Column: Eyes on the Springfield gang

By Jenette Sturges

George Ryan dines on hotdogs, chili, and Doritos on his forty-minute lunch breaks in the federal building cafeteria during jury selection sessions for his upcoming corruption trial. He also enjoys doodling on Styrofoam cups.

How do I know this? Because in lieu of hard-hitting journalism that forages out new evidence or allegations against the former Illinois governor, or informs the public, bringing them up to speed on the charges and history of corruption in Ryan’s office, Chicago news channels and websites are posting reporters’ weblogs offering minute-by-minute updates on the trial and its lunch breaks and interspersing them with real jury selection and trial coverage.

It is frighteningly apparent that 71-year-old Ryan doesn’t seem very interested in his own fate concerning charges of racketeering, mail fraud, lying to FBI agents and tax fraud. It is also obvious that nobody in the news world is all that interested either. Perhaps if they were, the rest of Illinois might know what allegations Ryan is up against. To bring you up to speed, here’s a rundown:

As Secretary of State, George Ryan allegedly put his staffers under pressure to raise campaign funds on the state’s clock. Methods of fund-raising took form in what was dubbed the “License for Bribes” scandal, which involved handing out Illinois business and CDL licenses in exchange for campaign contributions. The scandal didn’t go public, however, until six members of the Willis family died in a car wreck in Milwaukee in 1994. It was later revealed that the semi truck driver who caused the accident had purchased his license without passing his CDL test. Further investigation found that thousands of dollars in bribes had ended up in Ryan’s campaign funds. The extent of these allegations, however, remained concealed until after Ryan took office as the state’s governor.

The former governor is willing to tell whoever will listen that he expects to be found not guilty. And he must really believe this to be taking the court proceedings so lightly, despite facing numerous felony charges. Either that, or he’s already built some connections in the white-collar crime penitentiary.

Whether Ryan is guilty or not, however, is not the whole issue. My problem is the severe lack of real news coverage. State politics may not have the wide-reaching effects that the federal government’s war on terrorism does, but it still affects us as Illinoisans, particularly if it involves a high-ranking official fighting racketeering charges.

Currently, those few Illinoisans who are really paying attention are beginning to lose faith in Rod Blagojevich as well. Of course, the only news to come from Springfield has concerned our videogames, so it’s easy to see why Illinois politics are overlooked. Unfortunately, public ignorance and apathy of serious state issues has led us to elect leaders that have disappointed us, accused of scandals that led to the death of a family, or more concerned with teenagers stealing pixilated sports cars than with a mounting budget deficit (which, by the way, directly affects the education University students receive).

Americans are notoriously uninformed about politics. However, when it comes to state politics, I feel that part of the responsibility for this lies on mainstream journalism and its refusal to give serious coverage to state issues. While it is true that charts and graphs about state funding don’t make impressive screenshots the way rain soaked journalists standing in the middle of a hurricane in Fox News raincoats do, the impact of state government affects us much more directly.

At the very least, news coverage and public consciousness concerning Springfield will incite more interest come election time, which might prevent corrupt officials and videogame tyrants from entering the most important position in the state. It could also mean more regular participation by residents. After all, it’s easier to be heard in Springfield than in Washington. It might also mean the election of people too concerned with the fate of Illinois to sit in a courtroom munching on Doritos and doodling on a Styrofoam cup.