News Brief: How Brandon Johnson’s Win Upends US Media’s Patronizing, Simplistic ‘Crime’ Narratives

Citations Needed | April 5, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
17 min readApr 6, 2023
Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson celebrates after the mayoral runoff election on April 4 in Chicago. (Paul Beaty / AP)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and, if you are so inclined, become a supporter of the show through All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full length episodes when the news cycle demands it, and so we’re recording this News Brief the evening of Tuesday, April 4, 2023 because the news cycle is demanding that we talk about this, and I am so thrilled to be joined by Citations Needed senior Chicago correspondent and my co host, Adam Johnson. Adam, I think we need to talk about the mayoral race in Chicago.

Adam: Yeah, so you know, as everyone knows, I’m Adam Johnson, NYC/CHI. I’ve lived in Chicago for about five and a half years. So I’m basically an expert. I know about the brats, and then the Bears and the White Sox. No, I can’t, I’ve fallen in love with Chicago. I live here now and probably going to live here for the rest of my life, such is the fate of Chicago, once you’re here you can’t leave, it’s kind of how it works, you become a Chicago person and you start eating Miller Lite and cheese curds, it is a whole thing. It’s a whole process.

Nima: Fake pizza.

Adam: And we had a mayoral election tonight, which has come to a surprise, which is not a meaningful statement, as I’ve written about before, but it was not something people were expecting in terms of the sort of cynicism around these things. The mayoral election has been called for Brandon Johnson. Now anyone who’s followed this race, I’ll give you a quick kind of mini synopsis.

Nima: Yeah, give us a little primer on the Brandon Johnson Paul Vallas combat.

Adam: So Paul Vallas, who has the charisma of peanut butter, he’s basically a hatchet man, charter school, hedge fund guy who’s kind of parasitically gone from city to city, New Orleans, Philadelphia, basically trying to privatize education, bring in charter schools. He is an austerity hatchet man basically, for want of a better term. He ran for Chicago mayor before, he ran again this time, and he filled the lane of like tough-on-crime white suburban Chicago guy.

Nima: We should also note, Adam, that current Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was voted out during the Democratic primary.

Adam: Yeah, so there was a primary on February 28 and the top two people finished were Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas. So Paul Vallas played the lane of the centrist, the kind of Eric Adams pro cop, he was heavily endorsed by the FOPs, the police unions, got massive support from out of town hedge fund billionaires and local hedge fund billionaires. He raised almost three times more than Brandon Johnson, although Brandon Johnson did get major injections of cash from various unions, namely the CTU gave him a million dollars, but that wasn’t nearly enough to catch up to Mr. Human hedge fund Paul Vallas. Brandon Johnson, on the other hand, was an educator, a teacher, a member of the CTU, led the CTU strike in 2012, has deep ties within the activist community of Chicago, was highly respected amongst people who are not normally involved in retail politics in Chicago. He ran a campaign very clearly from the furthest left you can sort of reasonably run, he was not pro Defund, despite what Vallas’ ad said, he was definitely not fund, he was let’s keep the numbers what they are, and more importantly, he very much focused on redirecting resources to the social and root causes of crime through investments in social welfare and massive tax increases on the wealthy. I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone what candidate I preferred in this election who’s listened to our show, especially given Vallas’ history, you know, it’s one thing we don’t really endorse candidates for obvious reasons —

Nima: You’re kind of a hedge fund guy, Adam, you’re kind of a hedge fund guy. I’ve known you for many years now, and you know, I really feel I get Vallas vibes from you.

Adam: Yeah, as a rule I really don’t like to support candidates, because I think it’s kind of hacky not to be like Peter Baker, like, I don’t do it, but it’s, I mean, you can sort of read between the lines and figure out my preferences. This election was very much in my investment, and it was very much about how horrible Paul Vallas is, how he pretty much represents three quarters of all Citations Needed episodes. He has everything bad, the police humping, the crime demagoguery, the race baiting. Again, he is someone who frequently on social media liked and responded to many posts that were outright racist, calling Chicago a hellhole name, but he’s someone who wallows in the depths of right-wing politics, who within a six month period rebranded himself as a progressive pro choice, Liberal Democrat, garnered the endorsement of every mercenary, pro charter school Democrat from Dick Durbin to Jesse white, which was very bleak and sad but that’s kind of way politics work. To be fair, a lot of politics is also just about personal beefs people have, in Chicago especially. So that was the breakdown of the mayor’s race. It was a very rare election, in my experience, where it wasn’t just two neoliberal goons.

Nima: And so you got to actually prefer a candidate who shares your last name and honestly shout, let’s go, Brandon. So it was a coup for you.

