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Why I’m standing on principle regarding the ‘Chicago Reader’

For several months, followers of a controversy at the Chicago Reader have been misled. They have been told that an evil co-owner, Leonard Goodman, wants to shut the paper down over a dispute regarding a column he wrote.

As a Reader board member and editor and publisher of The Crusader Newspaper Group, I have had a front row seat to the events that unfolded. And I find myself in the somewhat unique position of vigorously defending Goodman, a wealthy Chicago attorney with anti-establishment, sometimes conservative-leaning views. I also find myself muddied in the process — named and disparaged in an op-ed by Reader staff members Philip Montoro, Micco Caporale, Leor Galil and Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel published in the Chicago Tribune on April 14. In it, they call me a mere “proxy” for Goodman, implying that I don’t think for myself or understand the stalemate that has gripped the Reader for several months.

As a leading voice in the newspaper world, as one of the first and only Black women publishers in Chicago, as a champion for my community, I feel obligated to set the record straight.

Goodman rescued the Reader in 2018 with real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom. They bought the paper for $1, assumed its debts and kept it operating. I joined the Reader to oversee its board in 2018 at the invitation of Higginbottom. The notion of getting involved at the Reader appealed to me for several reasons.

I was told the publication would, finally, cover the news of and circulate in more South and West Side neighborhoods and highlight the arts, music and culture they offer. The tenor of the Reader’s anti-establishment, hipster reputation would include more Black and brown coverage and engagement.

Good, I thought. We have a lot to offer in the African American community that is worthy of wider, deeper coverage. Even as editor and publisher of The Crusader Newspaper Group that caters to mostly Black communities, I welcomed a partner in telling the stories that the bigger newspapers for decades have failed to share.

But I was sold a bill of goods. That became clear to me as the Reader tilted toward less diversity in its viewpoints. It became clear to me as the content became less open to alternative opinions and more concentrated on what it considered to be the only “acceptable” opinions.

And my clarity crystalized last November when Goodman, got “canceled” by his own publication for writing a column that didn’t jibe with the politics of the writers, editors and the Twitter universe.

Goodman, who wrote a once-a-month column that took on alternative viewpoints and who was fully disclosed as a co-owner for transparency, described in the column why he was hesitant to vaccinate his 6-year-old daughter for COVID-19. He wrote a follow-up column explaining his thought process. Goodman cited studies, doctors and materials supporting his thesis. That’s what columnists do.

His editor at the Reader applauded his work pre-publication and told him it was “bullet proof.” She composed a note to the staff that defended the decision to run it and praised Goodman as a contrarian voice.

But then the mob happened. And Twitter blew up. And Goodman got pilloried. And the editor backed down. And the editor above her backed down. They put Goodman through a wringer by trying to get a post-publication rewrite of his column.

I’ve been in the news business a long time. I stand by my editors and my writers. Columns don’t get rewritten after publication to soothe those who don’t like them.

What I saw was censorship by the very publication that made its bread and butter on supporting alternative viewpoints. What I have seen since then is an attempt to sully my reputation and that of my fellow board member, Sladjana Vuckovic, a naturalized citizen of the United States who took her citizenship oath seriously at age 19 to stand behind the Constitution and the First Amendment. At no point during the past five months have Reader staff or managers reached out to us or even bothered to hear us. It’s as if we do not exist. Is that an open, progressive, inclusive posture toward two women leaders from Reader staff? Or is there more to the story?

Few things are as important to me as a free press. How should I be expected to give up my principles and those of John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, publishers of this nation’s first Black newspaper? In their first edition of “Freedom’s Journal,” published on March 16, 1827, they asked for understanding: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”

Today, it seems the staff at the Reader are trying to speak for me, about me, without understanding why I believe Goodman got subjected to plain old censorship.

None of us oppose the Reader’s transition to nonprofit status. What we do oppose is allowing that transaction without ensuring the publication will remain a standard bearer of alternative, unpopular viewpoints. What we are concerned about is the board makeup, which we have proposed should be an even split of appointments between Goodman and Higginbottom with one agreed-upon by both sides. What we do worry about is having a heavy influencer in the labor world on the board, the head of the Chicago Federation of Labor, as Higginbottom has chosen.

I was removed from the board by Higginbottom when he realized I was on Goodman’s side in this debate. How is that allowing for free and open views? Goodman managed to reappoint me to the board, using one of his open seats. So I still sit there in a unpaid post, driven only by the belief in the First Amendment.

Goodman got involved in the Reader because he supports journalism and he puts his money behind it. Goodman’s private home where Reader staff scheduled a protest April 21 was the site of a fundraiser last fall to raise money for the Reader. He opened his home to staff and supporters. And now that they know where he lives, they planned an event to shame him there.

While the story of the Reader that has seeped into the public realm gets squeezed and twisted to suit the purposes of the storyteller, it really comes down to censorship for me. We need contrarian voices. That’s how the Reader started. This is not how it should end.

Dorothy R. Leavell of Chicago is a board member of the Chicago Reader and editor and publisher of The Crusader Newspaper Group.

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