza, but double the fry order. According to Sunstein and Thaler, the sequence and height of food placement matter, and if we are concerned about the intake of caloric content and healthy alternatives among our youth, subtle manipulations can result in reduced childhood obesity and related health problems upon entering adulthood. By simply placing the pizza and fries later in the cafeteria line and offering salads in their place, the school would notice significant dietary changes among the student body.

Sunstein and Thaler delve into choice architecture, the process by which humans make decisions. In a perfect world, we are all rational consumers with complete information and make reflective decisions along these lines. The reality is that rationality is "bounded," and we are forced to operate with incomplete facts and time constraints that impair optimal outcomes. Many of our decisions are automatic with outright disregard for logic.

This is where private or public entities can enter with a nudge, constructing a choice architecture that accounts for human limitations, yet yielding the ideal outcome predicted by economic maximizers (or something close to it). Some fervent opponents of government intervention stop the conversation here, but the authors argue that the public sector is already a major player in private decision making, and even imperfect government intervention will produce a superior final outcome when compared to the status quo.

The framework in place, Sunstein and Thaler apply it to several diverse policy areas, from Social Security privatization to prescription drug benefits, greenhouse gases to gay marriage. They are skepital of the Social Security plan championed by former President Bush, suggesting that we need a sounder choice architecture, perhaps like that employed in Switzerland. As for prescription drugs, they are critical of the new entitlement plan in the sense that it assigns participating individuals providers randomly, failing to take into account pricing and effectiveness. Their plan to tackle carbon dioxide pollution sounds a lot like the cap and trade program circling its way through Congress, and they seek a divorce between the religious institution of marriage and the government civil union alternative.

Their most timely offering addresses health care reform, and they focus on a proposal popular in Republican circles, tort reform. Their plan, however, diverges significantly from the caps on punitive damages most often reflected in legislative proposals. Instead, the authors would separate medical liability from health care entirely. Patients could opt out of their right to sue in exchange for more economical procedures. Those who refuse the waiver would pay higher costs to reflect the real impact that lawsuits and the threat of them have on the system as a whole. Sunstein and Thaler suggest that we are all currently forced to subsidize the small minority of affected patients who do pursue legal recourse, and it inflates costs across the board. Interesting enough, President Obama has opened the door to some form of mediation between doctors and lawyers on this front in an effort to secure bipartisan support for his larger health care overhaul.

Outside of these major proposals, their mini suggestions are many, from a "Give More Tomorrow Plan" for charities, to gambling self-bans, to a dollar a day to prevent recurring teenage pregnancies. In a bonus chapter for the paperback addition, the authors listed twenty more nudges that came from readers who posted to their blog. Sunstein and Thaler are clearly on to something here, and they urge us to join the discussion and form collective solutions.

At a minimum, Nudge presents everyday decisions in a new light, recognizing that the economic man is an ideal, yet we are all closer to Homer Simpson in reality. It forces us to revisit retirement planning, health care consumption, and where we send our kids to school. More than anything, it sheds additional sunlight on complex decisionmaking processes. Given that Sunstein is situated in a place where he can bend the president's ear, it is likely that even the Commander-in-Chief will be nudged toward a few of these policy solutions, a result this reader considers a net positive.


Media Matters and Manners

By Shawn Healy
The beleaguered media industry weathered one more shot in a national survey released by Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. In a wide ranging telephone poll of 800 respondents, Americans' trust, media consumption habits, and perceptions of bias were placed under the microscope. Respondents also weighed in on the future of the field. My analysis of the results follow.

Trust in media is waning, with less than a quarter of respondents (24.3%) reporting that they believe all or most media coverage. Over half (54%) believe some of the content, and one-fifth (20.4%) little or none. An astounding 86.6% strongly or somewhat believe that the media has its own political and public policy position and attempts to influence its audiences along these lines.

This overall lack of trust is arguably attributable to Americans' increasing leeriness toward large institutions, the government included. The spring tea parties and the summer town hall shouting matches are also a product of this populist fervor.

When asked what news organizations they trusted most, respondents cited Fox News (30%) most often, followed by CNN (19.5%), NBC (7.5%), and ABC (7.5%). Fox News was also ranked highest by its detractors, as more than a quarter of respondents (26.2%) listed it as the source they trusted least.

The Daily Show/ Colbert Report were identified as the most ideologically liberal, followed by the New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, USA Today, and NPR. Fox News, then the Wall Street Journal, lead the conservative-leaning list.

While the print and electronic media register much more trust for accuracy than blogs (56.1% to 7.8%), the industry's overall positive ranking languished at 35.9%, well below the 80-90% customer service standard sought by most organizations.