Adam: It was a coup, and so the reason why this is a media story for, it’s a number of reasons, but the primary one of which is that for the past year and a half, two years, media outlets, specifically the New York Times, has written about a half a dozen articles telling us Black voters really want more police and longer sentences, tougher prosecutors, and that it’s largely white affluent, far left, Soros-backed nonprofit types who are pro reducing the power and reach and budgetary bloat of police.

Nima: Right. We talked to residents in East New York, and they said that they want more cops or they are worried about fewer police patrolling their streets. We see this in the press, and especially as you said, Adam, the New York Times all the time.

Adam: So I wrote an article in June of 2022 for the Substack entitled, “NYT’s “Black Voters Want More Cops” Reporting Genre Cynically Conflates Desire for Public Safety With Demands for More Policing, Longer Sentences,” and it focused specifically on the election of Mayor Eric Adams in New York, who was a Black pro-police, pro-cop, pro-real-estate guy and used that as an example, as well as Wes Moore, who ran in Maryland for governor, as an example of black electeds, who were pro police, who represented the sort of organic demands of Black voters, that this was evidence that Black voters wanted to be tough-on-crime. And with Brandon Johnson winning, it’s going to probably end up being 75–80 percent of the Black vote in this race in running up and ends up winning the election. This doesn’t of course, kind of fit that neat narrative, right? And so under the New York Times logic, these two elections represent an organic demand of Black voters, but Brandon Johnson’s election, they’ll probably just ignore or frame as something else because it complicates and undermines this narrative they’ve been peddling for six months that Black voters, because of the rising crime, specifically the rise of murder rates in major metropolitan areas, are crying out and begging for more police. Now it’s, of course, far more nuanced and complicated than that, despite what the New York Times repeatedly insists. So the New York Times wrote an article on June 3, 2022, headlined, “Democrats Face Pressure on Crime from a New Front: Their Base,” written by Alexander Burns. So ostensibly straight reporting, the piece really was an editorial argument in favor of basically saying, if Democrats are going to win the midterms in 2022, they have to pivot far right on crime, a thesis also debunked by the results of the local and federal election results in New York state where Democrats leaned hardest on tough-on-crime, and they did far worse than any other state except for maybe Florida, and so the way they did this is they would conflate polls showing crime is the number one issue for Black voters by conflating it with that means they want more police, which of course isn’t really true.

Nima: Yeah. So for instance, the article itself said this, quote:

A study published in April by the Pew Research Center found that Black Americans were likeliest to name violence or crime as the top concern facing their communities, followed by economic issues and housing.

End quote.

Now, what Burns does, in this kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, is he takes this poll result, right, this polling about the major concern that certain communities have, namely Black communities about violence or crime, and then turns around and insists that that means that there is therefore a related support for more police that if your concern is violence and crime, then clearly the only answer you have, the only thing you want for your community is for there to be more police, and so therefore kind of taking these polling results, and twisting them into an anti Defund argument or a pro police, pro carceral refund, more fund argument is what this piece and many like it in The Times have done over the years.

Adam: Yeah, so this is the way this game works, right? The analogy we’ve used on the show a thousand times is if people are drowning, and you say I’m going to throw you barbed wire, they’ll grab on to the barbed wire because it’s all you’re offering them, right? So they starve these communities of resources, and they say, ‘Okay, you don’t like crime, obviously, people are dying people, getting shot, and the solution is going to be cops.’ So those are your options, right? It’s like a Baathist referendum. You either vote Sudan Hussein or you vote nothing. It is either going to be cops or nothing. So what are you going to choose? You’re going to choose cops because that’s the only option you have, and then these New York Times reportage they take from this, ‘Oh, they love cops,’ and meanwhile, however, if you poll them in and you ask Black voters, poll after poll after poll shows they want to, again, depending how you frame it, they want to redirect resources or they want to at least pump additional resources into things like healthcare, schooling.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. Employment, schools, parks, hospitals, public infrastructure, sidewalks to walk on.

Adam: Name it, right, parks, there’s ten things that Black voters say they want, but the one thing of the ten things that says we want more policing, even if you can squeeze it out of a poll, then that gets honed in on and so that becomes the alpha and omega of what the quote-unquote “Black voter” wants, right? That becomes the sort of platonic Black voter thing, and the other nine things they asked for union jobs, better welfare, you know, social investment, that’s ignored completely.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And so this is why everything has to be, because again, the one thing of the ten that vaguely overlaps with the rich white readers and real estate developers that are the target demographic of The New York Times, that get It’s propped up and highlighted as a thing Democrats must take as a lesson, right? It just purely coincidentally it also what aligns with the interest of wealthy donors, right, that sort of drive of ideological preferences and priorities of the party, and what the Brandon Johnson campaign I think exposed to a great extent, again, he were talking 70–80 percent, I think it’s ended up being, percent of the Black votes, and of course, ultimately a victory picking up Latino white voters as well, is that those other nine things matter. Those other nine things don’t make the headlines in the New York Times, they’re not demagogued by panelists talking about Defund this and Defund that and how they need to go hard right on police. Things like social investment, things like having supportive unions, things like building better schools, higher quality education, things like taxing the rich and redistributing those resources, things like good union jobs, that those are as important for even people that say they want more police. But that narrative doesn’t fit into the smug, New York, Jonathan Weisman, Alex Burns box of New York Times head patting, ‘Look, look, look at these Black voters, they all want more police.’

