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Eye on the Media Walter Jacobson
by David R. Guarino
2003-04-23

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The body of work which typifies the ongoing career of Chicago journalism legend Walter Jacobson is as much prolific as it is original and often controversial. Affectionately known in journalistic circles as 'Skippy,' Jacobson's impact on the field of broadcast journalism and its ever-changing direction has been both enduring and profound.

Notwithstanding a distinguished career which has afforded him countless awards, accolades and a stint as one half ( with co-anchor Bill Kurtis ) of a No. 1 ranked 10 p.m. anchor team in Chicago ( CBS News at 10- 1980-1985 ) , Jacobson still looks for new challenges. After more than 40 years in journalism, thousands of thought-provoking stories, countless 'Walter Jacobson Perspectives,' the voice of Walter Jacobson is still raised in support of the common man. His is a lifelong commitment to fight for the people whose voices would otherwise probably never be heard. The man on the street, the 80-year-old woman who cannot afford both medicine and food, the woman in the homeless shelter with six children and no means of support, the guy who was ripped off by a con artist targeting the elderly, corrupt governmental officials and politicians, the controversies rage on. Jacobson fights the good battle and faces his critics both resolute and defiant. Perhaps it is his signature determination that clearly sets Jacobson apart as a legend in Chicago broadcast journalism. Because when Walter Jacobson delivers yet another biting 'Perspective,' you can be sure that the underdog isn't merely an element in the story, he/she is the story. Perhaps no other journalist in Chicago history has so aptly taught us that every voice deserves to be heard, that lasting greatness is often found in simplicity.

A native Chicagoan ( who spent the first 12 years of his life in Rogers Park ) , Walter Jacobson started his lengthy career in print. A lifetime love affair with the news business began with Walter's reporting jobs with the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago American, United Press International, the City News Bureau and Time.

In 1963 television beckoned, and Walter began what was to become a very long and fruitful career as a broadcast journalist in his hometown of the Windy City. Jacobson started out at WBBM-TV in Chicago as a news writer; later he became a news reporter. From 1971-1972 Jacobson moved to WMAQ-TV ( Channel 5 ) as both a news reporter and commentator. But Jacobson was destined to return to the station that would soon make him a household name, and in 1973 Walter began work at WBBM-TV Channel 2. Jacobson worked as an investigative reporter and became known as one of the nation's most outspoken journalists, constantly devoting his emerging talents as a commentator to champion causes for the so-called 'average-guy-on-the-street,' the poor, the misguided and the misinformed. Jacobson began airing his investigations in what would become an award-winning format, the familiar 'Walter Jacobson's Perspective.'

From 1976-1986 Jacobson served as solo anchor of 'The Channel Two News at Five' at WBBM-TV. Jacobson also co-anchored the 10 p.m. news from 1973-1989 and the pairing of Jacobson and legendary broadcast journalist Bill Kurtis ( as co-anchors of 'The Channel Two News at Ten' ) swept the late-night news broadcast into the No. 1 slot from 1980-1985. Some of Jacobson's most notable work was produced during his tenure at Chicago's CBS Channel 2 and includes the Emmy Award winning: 'Walter Jacobson's Journal: China' and the Peabody Award winning: 'Studebaker: Less Than They Promised.'

A political science undergraduate of Grinnell College, Jacobson received his Master's Degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Jacobson has been honored with many distinguished awards. In 1985 a Washington Journalism Review Poll named Jacobson 'Best Local Anchor in the U.S.' A recipient of numerous Emmy Awards from the Chicago Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Jacobson has also been awarded five Peter Lisagor Awards, including one for 'Best Commentary.' The Peabody Award-winning commentator was also honored twice by the Du-Pont Columbia judges, as part of the Channel 2 News Team for 'Best Local Election Coverage in the U.S.' and also for his commentaries.

Today Jacobson co-anchors the Fox News at Nine with co-anchor Robin Robinson, having joined the Fox News Team in May 1993.

A father of four, Walter also is grandfather to three. One of Walter's sons ( who is 37 ) lives in NYC and is an actor. He also has a 39-year-old daughter who lives in Washington and is a consultant on social programs. He has two children from his second marriage, one is 17 and one is 12. Jacobson's second wife Susie was, until recently, an advertising executive and the worldwide marketing director of the Head Ski Corporation. In the past year she has taken a sabbatical and is a competitive equestrian. Walter lives in Lincoln Park with his wife and two youngest children.

DG: Walter, to what do you attribute your continued affinity with the little guy, the underdog, the person whom everybody forgets? You have always had this kinship ( with the average guy ) , this tendency to reach out to people who are otherwise forgotten. Where does that come from?

