By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
Seldom do Chicago journalists quarrel in public over ethics, especially when all of them are retired broadcasters from the same Chicago TV station.
But that happened when Charles Thomas, former ABC7 political reporter, appeared in a series of TV ads lauding GOP Illinois gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey, an Illinois state senator, on the eve of the November 8 election.
Every ad starts with: “For 25 years, ABC7 political reporter Charles Thomas gave you the straight news. Now, he’s giving you real talk on the governor’s race.” They emphasize his former career as a journalist giving “straight news,” which seems to allude to his credibility. This is what Thomas says about the Republican candidate:
“Darren Bailey, I met the man. He’s a family farmer. Somebody who understands what it’s like to go to work every day. Somebody who, who is fair-minded. I can trust this guy. I trust this guy. Yeah. A farmer from Southern Illinois. Yeah. Yeah. A farmer from Southern Illinois.”
Farmer and billionaire
A resident of Xenia, Illinois, Bailey was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives for two years before becoming an Illinois state senator on Jan. 13, 2021. His incumbent opponent is Jay Robert “J.B.” Pritzker, a billionaire businessman and a member of the wealthy Pritzker family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain. Pritzker has been the Illinois governor since 2019.
Thomas retired from WLS-TV, known as ABC7, owned by the ABC Owned Television Station subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, on March 3, 2017. He left, saying: “Right now, we do a lot of stories about shootings and murders and such. We talk about the South and West sides of Chicago, which is a euphemism for the black community. I’m going to begin working to change that narrative to show some of the great things that are happening for African Americans in this region, in this state. That’s a mission for me moving forward. I have some fuel left in the tank, and I’m going to use it for that.”
In 2022, he was appearing in political attack ads aimed at Pritzker. “J.B. Pritzker? What’s he ever done, outside of being born on third base and telling the world he hit a triple?” It’s a tired political joke, used before against George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump, both born to wealthy families. People do not choose their parents, so it seems unfair to criticize people for the circumstances of their birth. But Charles goes on in another ad:
“J.B Pritzker promised what he called equity with the new recreational cannabis industry opened in Illinois. Blacks got nothing. Zero. Nothing. He needs to be punished for that. Black people should not vote for J.B. Pritzker, because he didn’t live up to that promise.”
A media feud
This led to a social media feud on Twitter between Charles and former Channel Seven colleagues.
Mark Giangreco, former WLS-TV sports director and lead sports anchor, called “sellout shill Charles Thomas’ campaign ads for Darren Bailey” ridiculous. Replying to Giangreco, Thomas shot back: “FREE Black man runs off the Democrat plantation and the White liberal Twitter dogs are barking! Run, Charles, Run.”
During a talk-radio WVON interview, Charles admitted being paid $50,000 to do the ad campaign, after being contacted by Dan Proft, a conservative strategist who runs the People Who Play By the Rules PAC that is backing Bailey.
“The reason I’m doing what I’m doing right now is not because they’re paying me $50,000,” Charles said during the interview. “Keep in mind, I got expenses, too. I got to pay people that work with me. But why I’m doing this is because of this ‘if you ain’t a Democrat, you ain’t Black.’ This (President) Joe Biden BS. I’m tired of that.” Thomas said he was shocked to see that Giangreco called him a sellout and asked, “Who am I selling out?”
Giangreco answered that by saying: “Obviously, you’re more than entitled to your political views. The issue is the misleading & unethical way you & Proft are promoting your guy .. using your former station’s call letters & images of its anchors to try to enhance your credibility.”
The opening image of Thomas at the ABC7 news desk in the ads includes Ron Magers, former ABC7 Chicago news anchor, who retired in 2016. Magers Tweeted: “Oh my, what appeared to be a judgment about reputation and ethics gets a race card response? Says a lot about you, Charles.” The ABC7 logo appears clearly in the ad with Thomas.
In the Twitter exchange with Giangreco, Thomas points out that Giangreco’s brother, Peter, is a political consultant, some of whom “get paid a LOT more (than Thomas). You could probably use a few extra bucks. How long has it been?”
Former ABC7 political reporter Andy Shaw, who worked with Thomas, said in an emailed statement: “I was surprised to see Charles, my longtime ABC7 colleague and successor as political reporter, starring in a political ad and on a candidate’s payroll because former newsies rarely engage in high-visibility partisan politics, and that’s one reason several of our former colleagues were so critical.”
Shaw said he was shocked by the general assumption that Thomas was a liberal Democrat. “Our bad for stereotyping, and beyond that, Charles doesn’t represent ABC7 any longer, so he’s free to support any candidate in any way he chooses, as are the rest of us.”
Responding to Shaw’s comment, Thomas said that general assumption was interesting. “Maybe they thought that because I was in journalism…somehow I had to be a liberal Democrat too. Well, I’m a moderate independent. That’s what I think of myself as, but maybe that’s who they think I was selling out: The fraternity of liberal journalists.”
This is not a column about ethics in government. That would be too much to expect in Illinois, given its corruption history and the number of former governors who went to prison. It is about a subject not covered in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which advises active journalists how to conduct themselves. The code does not address how former journalists should conduct themselves.
This is a column about how a respected former Chicago journalist seems to be lending his credibility to a political cause that does not appear to help his mission, to change the narrative about African Americans living on Chicago’s South and West sides. I could be wrong about that, but I don’t see how adding to political polarization helps. It’s a good mission, though.
The liberal use of the ABC7 logo during those attack ads also is disturbing. It gives the impression that the television station supports what Thomas is saying. Journalists are forbidden to use company stationery for their volunteer work. It, or anything else with the company’s identification, should be used for company business.
In these times when media credibility is under attack, there should be no confusion about media ethics standards or false representations of support for causes.
Thomas reacts hotly to his critics, which tends to be typical of thin-skinned journalists who enjoy watching a good fight, and reporting about it, as long as it does not involve them. Since Thomas covered Illinois politics for a long time, he should know it’s hazardous to a person’s reputation.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.