A Memoir of Fifty Years in Chicago TV News
Publication Year: 2012
Walter Jacobson’s highly readable book Walter’s Perspective: A Memoir of Fifty Years in Chicago TV News provides a unique glimpse into the rough-and-tumble Chicago news business as seen through the eyes of one of its legendary players. From his first news job working as a legman for Daily News columnist Jack Mabley in the 1950s to his later role as a news anchor and political commentator at CBS-owned WBBM, Jacobson battled along the front lines of an industry undergoing dramatic changes. While it is ultimately Jacobson’s story, a memoir of a long and distinguished (and sometimes highly controversial) career, it is also an insider’s account of the inner workings of Chicago television news, including the ratings games, the process of defining news and choosing stories, the media’s power and its failures, and the meddling by corporate and network executives.
As a reporter, Jacobson was regularly contentious and confrontational. He was fired on a number of occasions and was convicted of libeling tobacco company Brown and Williamson, resulting in a multimillion-dollar federal court judgment against him and CBS. Yet it was this gutsy attitude that put him at the top of the news game, enabling him to get inside information on Chicago government and politics, and helped him become the first local television reporter to be granted a visa to visit Communist China. With an engaging writing style, Jacobson relates these experiences and much more. He recollects his interactions with Chicago mayors Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, and Rahm Emanuel; recounts his coverage of such fascinating news stories as the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention and the execution of convicted mass murderer John Wayne Gacy; and recalls his reporting on and interviews with Louis Farrakhan, governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, and Barack Obama. More than a memoir, Walter’s Perspective is the extraordinary journey of one reporter whose distinctive career followed the changing face of Chicago’s local news.
Published by: Southern Illinois University Press
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The month of March is when much of the world celebrates the first signs of spring. But not Chicago. I had to scrape away frost on the window of my Holiday Inn room to catch the rose glow of sunrise creeping over Lake Shore Drive. I hadn’t felt below-freezing temperatures in three years, and my blood was thinner now. That’s what living...
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What was my reaction to the proprietor’s demand? Did I take off my clothes, because I had no inhibitions about doing so or because I was on assignment and didn’t want to fail or because, well . . . why not? Did I insist on leaving my clothes on, to let the proprietor know I cover stories dressed as I want to be? The big question is how was I to interview...
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There are reporters in Chicago, many of them, who are fighting the good fight—to raise the standards of our television and radio broadcasts. Every day, all day, from first assignment in the morning to a kicker on the ten o’clock news, there are reporters who know stories that need to be told but are not, or that need not be told...
1. Once a Cubs Fan . . .
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Or because early in my career, I was—due to a mistaken identity, I swear— tagged with the nickname “Skippy,” which has stuck to this day. It’s an uphill battle to be taken seriously when you wear a moniker like that. In my “honor,” Her Honor the playful Chicago mayor Jane Byrne once anointed the symbol of the city’s snow-removal program...
2. I’m a Legman
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Grinnell was, and still is, highly regarded for its academics. But that’s not why I chose to go there. As good as the school was in teaching, it was bad in swimming, my sport. Thus: an opportunity for me to move up from second string in high school to first string in college. The promise of being the top guy in the hundred-yard backstroke...
3. The City News Bureau, Queen Elizabeth, and Me
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Mabley enjoyed mentoring, felt good about teaching me some of the rules of his road, and was pleased with my work. In fact, he said he’d come to depend on my help, and that he’d have a hard time replacing me. He knew how much I didn’t want to be replaced, how much I loved being in the city room of the...
4. Jacobson versus Royko
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I ventured out on a story to which I was not assigned but hustled on my own and learned a lesson about journalism elitism, about reporters, writers, and television anchors who get to thinking we’re better than other people because we believe our work is more important than theirs, and that therefore we deserve special privileges. Well, it’s not, and...
5. New to TV: From JFK to Muhammad Ali
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He was right about my being little, no doubt about it. I was five-foot-seven, 135 pounds. And a “nobody?” He was right about that, too. So I did it his way— slapped my mouth, drooped to my desk in a corner of the newsroom (the “somebodies” got to sit in the center of the room), and wrote news for broadcast...
6. The First Mayor Daley
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Murder always is big news in Chicago, and when it involves children, it’s bigger still. But, what matters most in Chicago (next to the Cubs, of course) is city hall—not governance, but politics; not the hands of public service, but the muscle of money and votes. That’s how it’s been for as long as the Cubs haven’t won a World Series...
7. My Mouth Runneth Over
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Mid-August is a steamy, sweaty time in Chicago. In 1968 the city is further sizzled by the hot air of politics—the Democratic National Convention! President Lyndon Johnson says he’s not a candidate for the nomination. The war in Vietnam has worn him down. He wants out and gets out, and some ten thousand agitating activists are...