Nima: Right.

Adam: Because again, you can torture the polls to show that, it really depends how you phrase the question. Again, these polls will say 70 percent of Black voters don’t support defunding the police, but then they’ll say ‘Do you support redirecting resources from the police into social services’ and the number is also 70 percent, right? It’s sort of how you phrase it, and I get that I get that there’s issues with that slogan, but the general framework is actually incredibly popular, and then watching the New York Times hot take this both tonight and tomorrow morning it’s going to be interesting to see how it fits into this narrative because they’ve had this cheesy narrative, a narrative, which by the way, was also severely undermined during the November 2022 elections when people like John Fetterman who are attacked non-stop for being Defund the police and this and that ended up winning by seven, eight points, and so, you know, you get one Chesa voting recall, oh, look at all these minority voters they hate these liberal prosecutors, and then when progressives win, like even reform DAs win, like the half a dozen reform DAs who won in November, or, you know, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, they just get ignored, right? They don’t even discuss them because they don’t fit their preconceived editorial narrative.

Nima: Then you have someone like Eric Adams, as you said, pro cop, pro real estate interests, et cetera, being held up as, ‘Oh, well, you know, that’s what, that’s what Black communities want,’ right? Like a Black elected official, who has a big public profile, that that winds up kind of being conflated with the desire of entire communities, again, when there aren’t that many choices or even when there are other backing, other issues, other support falls by the wayside and doesn’t become the main talking point or the main narrative of the victory or the widespread public support for a certain elected official that then becomes emblematic of an entire community, and I think that this Brandon Johnson win in Chicago tonight really undermines that as well, which is why it’s going to be really interesting, as you said, to see kind of how the media kind of deals with this, right, and either dismisses this as a one off or as some other ‘Paul Vallas didn’t run a good campaign’ and blah, blah, blah, like all that kind of stuff. How is this going to play out in terms of making Brandon not emblematic the way that, say, an Eric Adams winds up being supposedly emblematic?

New York Mayor Eric Adams speaks, accompanied by the NYPD. (David Dee Delgado / New York Times)

Adam: Yeah, I mean, this is the scam, right? Because what they don’t mention is they say, ‘Oh, look, you know, Eric Adams won the election therefore Black voters want more police,’ but they’re the kind of softer, not pro-FOP, pro-police candidate, the other, the second most popular Black candidate in the election, Maya Wiley, was outspent by Eric Adams by four and a half times largely funded by real estate and hedge fund money, not to mention $7 million that was in a hedge fund and pro real estate pac, money she didn’t have, and so that’s just ignored entirely. So obviously, pro police, real estate interests, they would prefer a Black candidate. They didn’t get one because the Black candidate in this election was a CTU guy with ideological commitments and ties to activist communities who wasn’t going to be bought off by the normal kind of routine election funding process. Now, you know, talk to me in a year, who knows how these things play out, right?

Nima: Yeah, exactly.

Adam: But as it stands now, he wasn’t on their dole and therefore wasn’t going to have those sort of mindless pro-police positions that The New York Times claims represent the sort of organic demands of, it’s a very sort of Schoolhouse Rock view of politics, where there in the New York Times world there’s no such thing as real estate money, there’s no such thing as super PAC money, there’s no such thing as donor influence.

Nima: Yeah. There’s just candidates and everyone and then you go vote.

Adam: Yeah, there’s no propaganda campaigns. There’s no nonstop demagoguery by The Daily News about subway violence. Everybody sort of has this perfectly pristine, objective, rational actor who just organically has needs and the Democratic Party and the media don’t shape those needs, don’t shape those politics, the millions of dollars spent on campaign commercials and campaign ads and media buys, these are not influencing anything, right?

Nima: Right.

Adam: And it’s a very childish, very eighth grade, very Schoolhouse Rock view of politics, and it’s done in such a patronizing way where it’s like, well, of course, we’re going to come, you know, the New York Times was the publication that mainstreamed stop-and-frisk in the 2000s, they mainstreamed broken windows and early ’90s, of course, they’re going to come to the conclusion as what Jim Naureckas calls the far left-wing of Wall Street, of course, they’re going to come to the conclusion that we need to have more cops, and of course, they’re going to launder that ideological preference and editorial preference through these straw Black voters they invented because that’s how they kind of mask their own ideological output.

