Richard M. Daley, a great idea, journalism, ethics and a missed opportunity

Was it okay for Walter E. Smithe to pay for a farewell party for outgoing mayor Richard M. Daley in exchange for some video testimonials from attendees for advertising purposes? Of course. Was it wrong that journalists and politicians participated. Of course not. Did Walter E. Smithe partially miss a great opportunity? Absolutely.

This morning Chicago journalist Robert Feder was interviewed by Greg Jarrett on WGN Radio about the blog he posted this morning. He’s fuming about how Chicago journalists would participate in a love-in for the outgoing Mayor. I understand where Feder is coming from. He’s a journalist and he’s upset about about ethics, though I see no need to fume. I’m more upset about the advertising.

First of all, kudos to Walter E. Smithe for having the idea to sponsor a party for Daley — and getting celebrities, politicians, journalists and others to give their well-wishes on camera including:

From a journalism perspective Bill Kurtis is the only one who truly leaps over the line at full speed by saying Daley is Chicago’s “best mayor” while sitting behind the anchor desk in CBS 2 Chicago’s studio. Kurtis, of all people, should have known better. Rob Johnson and Allison Rosati approach the line in an uncomfortable way, but don’t quite cross it. From an advertising perspective, all these indiscretions weaken the ad and should have been cut. This spot could have easily been saved.

If Walter E. Smithe hadn’t paid for the party, this morning we might have be hearing from John Kass instead — complaining about how Chicago taxpayers had to foot the bill. Advertising keeps broadcast television free. It helps keep the cost of your newspapers and magazines low. It also helps keep much of the content online free — including Feder’s own blog which is sprinkled with ads.

So who’s wrong here? (a) Feder is wrong that the journalists who participated in this were “bought” by a furniture retailer and free drinks. (b) A few of the journalists are wrong for overtly kissing Daley’s butt, even if he is walking out the door. And (c) Walter E. Smithe was wrong for failing to frame the concept of their own TV spot better. Monday Morning Quarterbacking advertising is easy, but with a little thought there are several specific things that could have been done with some light on-camera direction to make the spot stronger and feel less icky. It could have been framed as a tongue-in-cheek “This Is Your Life” parody. It could have been framed as a classy “we’ll miss you Mayor Daley” spot. If I gave this a few more minutes of thought I could come up with a half-dozen other ideas. Instead, they just strung a bunch of clips together with practically no memorable moments. It’s okay, but with all these recognizable faces it could have been more.

Daley’s been mayor of Chicago for 22 years. Regardless of your politics you’ve got to appreciate the significance of that. Saying a few nice things at a farewell party is completely appropriate. In the end, it was a great idea that ended up as a missed opportunity. It could have been funny, it could have been smart — and it could have gone viral — if only it had been done a little better.