December 3, 2022

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Marquette Park in Chicago, May 16, 2020. (Photo: Lonnie H. Chambers Jr.Shutterstock)

Facts are technically right but lack critical context

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Marquette Park in Chicago, May 16, 2020. (Photo: Lonnie H. Chambers Jr./Shutterstock)

The assertion that the New York Times has a strong liberal bias is uncontroversial. And that’s fine—all media outlets have a point of view and as long as they’re written and edited by human beings, that will continue to be the case.

But where the Times’ bias can be particularly insidious is when it’s dressed up as “data based.”

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Today’s front page features a lengthy and thoughtful story by Julie Bosman and Mitch Smith about the challenges first-term Mayor Lori Lightfoot has faced as she leads Chicago. As businesses struggled through the pandemic, crime has soared, with 836 homicides representing totals not reached in the Windy City since the crack epidemic subsided 30 years ago. Some neighborhoods have never been more violent, according to the University of Chicago’s database of “Victims of Homicides and Non-Fatal Shootings.” Labor unions feel antagonized, businesses have departed the state, and the city council is increasingly frustrated with a mayor who was revealed to have called them “full of crap,” “bush league,” and a “jackass.”

All of this is covered fairly. And then there’s a throwaway line:

Ms. Lightfoot inherited a city that has held steady in population — growing nearly 2 percent from 2010 to 2020, to about 2.75 million residents — while several other Midwestern cities had steep declines.

The same assertion appears as the caption to one of the photos.

The New York Times covered Chicago’s troubles but failed to portray the city’s population struggles with meaningful context. (screenshot: New York Times)

There’s nothing untrue in this. But it’s completely the wrong take—an illogical take, in fact.

Yes, Chicago grew 2% from 2010 to 2020, from 2,695,598 residents to 2,746,388 (that’s 1.88%, actually). But that’s a dreadful performance for a city in a country that grew 7.4% over the same period.

Chicago’s 1.88% growth is the lowest of the 25 biggest US cities, by far. (LA is next lowest at 2.8).

Plenty of those 25 grew more than 10% and a few—Seattle, Austin and Fort Worth—topped 20% growth over the last decade.

And several of the cities in the top 25 are Midwestern — Columbus grew 15% and Indianapolis grew 8.2%.

The Times might have St. Louis or Detroit or Cleveland in mind — all shrank. But those are not Chicago’s competitors on the national stage. Why pick the 54th biggest city to compare it to, when others in the top 25 include two midwestern cities that have figured out how to grow?

Wichita, with 4% growth is now 49th and Cleveland, with -6% growth is 54th and thus —my dad would plotz if he read this — smaller than Wichita, Kansas.

Chicago’s sluggish population growth—the worst in the Top 25 and about 75% slower than the country as a whole—presents a serious threat to the viability of this once great metropolis (which happens to be my hometown). Houston will soon overtake Chicago as the nation’s third-largest city.

Five of the nation’s 15 biggest cities are now in Texas—Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth. All grew by more than 8% from 2010 to 2020. It’s hard not to suspect the reason the Times fails to properly contextualize Chicago’s anemic growth has something to do with its championing of the city’s progressive policies. The very same article celebrates Lightfoot “for pouring resources into affordable housing” and applauds that “the minimum wage in Chicago was raised to $15 for most workers.” Could it be that those very policies the Times loves—in addition to the crime and combativeness for which it takes Mayor Lightfoot to task—are behind the city’s failure to keep pace with other urban centers?

This framing of information is critical. Although very few people will read this one story, editors and producers who venerate the New York Times certainly will. Chicago is indeed in crisis. Unfortunately, this story mis-portrays it, even though it’s about a city in crisis.