WJ: I think it begins with a basic contempt or disdain for authority. And I can't tell you where that came from. Maybe my mother was too stern a disciplinarian; maybe I was too raucous and rebellious as a child. But my nature developed in a way that when somebody told me what to do, I wanted to do just the opposite. ( Walter smiles and chuckles ) And that became a kind of skill in my profession, it helped me express judgments on authority beating up on other people. And what bigger authority is there than corporate authority or governmental authority? And so from the time I was a teenager, I had great empathy for people who were being pushed around. And then, by pursuing that it seemed I was responding to a void that needed to be filled in the journalism profession. I turned it into something that clicked. And the more it clicked, the more calls I would get from people who needed help, the more I could hone my skills and gather the information that would demonstrate that they really needed the help. The more I could articulate it in the way ( that ) people could understand it, it grew and grew and I kind of became the 'voice of the little guy' in this particular town. And during ( the past ) 30 years more people watched and more people figured that maybe I could help get problems solved, more people would call and I would have a bigger pool of stories to choose from … and when I could get the pictures to make my point then the stories became more memorable and—here I am!

DG: Walter, I think many would agree that some of your finest years in journalism were spent when you co-anchored the 10 p.m. news on Channel 2 with Bill Kurtis. What was it like working with Bill and being No. 1 in the ratings? Was there a competition between the two of you, an aggression, as was often rumored in the press at that time? Was it really a wonderful match?

WJ: Well, I don't think, first of all, that anybody can be in this business without having a competitive nature. So in that sense, and I call that positive, there was, is and always will be competition between people who work in the same milieu, for the same company. I would imagine that Mike Wallace and Morley Safer and Ed Bradley are competitive with each other, each wanting to do the best that he can. And you can't find better reporters anywhere in the world; maybe their competitiveness with each other helped develop their skills as good investigative reporters. But Bill ( Kurtis ) and I were so dependent on each other for each other's success and our success together as a team that it ( the dependency ) swept away competitive feelings that we needed to have to be able to gather the news the way ( that ) we did. But anybody has these feelings; you're competing with other publications when you interview me. So we have the natural competitive instinct. But we ( Bill and I ) knew that it wasn't a problem. We knew that working together would be better in the long run for both of us.

When I say that, it sounds like we wanted to compete with each other but we better not … that's not the case at all. We wanted to compete together against everybody else. And the people who found us, the CBS executives way back in 1973, had the vision to understand what kind of anchor team might work. Bill was more of the Walter Cronkite type; I was more of the Mike Wallace type. That's a pretty good combination. And when you get a strong, articulate news anchor like Bill Kurtis, who's knowledgeable, and you get an aggressive, picking, annoying force, and you learn how to balance the two, then as the record shows, you've found something that works. And the longer we did it, the more comfortable we became with how to do it, ( not in any way to say it was an act … those were our natures ) the better it worked.

And the more we understood how to do what we did individually as a team; it works with Robin ( Robinson ) and I now. And it works with the other anchor teams. It worked with ( John ) Drury and Mary Ann ( Childers ) , it worked with ( John ) Drury and Diann ( Burns ) . And it worked with Ron ( Magers ) and Carol ( Marin ) .

DG: All wonderful pairings, with similar yet different styles. You and Bill were No. 1 in the 10 p.m. ratings race. It would appear that the decline of Channel Two as the No. 1 watched 10 p.m. news broadcast began after you and Bill ceased being co-anchors of that show. Can you share any of the reasons why you and Kurtis did eventually part ways and why you both decided to leave?

WJ: I don't remember exactly when CBS changed the team, I think over the years viewer demands changed. I mean, Bill and I were an all-white, male team at a time when we were all in this country beginning to understand that women ought to begin playing equal roles at the very least. And the management at that time in the late '70s and early '80s determined that we better include more women in our broadcasts. And that meant that one of us had to play a little bit lesser of a role.

Because Bill was the strong anchor personality, if we had to bring a woman on to the anchor team, I would be the one to step aside. Especially because I was also doing the commentary and CBS could have a male-female anchor team and still have 'Perspective.' Why and exactly when the changes began, I'm not sure. There was a succession of general managers ( at CBS ) with different ideas and different things to prove and different ways to be successful, and so it was just kind of a natural evolution.

DG: Do you and Bill remain friends to this day, Walter?

WJ: Oh yeah, we're friends. We don't see each other a lot personally, Bill is often around the world doing his thing and I'm here ( at Fox News ) every night from 8:30 till 10:30 when one would normally socialize. But we talk on the telephone and we like to talk about where we are now and where we've been and where we're going, what's important. Every day for years or more we were like two peas in a pod, you know, we knew each other so well, we could sense each other's needs right away. So, yes, we are very good friends.

DG: Fast forward to your relationship with your co-anchor Robin Robinson on the Fox News at Nine. What's that been like for you?

WJ: Well now Robin and I have been doing the news together for eight or nine years, maybe 10. And it's the same thing that I had with Bill. We know each other very well and we like each other very much. We enjoy a little bit of combat on the air because we have different views on things and why not express them? And we enjoy tweaking each other now and then. Respect is hugely important and we respect each other. And it is fun working together. Each of us knows that the other will not do something terribly dumb; we help each other. We know by instinct now after all these years when one is caught in a bind with a script that's wrong or a teleprompter that goes backwards or a light that goes off. We know now instinctively what each other is going to do, and we know how to support each other. It's like a good team in business.