Media consumption habits are well documented by Nielson and other organizations, but this survey sheds light on what drives the selection process among competing alternatives. Objective reporting (59%) is far and away the most powerful force, with similar issue positions taking a distant back seat (19%).

The fact that respondents identified prevalent media bias is not news in these circles, but the numbers themselves are staggering. 83.6% of survey participants feel as if national media organizations are somewhat or very biased. Only 14.1% see little or no bias. Most interesting is the 89.3% who suggest that the media palyed a very or somewhat strong role in the election of President Obama, and 69.9% feel that the national news media is intent on promoting his presidential agenda.

Looking toward the future, 38.1% report that they read newspapers less often than they did five years ago, and 45% feel that the Internet has filled the gap (35.6% disagreed). A strong majority (77.9%) oppose government intervention to prop up the struggling industry. More than two-thirds (67.9%) feel that "old-style, traditionally fair and objective journalism is dead," yet a similar number (64.1%) consider journalism vital to a healthy democracy.

Something has to give here, and I'm hopeful for the adaptation and sustenance of the media industry. We should find comfort that survey respondents recognize its importance, and demand a return to the age-old industry values that are arguably eroding before our eyes. Some would argue that the industry is conforming to the demands of a changing market, but the contradictions present in this survey argue otherwise. The problem is multifaceted and involves consumers, too. They must become more media literate and demand the restoration of "traditionally fair and objective journalism" in 21st Century packages.



By Shawn Healy

The Illinois Supreme Court in Chicago was filled with educators and policy-makers this morning as Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, in partnership with the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and the McCormick Freedom Museum recognized three exceptional Illinois high schools as Democracy Schools. Illinois Democracy Schools are accredited secondary schools that provide students with authentic experiences in the rights, responsibilities, and tensions inherent in living in a constitutional democracy. The three high schools that have earned this distinction in 2009 include:
  • Glenbard South, Glen Ellyn, IL
  • Maine West, Des Plaines, IL
  • Wheaton North, Wheaton, IL

Governor Pat Quinn sent a letter congratulating the schools and recognizing the vital importance of the civic mission of schools.

Each of the schools received a plague signed by the Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, Jesse Ruiz, the Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Thomas Fitzgerald, and the schools’ state legislators—Senator Dan Cronin and Rep. Sandra Philos for Glenbard South; Senator Dan Kotowski and Rep. Rosemary Mulligan for Maine West; and Senator Carole Pankau and Rep. Franco Coladipietro for Wheaton North.

Democracy Schools provide numerous opportunities for students to participate in the democratic process through a range of classes and clubs. From class discussion on current issues and democratic simulations to extracurricular and service learning opportunities, students are able to experience first-hand the critical role they can play in shaping their government and society.

“The McCormick Freedom Museum’s mission is to enable informed participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom,” said Shawn Healy, managing director, McCormick Freedom Museum. “Reincorporating civics into the curricula of our secondary schools is vital to advancing our mission and sustaining democracy in Illinois and beyond. The committed students, teachers, administrators, and school board members of Glenbard South, Maine West, and Wheaton North exemplify this cause and should be commended for joining the growing ranks of Illinois Democracy Schools.”

“The climate for reform couldn’t be more promising,” said Healy. “In 2008, more than 6.5 million young people under the age of 30 voted in the presidential election, which is a 17 percent increase from the 2000 election. This is the perfect time to capitalize on this excitement and channel this interest into a lifelong commitment to civic engagement.”

“Illinois has several outstanding examples of high schools committed to their civic mission,” said Carolyn Pereira, chair, Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and executive director, Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago. “Our goal, along with the Freedom Museum, is to increase the number of Democracy Schools in Illinois by working with policy-makers and educators to ensure all Illinois high schools become Democracy Schools.”


ISBE Endorses Civic Blueprint

By Shawn Healy

This morning, on Constitution Day, the Illinois State Board of Education passed a resolution endorsing the Civic Blueprint for Illinois High Schools. The text of the resolution follows, and pictured above are four Illinois Civic Mission Coalition members (Carolyn Pereira, center left, and Dee Runaas, far left, of the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, Cynthia Woods, second from left, of the Illinois Association of School Boards, and me, Shawn Healy, of the McCormick Freedom Museum) and the State Board of Education, including Board Chair Jesse Ruiz (center-right).

