The questions that Emanuel's press secretary won't answer
Once Rahm Emanuel takes the oath and becomes Chicago' s mayor today, you will be hearing and seeing a lot more of a young woman named Tarrah Cooper. She is beginning the job of a lifetime, even though she doesn't have much life time behind her.
Ms. Cooper (who pronounces her first name as Tair-uh, not Tahr-uh) is going to be the "face" of the Chicago mayor's office, as Mr. Emanuel's newly anointed press secretary. At the tender age of 25, she is certainly a fresh face.
Never having heard of Cooper before Emanuel returned to the Chicago political scene last fall, I was curious to find out about this person who would be responsible for espousing the positions and platforms of Chicago's first new administration in two decades; would be the go-to contact for information about important daily news stories; or, heaven forbid, be the public source in the office if there was a calamity of some kind.
Last month, after learning that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had issued a scathing report against Mr. Emanuel's school superintendent to-be, I contacted Ms. Cooper for a response. The EEOC in Rochester, N.Y., where Jean-Claude Brizard had been running the public schools, determined that he had an age, race and gender bias when firing a top administrator.
I asked Cooper whether this had been known to Rahm Emanuel and why he nevertheless selected Brizard? Had Emanuel not known? Was Brizard's job offer being revoked?
In our very first conversation, rather than simply answer the questions, Ms. Cooper stated that she wished to speak "off the record." I informed her that I wouldn't have such a conversation, especially not with someone who is in the business of providing public information. Seemingly frustrated by that, she said that she'd have to call back.
During a series of subsequent calls and emails, Ms. Cooper waged a relentless, several-hour campaign to convince me that such a finding by a federal panel against their choice to run the Chicago schools was not a news story. Sounding like a robocall, she persisted in the theme that "this isn't a story."
As we prepared the report for broadcast, Cooper also sent two emails containing misleading and false information. First she stated that "an independent investigation found that Mr. Brizard did nothing wrong." But that report was prepared by a firm hired by Brizard's school board and hardly independent.
Next she wrote that "a court of law has proved that he did not do anything wrong."
That was completely false. A civil suit is still in the early stages. Ms. Cooper, who did not respond to several requests for comment on this column, just graduated from the famous University of Missouri journalism school in 2008, so what she learned should still be fresh.
She worked as a reporter on Mizzou's TV station and interned at MTV in New York.
Before joining the Emanuel for Mayor campaign, she worked at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., where her bio states "she helped to manage the Department's messaging, priorities and actions for numerous national incidents including the H1N1 epidemic, the December 25th and Times Square attempted bombings, the Haitian earthquake and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill." Based on DHS alerts, it seems she spent considerable time processing forms submitted by reporters to attend agency events.
At city hall, she succeeds longtime mayoral press secretary Jackie Heard, who was paid a salary of nearly $180,000 per year. On April 23, I sent Ms. Cooper a number of questions for this column. They included:
• Is there a set of written guidelines or protocols that you are working from in dealing with reporters and news organizations?
• How involved is Mr. Emanuel in setting the tone for dealing with the press and in what manner? Does each story inquiry get run by him?
• Which of these best describes your view as press secretary in dealing with Chicago's major newspapers and TV and why: Tools for getting out message as we see it; aimed at embarrassing or uncovering negative aspects of the administration; a necessary evil that has to be controlled.
• How will your cooperation with news organizations be based on the nature and tone of their day-to-day coverage?
• Does your youthfulness and lack of experience symbolize what seems to be administration focused on hiring managers under 35?
• What qualifies you to be press secretary for the mayor of the third-largest city?
• How much will you be paid?
• What are your career aspirations?
In more than three weeks she has yet to answer any of the questions. After asking a few times to meet me "off the record," which I declined, Tarrah Cooper has stopped replying.
It is interesting that the mayor's new press secretary felt no inhibition about displaying hundreds of personal photos on her public Facebook page, showing her partying with friends, in beach attire and at a slot machine.
When you are 25, apparently some things are OK to be put on the record.
• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at twitter.com/ ChuckGoudie.
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