Nima: Right. Well, Adam, before we wrap this up, since you are our senior Chicago correspondent on location, mind you, what have you seen, I guess, in the lead up to this election, on Tuesday, April 4, from local media? What was the orientation regarding Vallas, as opposed to, say, Brandon Johnson and do you think that what wound up happening undermined that media narrative or was it maybe not as simple as that?

Adam: Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Water Bill Gate, which is a combination of Bill Gates and Watergate, but there was a story about Brandon Johnson neglecting, he went on a payment plan for a water bill that was $3,000 and he took a while to pay it. A very sort of relatable thing for a lot of working class people like having late bills with fees piling up, and they tried to turn into this great scandal, and I got into a back and forth with a Chicago Tribune writer because he had what is arguably one of the stupidest leads I’ve ever seen to a nonstory, you have to understand that Paul Vallas has been accused of basically stealing $1.5 billion from the Chicago School public coffers 10 to 15 years ago when he was in charge of the schools along with his buddy Arne Duncan, that went basically directly to Wall Street investors and he did this repeatedly. He’s been accused of financial mismanagement, and blowing public funds, which is what education privatization hatchet men do. That’s their entire M.O., and so they tried to make this, they tried to draw a false equivalency.

Nima: Well, and pearl clutching about personal responsibility.

Adam: Yeah, well, and it’s all very kind of racially charged, right? They did this with Walton in Buffalo. It’s sort of a classic, last minute, right-wing dump, right? You sort of look up someone’s delinquent bills, which is oftentimes in public disclosures or they’re online you can find, and then you dump it at the last minute to kind of muddy the waters, and then, of course, the Chicago Tribune, which endorsed Paul Vallas, of course, being the neoliberal rag that they are, their reporter, who is of course, theoretically editorially independent, I should say, but did a frame that was very sort of last minute kind of Clinton/Comey letter, let’s overcorrect so we don’t look like we’re too liberal, and this was their false equivalency. The lead read, “Brandon Johnson spent weeks accusing Paul Vallas of financial mismanagement. Now Johnson is facing questions after his failure to pay water bills on time, a late breaking embarrassment. Here’s our story.” Now, of course, it’s only an embarrassment because the Tribune is reporting it because it’s a fucking non story, and everybody knows it’s a non story. Again, $1.5 billion being fleeced from the Chicago Public Schools or a $3,000, water bill, which, by the way, he did pay off eventually, he was on a payment plan, and then Gregory Pratt did this, he got piled on for this because it was obviously absurd, and he did this defensive tweet where he said, “New rule for both candidates’ supporters: For every negative tweet someone sends me they gotta make 25 calls and knock 10 doors,” which was probably the smarmiest response I’ve ever heard to criticism, sort of like the classic, ‘All my haters aren’t in the thick of it like I am.’ So this is the kind of bush league shit they tried to fling at Brandon Johnson, but you know, I think what people realize that at the 11th hour if the best dirt the Paul Vallas campaign, which is very much aligned with a lot of Trumpist elements, that is not an unfair thing to say, these right-wing goons, if the best attack they can come up with as delinquent water bill, then congratulations your candidate is a fucking choirboy, right? That is so lame. That is the lamest thing. We’re not talking about, you know, sexual misconduct allegations or massive tax evasion.

Nima: Right. It’s also like the most relatable thing, you know what I’m saying?

Adam: Yeah. It’s a delinquent bill. Right, and so this is the shit they were trying to do at the 11th hour because they realized holy shit this guy could win because he started to make traction in the polls, because when he was viewed as a non threat, there wasn’t a lot of, you know, there wasn’t really a ton of attacks, but right at the 11th hour, and they realized he could really surge and do this thing, they started going to the bottom of the barrel, the Tribune really started doing those horrible false equivalency stuff.

Nima: Well, yeah, in the final days here, for instance, Gregory Pratt, you know, as you said, I just want to I just want to read this quote from the Chicago Tribune piece published on April 1, just a few days before the election, you know, as Adam said, but this is the actual quote from the article, this is like the kicker that ends the article, quote:

The late-breaking controversy is an embarrassment for Johnson, who has accused Vallas of mismanaging school districts across the country but now is facing similar questions. Johnson’s county commissioner campaign had a history of campaign finance violations by Johnson that have led to thousands of dollars in fines. His campaign in February blamed it on clerical errors.

End quote.

So clearly the Chicago Tribune had a narrative to push that we are seeing maybe was not as effective as they had hoped based on the result of tonight’s election, but that will do it for this late breaking Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you all for listening.

Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We will be back very soon with more full length episodes and News Briefs and special interviews and live shows and such so please do stay tuned, we have a lot more coming at you. So thanks again for all your support. That will do it. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks once again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.