Recognizing the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the McCormick Foundation
for the Illinois Civic Blueprint for Illinois High Schools

Whereas, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition is a broad, non-partisan consortium including
educators, administrators, students, universities, elected officials, policymakers and
representatives from the private and non-profit sectors; and

Whereas, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition is a part of the Campaign for the Civic
Mission of Schools, a national initiative to restore a core purpose of education to prepare
America’s youngest citizens to be informed and active participants in our democracy; and

Whereas, quality civic education opportunities are vital for all students and should be part of
every student’s school experience at every grade level; and

Whereas, the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the McCormick Foundation sponsored
an Educating for Democracy conference on February 9-10, 2009, attended by members of
the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, leaders of state civic education organizations, and
educators to advance the cause of civic education in the State of Illinois; and

Whereas, a civic blueprint was created to guide Illinois High Schools in their role to encourage
students to become active and informed citizens of our democracy as part of the Educating for
Democracy conference; and

Whereas, the Civic Blueprint for Illinois High Schools is designed to give educators,
policymakers, parents and all residents of Illinois promising approaches to high school level
civic education, examples of Illinois high schools, educators and students using these
approaches, recommendations for implementing these approaches in high schools across Illinois,
and resources that support schools and communities in promoting the civic engagement of
Illinois High School Students;

Therefore, be it resolved that the Illinois State Board of Education recognizes the
Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the McCormick Foundation for their efforts in
developing the Civic Blueprint for Illinois High Schools.


Survivors of war in Sudan reflect on past and look toward future

By Jamie Loo

(left to right) Malual Awak, Peter Bul, Neima Tarifa, and John Dut from the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois speak about surviving the Sudanese civil war at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie on Thursday.

Advocates say U.S. needs to keep pressure on country for fair elections in 2010.

By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter

Go back to your childhood.

Imagine being age 6, 7 or 8 years-old and playing with your friends outside. Suddenly, you hear gunfire and bombs. You go home to find your house on fire and your parents being arrested. You make a run for it through the fields staying off the roads because the military and police are there.

Soon, you find other children also fleeing from the militias. As you continue walking you find more children, until your numbers swell to 27,000. Older children, ages 10 and 11, become the leaders of the group. The group reaches a river. Some of the children try to cross on bridges and are gunned down. Others try to swim across. About 11,000 die trying to cross that river.

The children sleep where they can, eat when they can, often traveling at night to stay undercover. If there’s nothing to eat, you eat mud and grass. Many die along the way, and with no adults around the children bury their dead. Eventually about 10,000 children make it to a refugee camp. You’re given one cup of corn twice per month to eat.

It’s the story of the 27,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan” who were displaced during the Sudanese civil war between 1983 and 2005, which by some estimates killed up to 2 million people. These children made perilous journeys from Sudan to refugee camps in neighboring African countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, which is the rough equivalent of walking from Chicago to Denver.

Four of the survivors shared their stories, talked about life in the United States and views about U.S. policy toward Sudan, in a program at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie on Thursday.

The youngest of nine children, Peter Bul said he was 6 years-old when he left Sudan in 1988 with his mother. After six days, his mother collapsed and couldn’t go any further. He said aid truck carrying water was going to a nearby village, so it took Bul’s mother to get medical help. Bul continued on with the other children for three months.

“A lot of children died along the way. I didn’t want to die so I tried my best, I worked,” he said. “We buried children along the way.”

He stayed in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for about four years. In 1991 there was a war in Ethiopia, so Bul started to travel back to Sudan. There was still violence in Sudan, so he fled again, this time arriving in Kenya in 1992 where he lived in a refugee camp for nine years. The U.S. offered to take 4,000 of the Lost Boys in 2001, and Bul said he was among the lucky group. He arrived in Chicago in April 2001.

Bul, who serves on the board of directors for the Chicago Association of Lost Boys of Sudan and Sudanese Community Association of Illinois, has helped to start a school in Sudan which now has 1,000 students. Sudan is the largest country in Africa, with hundreds of tribes and languages. This cultural and language diversity, along with lack of education means that many Sudanese cannot communicate with each other. By providing education about the country’s diversity and history, Bul said he hopes future generations can learn to live together in peace.

Malual Awak, president of the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois, said he was in high school in 1986 when he walked to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to live in a displacement camp. Awak walked to Liberia in 1987 where he had relatives and stayed until 1990 when civil war broke out there. He then sought safety in Ghana. In the mid ‘90s the U.S. government offered to help some refugees leave the country. Awak came to Chicago in 1995. He worked as a dishwasher through college and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1999.

“I loved that job because it was the first job I had in my life,” he said. “I didn’t have anything before that.”

