By: Mark Fitzgerald
Election Day in Illinois unfolded with no surprises and almost no emotion. John Kerry took the state as handily as predicted, the U.S. Senate campaign was a laugher for Democratic victor Barack Obama, and — with the single exception of the unseating of long-time Republican U.S. Rep. Phil Crane — incumbent congressmen were ushered back into office with the predictability of a Soviet Politburo slate.
But in Chicago’s far western suburbs, there was a sometimes heated battle that revolved around a seemingly unlikely topic for political controversy: fiber optics.
On the one side was Fiber For Our Future, a group pushing a referendum in the so-called Tri-Cities of Geneva, Batavia, and St. Charles to create a fiber-optic network of telephone, cable television, and broadband Internet services to residences and businesses. On the other side were the big telephone company SBC, the cable TV provider Comcast — and, to the distress of the pro-broadband group — the Kane County Chronicle.
Having endorsed the broadband idea when it was first came to a vote in 2003, the 14,753-circulation daily based in Geneva recommended rejection this time around. The referendum was defeated in all three cities on Nov. 2.
But what most exercised Fiber For Our Future were columns by Bill Page — and what the advocates suggested was a conflict of interest because he was hired by Comcast to do local image consulting.
It turns out that Page, who is one of the paper’s most identifiable personalities, actually doesn’t work full time at the Chronicle. The paper, and Page himself, maintains that just about everybody in the Tri-Cities area knows that the column is only a side job for Page, and that his main income comes from his “boutique” media and marketing company, called MediaWerks.
The issue surfaced in the paper only after the election, apparently in response to questioning from E&P on the eve of voting.
Page is a sometimes controversial figure in the area, and he’s being sued for defamation in an unusual legal action brought by a sitting Illinois Supreme Court justice. (The case is the subject of the editorial in the current print edition of E&P, which strongly supported the side of Page and his co-defendants, Chronicle Managing Editor Greg Rivara and paper’s parent division inside Shaw Newspapers.)
Page opposed the first broadband initiative and ridiculed the effort to revive it for this year’s election. He stopped writing about the issue in mid-August because, he told E&P in a phone interview Monday, he had the feeling he was beating the subject to death. “My readers were telling me, including people in my own household, that if they see that word [broadband] in [my] column [they] stop reading,” he said.
Some weeks after that, he said, Comcast, the cable-TV company opposed to a municipal broadband operation, asked him to do local image consulting. The year-long contract, he said, is mostly concerned with getting the cable company on local business organizations and arranging event sponsorships. Page said he called as many as 25 civic and political figures in the area to alert them that he had talked with Comcast and to ask their opinion.
“First of all, the chance for a client like [Comcast] is a good thing,” Page said. “However, if anyone has any real objection to it, it’s a bad idea.” No one saw a conflict, he said.
Neither did the paper. Chronicle Publisher Mark M. Sweetwood said Rivara briefly considered dropping Page’s column, but decided against that since he had stopped writing about broadband.
“We’ve never made any attempt to hide … that this is his side job,” Sweetwood said last week. “I think he was upfront about that.” Sweetwood also noted that Page has always opposed a municipal broadband operation, even when the paper favored it. The columnist was not on the editorial board and had no influence on its decision to oppose the referendum this time around, Sweetwood added.
And both Sweetwood and Page note that the newspaper gave the last word on the opinion page to a long column by Fiber For Our Future in late October, while Page’s last column on the issue ran on Aug. 19.
To the pro-broadband forces, though, readers were not sufficiently alerted to Page’s dual role as columnist and publicist. The running identifier under his columns has read: “Bill Page lives in St. Charles and writes about local issues on Tuesday and Thursday. Calls and e-mails answered at (630) 584-0809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.” And on Oct. 10, when the Chronicle published a short article about awards it won at two journalism contests, Page was identified simply as “columnist” when his prizes were noted.
“Bill Page is the face of the Kane County Chronicle,” said Annie Collins, organizer of Fiber For Our Future. “I don’t think people pick up on an e-mail address and say, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ How are they supposed to know he’s writing for Comcast if he doesn’t disclose it?” She noted that a Page column earlier this year “wanted us to disclose who we were, and we did. All we wanted was for (the Chronicle) to disclose that Bill Page was working for Comcast.”
Though the Chronicle’s Sweetwood argued before the election that Page’s column ID was sufficient to alert readers that “this is a side gig,” on Sunday Nov. 7 Rivara wrote in a column that “to ensure that there is no confusion, Page’s column will be followed with words to clearly state he runs his own marketing company and writes for the Chronicle twice a week.”
That came at the end of a column that also accused unnamed people of believing in a conspiracy theory linking Page, the paper and the utilities fighting the broadband referendum. “They have pitched their theories to other media,” the column says in apparent reference to E&P, “and anonymously posted venomous opinions on Websites with cute little monikers.”
“At essence,” Rivara wrote, “Page is a writer. He makes money writing. Writers make money where they can.” Efforts to reach Rivara Monday afternoon resulted in telephone tag with the managing editor.
For his part, Page said he is comfortable with a fuller identifier. “I tend to think because people know you, and I’m pretty visible around here, you forget that there are always new people coming in who may not be as familiar. I think it’s not bad to refresh people’s memory,” he said.
But Page says the pro-broadband people shouldn’t be angry at him for representing Comcast. “Hell, if I were always for it and then opposed it, they would have an issue,” he said. “They should have kissed me because with this I’ll never write about it again.”