Mark Konkol, who promised to “set a new vibe, take risks and make waves” at the Chicago Reader, was forced out Saturday as executive editor of the alternative weekly after the first issue he oversaw ignited a racial and political controversy.
The cover of the February 15 edition featured a caricature of J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic candidate for governor, sitting atop a black lawn jockey and blowing black smoke while an FBI agent listens in on his phone conversation. Three stories inside focused on Pritzker’s wiretapped call in 2008 with former Governor Rod Blagojevich in which they talked about African-American politicians.
Behind the scenes, Konkol had alienated the staff with several unpopular moves, including the firing of editor Jake Malooley, who learned his fate by phone at O’Hare Airport when he returned from his honeymoon on February 9.
Konkol, 44, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for the Sun-Times and DNAinfo Chicago, declined to comment Saturday except to confirm that he and Edwin Eisendrath, CEO of Sun-Times Media, had “parted ways.” Sun-Times Media owns the Sun-Times and the Reader.
Eisendrath, who named Konkol to the job January 31, apologized for the Reader cover and referred to “a tumultuous ten days” preceding its publication in announcing that Konkol was gone. No replacement was named.
Here is the text of Eisendrath’s statement:
I am announcing today the departure of Mark Konkol from the Reader. Mark came to the publication bringing great hope for a new direction and a new life to a storied brand. Sometimes things don’t work out as planned. A tumultuous ten days culminated in the publication of a Reader cover that we believe was not in line with either our vision for the Reader or that storied history. We wish Mark well.
While controversy is sometimes seen as part and parcel of the alternative weekly world, we believe it’s necessary in this instance to apologize to anyone who was offended by this week’s cover. The published cover in my view distracted from the publication as a whole.
The reporters at the Reader work hard to be great journalists. They can and will take on the toughest stories — including issues of race, injustice and people struggling to be heard.
We will put in place interim leadership and plan for the future.
The illustration by Baltimore freelance artist Greg Houston was condemned as “race-baiting” by a chorus of African-American political leaders who support Pritzker, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Alderman and City Council Black Caucus Chair Roderick Sawyer, and Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers. Pritzker himself was quoted as saying: "Well, I guess I knew they intended to be provocative at the Reader, but I think this is not the right approach.”
In a statement Thursday, Konkol defended the cover, saying: “Today’s Reader included a variety of opinions about J.B. Pritzker’s wire-tapped interaction with former Governor Rod Blagojevich, including the candidate’s own statements in his defense. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. We stand by our decision to engage readers on important issues of the day by producing journalism and social commentary that gets people talking about uncomfortable topics.”
Sources said the original concept for the drawing portrayed Pritzker in blackface — an idea Eisendrath is said to have vetoed. But Eisendrath was not consulted about the image that did appear on the cover. Konkol declined to comment on the matter.
Adeshina Emmanuel, the Chicago freelance journalist who wrote the cover story, said he too objected to the artwork, calling it “a sneak diss against the black community.” He said he had been under “intense pressure” to use a headline with the n-word to accompany the piece. “I’m glad I pushed back, because that type of headline combined with this cover would have been an even bigger nightmare,” Emmanuel wrote on Facebook. “I can say beyond a doubt this is the worst racial experience I’ve had as a professional journalist working with a white editor and publication.”
In social media posts before and after Konkol’s departure, Reader staffers criticized his brief tenure as editor:
Chicago Reader Twitter account: Ding dong the witch is dead!
Philip Montoro, Reader music editor: This man shouted me down in meetings, berated me, insulted me, and disrespected and alienated longtime freelance contributors. I have witnesses for all of it. Many other Reader staffers fared little better. Not sorry about this. Not a bit.
Leor Galil, Reader music writer: There's not a big enough combination of fireworks, heart, and joy emojis in the world that can express how happy I am. Dude is a bully and a tyrant and isn't fit to manage a flea circus. For the first time in two weeks I will not be deeply unhappy about the idea of starting work Monday morning.
John Greenfield, Reader transportation columnist and Streetsblog Chicago editor: Sometimes the good guys win. Thank you to @eisendrath and his team for doing the right thing and listening to @Chicago_Reader staff, columnists, and readers. This is a great day for Chicago Journalism.
Ben Joravsky, Reader political columnist: In the 27 years I've been a staff writer at the Reader, this is the first time I've felt compelled to speak out against something my beloved newspaper has done. . . . In my opinion, [the cover art] was a disgrace. I didn't see it until the paper hit the street. Had I any say in the matter, I would have argued against running it.
Eisendrath acted expediently in severing ties with an inexperienced editor who may have been more interested in promoting himself than managing an ornery staff.
At the same time, Eisendrath's move could be interpreted as bowing to pressure from the political establishment. Before he headed the investor group that bought the Sun-Times and the Reader last summer, Eisendrath was engaged in Democratic politics as a former Chicago alderman and onetime candidate for governor and congressman.
The turmoil at the Reader follows a spate of unfavorable news for Sun-Times Media, including the hiring of Eisendrath’s wife, Jennifer Schulze, to develop video content; the termination of Hedy Weiss as theater critic and Bill Zwecker as entertainment columnist; the decision not to renew Rick Telander as sports columnist; and the controversy over film critic Richard Roeper’s inflated Twitter following.