Bul and Awak said Illinois has many war survivors because there is a strong Sudanese community network and supportive U.S. citizens in the state. The Chicago Association for the Lost Boys of Sudan (CALBOS) offers services such as mentoring opportunities, career counseling, medical, emotional and education support. The Sudanese Community Center of Illinois helps all residents of Sudanese descent with social services and leads local efforts to advocate for change in Sudan.

At age 10, John Dut was considered an elder among a group of Lost Boys in 1987. He fled to Ethiopia for five years before returning to Sudan, only to have to flee again to Kenya. When he was in high school in Kenya, Dut said he remembers the U.S. providing aid to the refugee camps. He came to the U.S. in 2001 and is currently working on his master’s degree in business administration.

Neima Tarifa said the war also had “lost girls,” some who traveled with the lost boys and ended up in Kenya and Uganda. The U.S. also helped bring these girls to the U.S., she said, and most of them ended up in Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Tarifa left Sudan in 1999, living in Egypt for two years before coming to the U.S. She is going to school and raising four children.

Bul said he is worried that the upcoming elections will lead to another civil war. The country is supposed to hold a presidential and parliamentary election in 2010, which is the first national election to include southern Sudan in 40 years, according to the Associated Press. The current president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, took over the country in a military coup in 1989 and became president in 1993. In March, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, was in Sudan last week to continue bilateral discussions with the National Congress Party (NCP) and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Although a peace agreement was signed in 2005, implementation of parts of the agreement has been met with resistance. Gration has been criticized by some human rights groups for being too soft on the NCP, which perpetrated the genocide in Darfur. The Obama administration is expected to announce its policy on Sudan soon, according to media reports.

Bul said he is disappointed at the administration’s slow pace on developing the Sudan policy. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Bul said he campaigned for Obama because the then-candidate said he cared about international issues like the crisis in Sudan.

Gration has talked about easing some sanctions to try to create a better relationship with the Sudanese government, Bul said, but he doesn’t think this should happen until after the election. He said Obama should put some pressure on Bashir to make sure a fair election happens before trying to improve relationships. Bashir will not give up power easily, Bul said, and part of the reason for the war in Darfur is because Bashir doesn’t want the people there to vote.

Dut said Obama’s policy should have steps to ensure free elections and equal rights. Religion and politics are too tied together in Sudan and need to be separated, he said.

Tarifa said real change can’t happen in diplomatic documents, and must be concrete through development. In southern Sudan there are few schools, no hospitals and no clean water, she said. Tarifa said for those lucky enough to go to school, “you can find a class of 200 students in one class.”

The most important thing Obama can do is to make sure a peace agreement is reached between the north and the south, and implemented, Awak said. That peace agreement will help bring peace in Darfur, he said, which needs a larger peacekeeping force to help the United Nations African Union force in Darfur (UNAMID). UNAMID had 16,961 peacekeeping personnel in Darfur from 39 countries at the end of July.

Awak, Bul, Tarifa and Dut said they share their stories to raise awareness about the situation in Sudan. Dut said after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks some U.S. citizens treated the Sudanese like terrorists, so the opportunity to talk to people about their history is important. Dut said residents should also contact politicians to tell them that Sudan needs to be a priority. As the Sudanese and their supporters become a larger, and more vocal voting block, Dut said more legislators are noticing them. He said they’ve been telling legislators to keep an eye on the Sudanese elections and do everything possible to prevent war in the country.

“Our goal is to make sure that what we have gone through should not happen to other generations,” Awak said.

SIDEBAR: Sudan’s conflicts

Malual Awak said after Sudan gained its independence from England in 1956 the country had a civil war for 17 years. After a period of peace, war broke out again in 1983. Awak said the country had an “identity crisis” trying to figure out if it was an African or Arab country. Then when oil was discovered in the south, he said things became more complicated because more international interests were involved. Religion plays a big role in Sudanese culture which has fed the larger conflict. Sudan has Christians, Muslims, and many other religions.

Peter Bul said the fight over natural resources is one of the focal points of the conflict. Money from oil has gone primarily toward the northern part of the country for development, he said, leaving Darfur and the south poor. Bul claims that Bashir knew long ago there was a possibility of civil war again between the north and south, and that Darfur probably wouldn’t support him. Instead of fighting a war with Darfur later, Bul said he thinks Bashir tried to wipe out the people through the genocide which began in 2003. Former United Nations African Union peacekeeping commander, Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, told Agence France-Presse in August that although the war is over in Darfur, the region still has security and humanitarian problems. Thousands of refugees are still living in camps across the border in Chad.

