Do front-page editorials matter in an era of weakened newspapers?

No state is in worse financial condition than Illinois, explaining why it's got the lowest credit rating of any of the 50 states.

And it explains why comic Jordan Klepper had ample fodder the other night on "The Daily Show" as he headed to Illinois and rightfully made fun of the budget mess and its initial impact on social services.

But as its legislature and governor stumbled towards a smoke-and-mirrors stopgap funding measure Thursday to meet a deadline, two things were clear: A sensible, long-term solution was nowhere in sight, and the media has precious little impact on the key players.

No doubt, the press (meaning, really, newspapers, by and large, some TV outlets and a few talk radio hosts) throughout Illinois has been in its own way unrelenting for a long time. Somewhat typical was the rage in evidence Wednesday.

The front page of the Chicago Sun-Times was part of a two-page editorial, "Counting the ways Illinois is fall apart." The cover showed a drawing of the state bathed in red ink with the figure $8,031,269,026.06 ("and counting"). Yes, that's more than $8 billion.

"That's how big a deadbeat the State of Illinois is. That’s how far behind the state was in paying its bills as of noon on Tuesday, when we started writing this editorial."

It was much the same on the front page of the State Journal-Register. It informed readers: "On Wednesday, The State Journal-Register takes a possibly unprecedented step — at least one that hasn't been done in several decades, possibly ever. We've turned the entire front page of our print edition over to an editorial, our call for Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature to pass a budget for the state of Illinois."

"But Illinois finds itself in an unprecedented state, a calamity that didn't have to happen. Desperate times, we feel, call for attention-grabbing measures."

But it's not as if newspaper editorial writers, columnists and beat reporters hadn't covered the mess for a long time. It's just that the key players — a headstrong Republican governor and the two key Democrats who essentially run the legislature — were unmoved. They seem impervious to shame even as real people, mostly poor so far, are impacted.

Thus, a reporter for the Journal Star in Peoria is left to stage his symbolic protest of not shaving until there's a deal. He "started growing his beard more than a year ago as a way of getting readers engaged with the ongoing budget saga (and ongoing lack of any budget to speak of) in Illinois. He thought, at the time, that he'd have to deal with more than his usual goatee for about six weeks."

It didn't work. Madeleine Doubek, a longtime political reporter-columnist who now runs a site on state government called Reboot Illinois, detailed the pox-on-all-their-houses reality Tuesday in a column. It was filled with lots of very justified rage.

"If you’re heading out of town to celebrate Making ‘Murica Great Again, don’t worry about the trip back home. It’ll be a breeze with all those road projects completely shut down for who knows how long? No flaggers slowing traffic down for miles. They’ll be busy filing for unemployment checks you help fund. And when those chunks of broken-up concrete get swept by a trucker’s wheels into the edge of your lane, well, we’ll just have to hope you see it well enough in advance."

But what about the media and its seemingly negligible impact on all this, even if a stopgap were to be achieved on a deadline Thursday?

"Great question and no terrific way to tell," she told me in the morning.

"We've been working to try to get citizens re-engaged in the state's severe crises for some time now. We see some successes in the numbers, reach and extensive commenting on our Facebook page (123,000 fans)."

It's also offered a tool called "Sound Off" that lets readers send an email to the governor and members of the legislature. But spreading real awareness is real tough — until, of course, you are personally impacted.

"To get to your point, I think there is a growing concern among more 'average people.' I think the call-to-arms editorials and columns woke up a few more hundreds or thousands."

But do the folks running the system really care? Or is it a bit like the dynamic one finds in the U.S. Congress on a variety of issues, like gun control? There are occasional outbursts of outrage, such as after the Orlando massacre, but unless it persists (and, with guns, it never really does), there's no sufficient pressure to possible alter legislative realities.

"I do think they (legislative leaders) were all feeling more pressure," said Doubek. "But I also think a lot of citizens have tuned out entirely to this and national politics. They lead very busy, insular lives. They've given up on what they view as a corrupt, rigged system."

She believes — and probably accurately so — that many folks across the state aren't going to truly care, or believe there's a problem, until told their kids' school isn't going to open in the fall. I'd add that others might not care until their garbage isn't picked up, the jobless check doesn't come, a bus line is eliminated, or they're stranded in a short-staffed emergency room.

There have been a few examples of belated recognition of peril. In early May, some college communities started feeling the pinch, having to layoff faculty and began to head to the capital to protest, and with some success.

So, Doubek contends, there are some signs of a more active citizenry. But, up until now, their numbers clearly don't reflect the passion displayed, and words of chagrin produced, by a decidedly less influential press.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.


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