DG: Walter, it's a known fact that there are many gay and lesbian individuals working in broadcast journalism, and in the media, period. How do you feel about the gay and lesbian journalists on your staff, and does it matter whether or not they are out at work?

WJ: Well if they're not out I don't know about their choice of lifestyle. If they are out, it makes to me not a wit of difference. I mean, how could I possibly judge a person's competence to cover a news story by the lifestyle that he or she has chosen? I don't even think about it. It's not of any importance to me whatever. I want to work with people who know how to go out and get stories and present them as fairly and objectively as possible. And whether a person is gay or straight is totally irrelevant.

DG: What are your reflections on the emergence of gay and lesbian on-air anchors in recent years?

WJ: Well now that's interesting. I can see a situation in which an anchor person might cause a station to lose audience, because we're so homophobic in this country. And if that's true, if the station can determine that a gay or lesbian anchor might reduce the audience, I can understand why the general manager would be concerned about keeping that person on the air. Because, bottom line, the company has to make money. And if the ratings plunge, the general manager is gone. But, the strong general manager will say, 'No, I don't believe this research, and even if it's accurate it's my responsibility to straighten out the community on this subject.' It's interesting that there are not too many gay and lesbian anchors out there, or are there?

DG: Well, I think there are more reporters who are out as gay and lesbian ... I would venture that I do know of at least two or three anchors …

WJ: In Chicago? Well, then we know that if there are gay and/or lesbian anchors working on-air right now in Chicago then we know that being gay does not reduce the audience. The smart thing would be to come out, because you will be reaching the gay audience! We certainly learned that through business decisions by the advertisers that it wins you audience's money rather than loses it. There is a huge gay/lesbian population out there that is loaded with money. And it is the not-very-bright general manager or newspaper publisher who ignores that. We certainly know that the politicians understand that.

DG: What is the most unfair and/or untrue misconception about you?

WJ: ( Walter smiles ruefully ) How do I express this? I think people are surprised when they meet me personally that I am not this angry, aggressive son-of-a-bitch. I have made a career out of being an investigative reporter, and to many people I appear to be angry, and too strongly opinionated and unfair. And a bully. When they meet me in person, they often say, 'Hey, you're not that guy! There's something kind of nice and charming about you.' Which is absolutely contrary to my persona on the air. However, I don't feel people are unfair to me, people often just don't know the difference between Walter in his job and Walter in his personal life.

DG: Walter, regarding your view on the overall role of journalism, would you say it is more activism or reporting?

WJ: I hope that it is more reporting. I really don't believe that the mission of a newsgathering organization is to activate people and to make change. But there is time and space in the paper and on television for more activist reporting. My two minutes on the air are, as you would describe it, activist reporting, because I want to get somebody at City Hall to straighten out what I have determined ( based on many years of experience ) needs to be changed. But when I am sitting at the anchor desk reading stories about the Congress or Saddam Hussein, that's no time for me to be encouraging activism. People must make their own judgments, and my job is to present the information that, upon consideration, will help them make those judgments. Smaller, more narrowly focused publications often take on a more activist role.

DG: What projects do you wish you had never undertaken, Walter?

WJ: I think the honest answer to that is that I can't think of one. I probably want to say the cigarette-tobacco stories. Those resulted in a $3 million lawsuit. But what I put on the air was true and accurate. There have been projects that I've embarked on that have failed, mainly for a story that I can't track down. There have been occasions where after doing a story, the object of my dart calls and says, 'You were unfair to me.' And I have a moment's feeling of 'Uh-oh … I hope I wasn't.' Then I go back and check to make sure that I wasn't ( unfair ) and say to the person who called, 'Let's go over it again and I'll tell you why I think what I did was fair.' And then I feel perfectly fine about it. There have been a couple of occasions where during a broadcast I say something that isn't 100 percent accurate and the person I've hit calls up and explains to somebody else in the newsroom. But I can't think of anything in all these years that I've done on the air that I'm sorry I did.

DG: Looking back on a career that spans more than 40 years, could you tell me which achievement of yours has left the most profound impact on the field of broadcast journalism?

WJ: ( Walter smiles ) My early ambition was to be a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Then when television began to grow and I understood that it had a greater and more immediate impact on people's views of things and government's behaviors, what was important to me changed. I don't often think of my impact on television as much as my impact on the community.

This is the first time I've been asked what kind of an impact on television I think I've had. I don't know that I can answer that. Somebody else would have to answer that. I don't think I've changed television, but I've grown up in television. I haven't changed the way the media operates, whether it's television or print. I've changed the way government operates, the way that people may look at government.

Maybe ( and somebody else would have to make this judgment ) the media, in my years, has been more willing to do the kinds of stories that I do. That's not true, David, I mean, look at ( Mike ) Royko. Royko was doing what I'm doing before I was doing it. I probably have not had an impact on how the media does its job. I've carved out my two or three minutes a night, but Len O'Connor was doing commentary before I was.

I will say that I'm a thorn in the side of television management because I'm always insisting that we do more serious stories and fewer frivolous stories.

E-mail: DavdRonald@aol.com


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