In 2005, the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed which ended the civil war and triggered a six year interim joint power sharing period between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Elections will take place next year, and in 2011 a referendum will be held in southern Sudan to determine whether it should secede from the north.

On the Web

To learn more about the Sudanese community in Illinois, visit the Sudanese Community Association of Illinois Web site,

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Packing the Court

By Shawn Healy
The U.S. Supreme Court prematurely kicked off its 2009-2010 term with a special hearing last week of a rescheduled challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. They focused specifically on a ban of corporate-sponsored communication, in this case "Hillary: The Movie," considering whether it violates the First Amendment's freedom of speech. The ruling is likely weeks or even months away, but a 5-4 majority appears poised to further peel back this 2002 landmark legislation and unravel past Supreme Court precedents upholding the law and the larger concepts of corporate bans. This trend is not unique to our time, but is the product of judicial review, a power the Supreme Court assumed for itself in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison.

James MacGregor Burns, in his latest book Packing the Court (2009, Penguin Press), suggests that the Court strayed from its initial bearings early on when Chief Justice Marshall carved out an institutional duty to strike down state and national laws that violate the Constitution. He is right that the Supreme Court, from its inception, was the most inferior of the three branches. Article III of the Constitution, which created the Court, is notable only for its brevity and delegation of authority for establishing the federal courts and their jurisdiction to Congress. Judicial review is altogether missing, and the bane of Burns' existence for the duration of this work.

Burns' problem with judicial review is that it is fundamentally undemocratic. Supreme Court justices are unelected and appointed to lifetime terms. They have no regular accountability to the people outside of the court of public opinion. Their tenures most often outlive the presidents who nominated them and the Senators who voted to confirm them. Throughout our history, it is quite common for a majority on the Court to nix the achievements of a President and Congress with agendas on the ideologically opposite poles.

The author's argument breaks down on account of the fact that the Court was undemocratic by design. The Constitution at heart is a fundamentally conservative document. Through separated and shared powers, and strategically positioned checks and balances, the democratic will is sometimes stymied, and the pace of inevitable change glacial.

Moreover, it's hard to argue that the Supreme Court doesn't have a duty to strike down laws that conflict with the government's foundational document. If these nine men and women are not so empowered, who will wield this necessary sword? Here lies the fatal flaw in Burns' book. He fails to offer an alternative vision for the daily doings of the Court. If not judicial review, then what? Certainly, he would allow for justices to determine the meaning of the Constitution, but then turn around and neuter them when an act of Congress or presidential excutive order violates its basic tenets?

At play here is the proverbial elephant in the room. The Supreme Court is held high as an institution where political party and ideology are checked at the door and the brethren in their majestic robes search for the original meaning of the Constitution, or its contemporary relevance, through textual interpretation and the evolution of common law. The reality is that the vast majority of justices share the same political party and/ or ideology as the president who appointed them, and employ these beliefs in their daily doings. Justices' terms on the bench are increasingly lengthy, making it likely that they will serve under presidents and Congresses with divergent views, and during changing political climates.

Such a scenario is currently unfolding. Six of the nine contemporary justices were appointed by Republican presidents. One, John Paul Stevens, has since drifted to the left ideologically and become the leader of the liberal wing of the Court (Ginsberg, Breyer, and most likely Sotomayor), but the remaining five represent a fairly reliable conservative majority (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito). Obama is arguably the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson, and Congress is controlled by his Democratic Party. In the short term, conflict appears inevitable.

It is widely speculated that Justice Stevens is on the cusp of retirement, presenting Obama with his second Supreme Court appointment, but this would do little to change the ideological complexion of the body. The same is true of Justice Ginsberg. However, should Obama win reelection, conservative Justices Scalia and/ or Kennedy may also leave the bench, providing Obama with an opening to consolidate a left-of-center majority more supportive of his agenda.

Elections have consequences, and the current Court is a product of them. Burns would be wise to heed their results and respect the marvels of separation of powers and checks and balances embedded in our founding document.


Newspapers and Non-Profits: Rising from the Ashes?

By Andrew Miller

Present perils and feasible futures for the newspaper industry were the subject of a sometimes-sobering session hosted by the McCormick Freedom Museum at Columbia College’s School of Journalism in Chicago. The panel was introduced by David Hiller, current CEO of the McCormick Foundation and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and was moderated by Tim McNulty, veteran White House and international correspondent and current professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and the University of Chicago. Participants included Suzanne McBride, associate chair of Columbia College journalism school; Stephen Franklin, director of the Community Media Workshop and former international correspondent and labor journalist at the Chicago Tribune; and Adrian Holovaty, a young journalist, computer programmer, and creator of, which aggregates news and information specific to local neighborhoods.

