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2/18/2007: Jargon Chicago: Chicago Auto Show Shutdown
Chicago Auto Show Shutdown
Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Media
by Elizabeth Simone
On February 11, the Chicago Tribune chose to cover what they described as a "Pedaling protest" against the Chicago Auto Show. The show is a long-standing tradition in Chicago, 99 years in fact, with the "elite" of the city scrambling to make an appearance opening night. You can bet the Tribune was there, holding their wives in floor-length gowns and joking into a glass of wine. Before and during the show, the Tribune has also provided, of course in the name of "objective news coverage," several articles on the new and exciting models being revealed. The Tribune's coverage of the protest, in contrast, began with the respectful description, "Dressed as polar bears and Santa Claus..." Writer Lolly Bowean summed up the protest by saying, "They dress in wacky costumes and point out how autos are costly and pollute the environment." Now Jargon tries not to involve itself in politics. We're "independent" (or whatever). But taking on the local press, criticizing the accuracy of their coverage? We're all about that, especially when it's the Tribune. In this case, Bowean's article left out too much of the story to let Jargon turn a blind eye. Although the Tribune mentioned the bicycle ride from Daley Plaza to McCormick place, they failed to include information on the Critical Mass art show, the groups satirical website, and a counter-exhibition of bicycles and bicycle technology, which all represented part of the protest.
Most significantly, the Tribune barely acknowledged the arguments that the ASSA was trying to represent through their protest. "Car culture," referenced in the Tribune's coverage as "saying there are too may autos on the streets already," has been the groups target for eight years and their "Shutdown" represents the largest "counter-propaganda event" in North America. "Car culture," is a phrase used by a leader of the Auto Show Shutdown Association or ASSA, Dan Korn, to describe the social, political, and economic institutions that glorify and profit off automobiles. Along with his website and the protests, Korn posts his views in videos available on YouTube. In one, he compares the marketing campaigns of corporations to the statistics of car safety. According to him, the number of deaths due to vehicular violence has grown in the past ten years, though ads tell us of remarkable new safety features on the SUV. That is, company's spends millions of dollars on advertising to convince us to feel safe, to trust our children to their new technology, to believe that we will never be a victim of a car crash, while the statistics on vehicular deaths suggest the opposite is true. He goes on to compare the number of deaths due to terrorism since 9-11 to the number of vehicular deaths. Even if the comparison is questionable, the difference is striking. Korn's point comes out loud and clear: not enough attention has been given to an issue that takes so many American lives each year. Of course, Korn also makes arguments about the indirect (if you want to call it that) dangers that "car culture" creates. These include the devastating evidence about cars' impact on global warming, the abuse of resources, the wars fought to secure oil, and so on.
Although the local news has treated Critical Mass and the ASSA as a marginal and even comical group of hippies, the target of the protest apparently felt differently. Unreported in the Tribune was a legal argument between the ASSA and the Chicago Auto show. Even if Lolly Bowean sees them as merely cyclists, the Chicago Auto Show and the Chicago Automobile Trade Association took them seriously enough to have their lawyer, Dennis M. O'Keefe, write the group a letter threatening legal action. He contended that the group, specifically their website, unlawfully used the Auto Show's "trademark." He demanded that they "...immediately cease and desist..." or the Chicago Automobile Trade Association and the Chicago Auto Show would seek damages.
In response, the Electric Frontier Foundation or EFF, stepped in. A non-profit organization, the EFF provides legal and political defense against infringements on technological rights. For example, they are currently in the process of suing AT&T for their participation in government wire-tapping. The EFF wrote back to O'Keefe, reminding him that trademark infringement does not apply to non-commercial use. They also discovered, I assume with much amusement, that the Chicago Auto Show does not even own the trademark it claims was infringed. Dan Korn was quoted by the EFF as saying, "The auto show seems so scared of fair competition in the marketplace of ideas that they aren't playing clean...Fortunately, we know our free speech rights, and we will be exercising them during the SHUTDOWN Festival, despite their threats."
The intervention of the EFF certainly silenced O'Keefe. He did not respond to Jargon's offer to comment on the incident, and no legal action has been brought against the ASSA. However, the Chicago Auto Show may have done better to simply be silent from the beginning. Given the minor and degrading coverage that the press gave the protestors, it's surprising that the Auto Show even bothered. Perhaps Korn is correct in pointing out the fear the Chicago Auto Show and, indeed, corporations of all kinds that profit off of automobiles and "car culture," have of the free marketplace of ideas. Lucky for them, the Tribune has done its part to deny and obscure the ideas that make the "free marketplace" free.