8. From Reporter to Commentator
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Before heading upstairs, I call WMAQ Channel 5 and ask to speak to Bob Lemon, the general manager. I’ve talked with him at events, but never for more than a minute or two. He’s a disarmingly friendly but serious man in his early forties, of light and kindly features, a comfortable smile, and eyes that say, “You can talk to me.” At about...
9. From Commentator to . . . Anchor!
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Why does Van Gordon Sauter want to get together with me? To ask what I know about Channel 2, about the local news scene, the mayor’s chances of being reelected next year? You never know in this business why somebody wants to get together with somebody. He can’t be thinking about bringing me back to Channel 2, can he? He knows why...
10. Heat from Jesse Jackson
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Never underestimate the determination of a reporter in pursuit of a scoop. I know that because of the work being done by my legmen in our corner of the newsroom. In 1976, I have three assistants digging for stories for “Perspective,” and shoveling up some very good ones: city workers filling potholes for three hours in the morning...
11. Madame Mayor
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As far as I know, in his twenty-one years as mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley never felt the need to go to a television station to defend himself. His successor felt it. Mayor Michael Bilandic spent seventeen bizarre minutes live on camera telling me, Bill Kurtis, and our viewers that I was wrong in reporting hanky-panky involved...
12. Bill Kurtis and the Golden Age of TV News
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Lech Walesa is guiding the anti-Communist Solidarity workers’ movement in Poland. He’s an international symbol of freedom, a superstar hero in Chicago’s Polish neighborhoods. In the fall of 1978, I’m scheduled for an interview with him on the same day I’m to meet with Karol Cardinal Wojtyła, the archbishop of Krakow. The archbishop...
13. Brown and Williamson versus Walter Jacobson
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The mailman comes to Channel 2 twice a day, not carrying a bag over his shoulder, but pushing a two-by-four-foot canvas container on wheels through the delivery entrance on Erie Street. He checks in at the security desk, rolls his cargo up to a wall of cubbyholes outside the newsroom, and sorts the envelopes by name. Twenty-five or thirty...
14. A New Mayor, a Controversial Minister, and an Old Nemesis
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What a story! He emerges from a three-way free-for-all in the Democratic primary—Byrne versus Washington versus Daley, Richard M., the son, who splits the white vote with Byrne, while Washington runs off with the black vote complemented by just enough white votes to win. The totals are 30 percent for Daley, 33 percent for...
15. Council Wars and Newsroom Woes
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It’s 1982. Kurtis is leaving Chicago for New York, leaving the station, leaving me, to cash in the chip he was given nine years earlier for coming to WBBM, a chance for a bite of the Big Apple—an anchor chair on The CBS Morning News. He’ll be teaming up with Diane Sawyer, whose destiny is to go to ABC to become the second woman in television...
16. Another Mayor Daley and Another TV Station
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Bill’s been in New York for a year. When we talk on the telephone, occasionally, I hear nostalgia. I wonder if he’s thinking he’s made a mistake. Anchoring network is much more difficult and more stressful than local. He’s in a newsroom smaller, darker, and more crowded than ours in Chicago. He’s on a floor below bosses on a floor below bosses...
17. Fox News, Mayor Daley (the second), and Barack Obama
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There aren’t many jobs in television news in Chicago, not for an anchor with some gray around the edges. Not in 1993, the dawning of the age of unenlightenment, the “Age of Young.” Talent scouts for television news are looking for twenty-five-year-old anchorettes, preferably with blonde hair falling over eyes under flashing lashes. Retailers...
18. Good-bye to Fox
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My contract will be up soon, and I know that barring a revolution at corporate headquarters in New York, I won’t be offered a new one. In fact, an anchor just hired is being described by the media as my replacement-in-waiting. He is Mark Suppelsa from WMAQ-Channel 5, and rumor has it there’s a clause in his contract assuring him that...
19. The Ups and Downs of Celebrity
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Pick a day, any day. I’m at work at my desk when a good friend calls to ask if I’d please make a reservation for him for dinner at RL, on Chicago Avenue off Michigan, currently the most “in” place in town, where Mayor Daley brings a few close friends, and Oprah Winfrey a table-full. It’s nearly impossible to get in, especially when calling...
20. Yanked from Retirement
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All-in-all, as Kiernan figures, Kurtis-Jacobson ’73 is worth a look. The nostalgia is thick, but not overbearing. We are relaxed, comfortable, and, as we always were, helpful to each other. To us, the fun of thirty minutes thirty-seven years later makes it feel like we never stopped. And I don’t once blow the prompter. If there is something missing, it’s Bill’s not...
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At seventy-two in a world of forty-twos and thirty-twos, I must not be hearing him right. That’s fantasy talk, two reporters our age (Bill’s now sixty-eight), wearing hair not salt-and-pepper anymore, but all salt, fitting into television’s youth brigade. There’s no way. CBS gambling two-year contracts on an anchor team of the past, noticeably older than...
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Publication Year: 2012