Calling the future of newspapers “an urgent topic,” McNulty put an immediate stake in the ground before passing the microphone to Hiller. Hiller began by quoting Thomas Jefferson: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." Hiller called for more civic engagement and more discerning consumers of the news. McNulty followed by stressing the value of the First Amendment for any American who wanted to speak up and express ideas and opinions in a respectful, non-violent way.

The panelists all emphasized that people remain hungry for news, in spite of the devastating consequences of the recession on newspaper companies. McBride lamented the fact that fewer journalists are reporting now, although she expressed some hope for journalism in the Chicago area because of the increase in enrollment in journalism schools. McNulty cited a sobering statistic: “26,000 reporters and photojournalists have lost their jobs in the last 18 months.”

Adrian Holovaty addressed the battle between newspapers and their online competitors, pointing out that he uses 200 RSS feeds as well as Google Reader every day. He believes that city dailies should focus on local news rather than national and international news, since world news appears on Internet sources that can be updated quickly. He also pointed out that the smaller newspapers, including those in rural areas, are doing much better than the bigger ones. He downplayed the authority that newspapers once had.

The panel actively debated the “Twitter Revolution” and its positive and negative effects on the news. McBride and Holovaty called Twitter a “public forum” and praised Twitter’s role in actively engaging people in events and encouraging them to use their First Amendment rights. Holovaty said, “People are smarter than one thinks,” calling Twitter “truly free news” that had a role to play alongside newspapers.

Stephen Franklin, however, was skeptical, even wary, of Twitter’s outreach to a mostly younger generation. For example, he pointed out that even before Twitter, potentially damaging viral rumors existed which might have been made much worse if Twitter had existed. One anecdote in particular involved the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. Franklin said an “Arab” was initially blamed for the bombing and he recalled that there were reports of some men subsequently being beaten just because they looked like Arabs. He asked the other panelists: “What if they had Twitter back then?”

His fellow panelists replied that that was a “self-correcting process.” Franklin shook his head and replied, “How many people have to be injured or even die for it to be self-corrected?”

“Do you really think people would go around beating up people,” Holovaty said. He said “people have skepticism.”

Franklin said it’s important that sources have authority. Trying to counter him, an audience member later asked Franklin how he could trust The New York Times after the Valerie Plame CIA leak scandal and former reporter Jayson Blair’s plagiarism scandal.

“Newspapers are imperfect, but I still trust The New York Times,” Franklin said.

Franklin also noted that more Latino and African-American newspapers have closed due to the recession than their mainstream media counterparts. He extolled the deep penetration of newspapers in the Latino (90% penetration) and African-American communities (84%) over the past four years, praising the socially driven ethnic- based newspapers that “cut to the bone” on news with no fluff. Franklin said he has hope for the future of ethnic newspapers because there are still many non-English speaking elderly immigrants who depend on receiving news in their native language. He felt that newspaper companies should focus more on them.

Finally, Franklin steered the discussion into a relatively new, yet very plausible route for ensuring the future of newspapers: a scenario where non-profit organizations or civic-minded individuals would bail them out. Reasons for taking such a route might vary, but they would likely all center on civic responsibility and engagement. For example, multi-billionaire David Geffen spent roughly $200 million in May of 2009 for the 19.9% stake in the New York Times Company. According to BusinessWeek, Geffen took this step because he was born to immigrants, lived in New York, and read—and still does— The New York Times as he grew up. Geffen also was one of the failed bidders for the LA Times, losing to Sam Zell, who—for the time being—owns and runs both the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune.

In prognosticating the future of newspapers over the next quarter century, pessimism and optimism clashed. McNulty amused the crowd by saying: “I can’t even imagine 2-5 years.” He stated that he believes the industry will be smaller and more specialized and that sooner or later they would become like magazines. Holovaty also quipped that the future will be bright for news, just not news companies.

In the end, no one knows what will happen to newspapers down the road. The future is hazy, but some options are beginning to take shape: bankruptcy or liquidation or the more promising potential of non-profit conversions. The most disturbing possibility remains the death of professional news due to creeping civic apathy.


Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act gets a make-over

By Jamie Loo
New rules open doors to better government accountability.

By Jamie Loo
First Amendment reporter

Sweeping changes to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have been signed into the law, which open government advocates say will result in better access to public documents and more government transparency.

FOIA laws give residents the right to inspect documents on the public record such as meeting minutes, budgets, court documents and documents involved in the government decision making process. Freedom of information laws vary from state to state and generally apply to public bodies including city councils, boards and commissions, as well as some other entities that receive tax dollars. Although the federal FOIA was adopted in 1966, Illinois didn’t enact a state freedom of information law until 1984.

One of the key changes to the Illinois FOIA law is the state’s powers to enforce the law, said Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, which works on government accountability issues.

The law codifies the position of the Public Access Counselor (PAC) in the state attorney general’s office and empowers the counselor to enforce FOIA law. The public can file complaints and have them reviewed by the counselor for violations of the Open Meetings Act or the denial of records. The PAC has subpoena power and can compel public officials to cooperate in investigations. The Attorney General can issue advisory and binding opinions on disputes, and there are also civil penalties between $2,500 and $5,000 for public bodies that don’t comply with FOIA.

Illinois Press Association (IPA) director of government affairs, Beth Bennett, said these provisions provide important recourse for residents fighting to obtain public documents. Prior to the change, citizens had to take their cases directly to court. The new rules also require that a Freedom of Information Act request denial include “the specific reasons for the denial, including a detailed factual basis and a citation to supporting legal authority,” which is stronger language than the previous law.

The new measures include guidelines and deadlines for how public bodies handle FOIA requests. Public bodies are now required to have a Freedom of Information Act officer, who must complete a training course by the state on responsible processing and compliance with the statute. Pastika said only one other state in the Midwest requires FOIA training. The bill also shortens the response time for FOIA requests from seven to five business days. Public bodies must provide the first 50 pages of a document for free and photocopying fees after that are capped at 15 cents per page.

Bennett said the IPA, a trade association which represents daily and weekly newspapers, saw many good provisions that they’ve wanted for years enacted in the bill. For example, Bennett said settlements between public bodies and groups such as insurance companies were often sealed before, forcing journalists and the public to go to court to get those documents. Settlements are now considered public documents.

Public bodies often enter into contracts with outside entities for government work, Bennett said, and the courts had varying interpretations on whether these contracts were public. The law now clearly says that these contracts are open to the public, she said. The media often ran into problems obtaining arrest reports and criminal history records, Bennett said, so to work around the prior Illinois FOIA law the Media Arrest Report Law was passed. The FOIA law now includes language from that law, Bennett said.

There are some however, that are opposed to the changes such as the Illinois Municipal League which is a lobbying group that represents city and town governments.

In a letter to Gov. Pat Quinn, the league says that the new requirements will create an overwhelming burden on local officials who have to process Freedom of Information Act requests every day. Many municipalities have small staffs and the shortened time period to respond to requests will mean an increase in labor. Local governments have cut back on printing and copying to save money, and asking them to produce up to 50 pages of documents free of charge will hurt their budgets.

The IML noted that any court reviews of the PAC’s decisions must be filed in Cook County or downstate in Sangamon County, which would make it difficult for public bodies that are far from these counties to seek legal remedy. The law doesn’t have eligibility guidelines for the FOIA officers, which raises questions about appointment procedures and if there is a conflict of interest for the designee to hold other municipal positions. The league letter said the law also ignores the “legitimate needs of government to keep some information confidential” and doesn’t adequately protect government rights in the process. FOIA has been used as a “political tool not to gather information but to harass and harangue public officials,” which the IML claims were not recognized in the bill.

“I think more work needs to be done in the exemptions section,” Pastika said.

The Citizen Advocacy Center director said restrictions on what can be claimed under privacy exemptions have improved but overall Illinois still has more exempt documents than other states. Bennett, from the IPA, and Pastika said draft documents are still exempt and the law doesn’t define when a “preliminary document” becomes open to the public. Bennett said it’s also not clear when the disciplinary action records of public officials can be released, so for now those documents can be protected by personnel files.

SIDEBAR: Public set to benefit from FOIA changes

The Illinois Public Access Bureau received 1,389 total requests for assistance with the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law and Open Meetings Act (OMA) in 2008. The majority of the freedom of information cases came from members of the public who filed 231 requests for assistance from the state attorney general in obtaining records from public bodies; 290 FOIA requests for documents from the attorney general’s office; and made 173 phone inquiries. The attorney general’s office also received 128 written inquiries and 130 phone inquiries from the public on the OMA.

In both categories, members of the public made more requests than the media and government officials. Overall, the smaller number of requests from the media may be because professional journalists tend to be experts on the FOIA and OMA laws and therefore would have fewer questions for the attorney general’s office. Journalists also often resolve disputes over denied information requests and open meeting issues with public bodies before it reaches the level of the Public Access Bureau or the attorney general. Government officials contact the attorney general’s office about FOIA and OMA for a variety of reasons, such as how to apply the law to specific meetings and whether requested documents can be disclosed.

In FOIA cases, the media made 37 requests for help obtaining records from public bodies, 20 requests for internal attorney general documents and 23 phone inquiries.
Government officials made 123 phone calls with FOIA inquiries, 13 FOIA requests for attorney general documents and 26 asked for assistance obtaining documents from public bodies. The media filed 15 written requests and 14 phone inquiries about the OMA, and government officials made 127 calls and 39 written inquiries about the law.

On the Web:

To read highlights of the changes to the FOIA and OMA laws go to,

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Team of Rivals

By Shawn Healy
After years of procrastination, my honeymoon offered ample opportunity to tackle Doris Kearns Goodwin's monstrous assemblage (757 pages) on the Lincoln Administration, aptly titled Team of Rivals. I first encountered Goodwin as an undergrad when I was assigned Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. If unencumbered access characterized this breakthrough book, her latest biographical foray is punctuated by her thorough attention to previous scholarship on the four men central to the plot: Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln, and William H. Seward.

Each of these four men had a claim upon the 1860 Republican nomination for President, with Chase and Seward representing the more liberal elements of the fledgling party, and Bates the conservative counterpart. Lincoln positioned himself firmly at the center of a party bent on halting the expansion of slavery in new territories and states, and lucked into having the convention in his home state (the Wigwam in Chicago). As the multiple ballot process proceeded, the nomination turned into a two-man tug-of-war between Seward and Lincoln, with Honest Abe ultimately prevailing.

Lincoln wasted little time reuniting the party as it entered perhaps the most polarized election in history, calling upon his former rivals to campaign on his behalf. Upon victory, he quickly brought these very capable men into his administration, appointing Seward Secretary of State, Chase to Secretary of Treasury, and Bates as Attorney General. Over time, Seward and Lincoln would grow incredibly close, as the railsplitting prarie lawyer won the respect and admiration of the distinguished New York statesman. Bates and Lincoln enjoyed an amicable, if distant relationship, while Chase remained a conniving rival until Lincoln finally called his fourth bluff by accepting his resignation letter. The former Ohio Senator and Governor thought he rightfully deserved the 1860 nomination and continually plotted his course to steal it back four years later.

Throughout, Lincoln understand each man's strategic importance in his governing coalition and immense political talents they brought to the table. More than anything, Goodwin's portrait is one of remarkable leadership where the president placed his ego aside and massaged those of his inferiors. He refused to react rashly to adversity, assumed responsibility for all of his administration's actions, and patiently poked these men to lead the nation through its most trying chapter.

It should be said that Bates is little more than a bit player in Goodwin's narrative, and that Edwin Stanton, a Democrat, assumes the Secretary of War position in Lincoln's cabinet after Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania proved inadequate, and plays a central role in the plot from this point forward. Seward and Chase serve as perfect foils for the positives and pitfalls of Lincoln's approach to leadership. While Seward served ably and honorably, Chase sought to undermine his Commander-in-Chief at seemingly every juncture.

Paralllels to the Obama Administration proliferated last winter as he assembled his own leadership team. By absorbing former presidential rivals Joe Biden (VP), Hillary Clinton (Secretary of State), and Tom Vilsack (Secretary of Agriculture) into his adminitration, Obama, like Lincoln, tended to the wounds of the nomination process and unified his Democratic Party. The contingent would have been larger had Bill Richardson survived the pay-to-play allegations that surfaced in New Mexico. Obama also extended a hand to his rival Republicans, retaining Bush's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and appointing retiring Congressman Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation.

Obama's verdict is years forthcoming, but early returns point to mixed success. His first 100 days were enormously productive, but he ran into a rough patch this summer. Biden has taken the administration off message at many junctures, yet Clinton came on board and vigorously pursued Obama's foreign policy goals. It remains to be seen if she and others still harbor presidential ambitions, particularly if things continue to go south for the rookie president. Moreover, Obama's outreach to Republicans has failed to deliver the bipartisanship he vigorously touted throughout last year's campaign. Floor votes in Congress have been intensely polarized, and compromise remains elusive as they tackle health care reform, climate change, and before long, deficit reduction.

Goodwin showed us the benefits of presidents who surround themselves with talented rivals who question authority and enable coalition building. Lincoln's ultimate success was as much a tribute to his own leadership ability as it is to his cabinet's collective wisdom and experience. As his once express-driven agenda is crippled by congressional opponents, organized interests, and declining public opinion, Obama would be wise to heed both variables in this complicated equation.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at