Thursday, July 12, 2007

Idiots of the Week (Chicago Media Edition)

Meet Amy Jacobson. She's a former reporter for WMAQ-TV, the NBC-owned station in Chicago. We say "former" because Ms. Jacobson lost her job yesterday, after her bosses learned about a little pool party she participated in last week. The party was held at the home of Michael Stebic, a Plainfield, Illinois man whose wife, Lisa, has been missing for more than two months. Mr. Stebic was the last person to see his wife; while he has not been charged with any crime, police now describe him as a "person of interest" in her disappearance.

According to Ms. Jacobson, she was on her way to a swimming pool with her young sons when Stebic's sister called, and invited her over to discuss the case. Jacobson, who had been covering the story for WMAQ, agreed, and arrived in her bathing suit, sons in tow. She spent several hours at Stebic's house, swimming and socializing with other families who were at the residence. Apparently, Ms. Jacobson saw nothing wrong with being a bit "chummy" with the folks she's been covering since April.

Unknown to the intrepid reporter, someone was recording the pool party, and the tape wound up in the hands of rival WBBM-TV, which is owned by CBS. The suits at WBBM, after four days of "wrangling" over whether to air the tape, erred on the side of ratings and viewers; The Jacobson story led local newscasts on Channel 2, and the station posted a six-minute version of the Amy's swim video on its website, attracting more than 200,000 "views."

When the tape aired on WBBM, execs at WMAQ realized they had a problem and Ms. Jacobson was sent packing, for violating "conflict of interest" rules. Jacobson says she made "an error in judgment" by going to the swim party, while claiming that she did it "to advance the story."

We're also told that Ms. Jacobson has (apparently) been down this road before. As Media columnist Robert Feder of the Chicago Sun-Times observes:

"Jacobson has been known as an aggressive reporter who ingratiates herself with sources and sometimes employs questionable methods to get stories. Though she was a lightning rod for rumors, her bosses generally looked the other way and praised her for bringing them the scoops."

At least, until that tape surfaced.

As for the folks at Channel 2, they haven't covered themselves in glory, either. News Director Carol Fowler won't say how the station obtained the tape, or provide a detailed justification for airing it:

"This is a tape that fell into our lap," she said. "It was certainly provocative, but I wasn't sure we were going to do anything with it. A lot of questions had to be asked before we put it on the air. . . . We didn't see much compelling reason [to air it] because it wasn't germane to anything in the case."

Perhaps we can be of assistance. From out perspective, the Jacobson case is nothing but the latest example of media duplicity and hypocrisy, motivated by a desire to get the story at any cost and zing the competition, when the opportunity arises. And collectively, it demonstrates that there's more than one idiot at work in Chicago television.

We'll begin with Ms. Jacobson. Talking to sources is an essential part of any reporter's job. But at a pool party? In a bikini? At the home of a man you've been covering? With your own kids along for the ride? How about arranging child care for your sons, then meeting with your contacts on neutral turf, in more appropriate attire? That's what we were taught in journalism school. But then again, Ms. Jacobson is an attractive woman; perhaps she thought that her bikini-clad figure would persuade Craig Stebic to divulge more details about his relationship with his missing wife. For her complete disregard of professional standards, Jacobson deserved to get the boot, and she's a worthy recipient of an "Idiot of the Week" award.

But our list of nit-wits doesn't end there. WBBM's Carol Fowler deserves an award as well, for her high-minded deliberations over whether she should air the Jacobson tape. In the interim, word of the tape began to circulate in Chicago media circles, and stories appeared in the Sun-Times and Tribune. Hmmm.....wonder where those stories originated? If you guessed Channel 2, give yourself a gold star and move to the head of the class. There's another term for that four-day wait; it's called generating a buzz, and WBBM aired the tape just as the "frenzy" reached its zenith. Coincidence? You be the judge.

In another era, Fowler would have declined to air the tape and called her counterpart at WMAQ, who would have fired the over-zealous reporter. Of course, in that same era it's unlikely that a reporter would have gone for a swim with someone who might become a murder suspect.

Finally, we'd be remiss if we didn't bestow a separate "Idiot" award to the journalism profs (and similar types) who spend hours agonizing over the "ethics" of their profession. How can you worry about something that's gone the way of the 8mm newsreel camera and the Remington typewriter? We've always believed that the "ethics of journalism" could be inscribed on one side of a 3"x5" card, with plenty of room left over for a couple of cookie recipies.

Put another way: when confronted by an ethical dilemma, journalists almost always do the wrong thing. From publishing or broadcasting classified information to taking a dip with a missing man's wife, professional conduct becomes a secondary concern when you're trying to scoop the competition, sell a few more newspapers, or attract a larger audience for the 10 O'clock News. And, lest we forget, Chicago reporters were the inspiration for The Front Page. Outrageous behavior is a time-honored tradition among media types in the Windy City.

For journalists behaving badly--and those who fret about it--we bestow our Idiot of the Week Award(s) to Amy Jacobson, Carol Fowler, and the various ethicists who worry about a long-fallen profession.


ADDENDUM: Apparently, the "standards" that led to Amy Jacobson's dismissal in Chicago don't apply to NBC's sister network, Telemundo. As you'll recall, Telemundo recently suspended a female anchor at its Los Angeles station, after it was revealed that she was having an affair with the city's mayor, someone she also "covered" as a journalist.


DebbieKinIL said...

Yeah, saw this story in the Chicago Tribune the other day. I'm wondering how many other "meetings" she had with those she was writing about.
Is she a blonde? LOL!

Shark Girl said...

I didn't know news media had conflict of interest rules. I wonder if that's a local rule, or if it's all across the nation.

I got a phone call from a CBS reporter who said she wanted to report my story. When I told her who all was involved, she immediately began defending them and wouldn't report the story.

The people involved are key defendants in lawsuits I have against them. She failed to report the story and is now working for the defendants and in fact, is pictured side by side on the site of one of the organizations involved in disputes concerning Robins Air Force Base.

13WMAZ (Macon, GA) was the station she worked for and they refuse to report the story. Too bad their rivals don't go snooping around to find out why their former reporter is so chummy with the defendants that she couldn't do fair and balanced reporting.

I think I'll have to find out if CBS has conflict of interest rules.

Unknown said...

Debbie--Looks like she is/was a blonde. Rumors suggest that she had been to Stebic's home many times, which attracted the attention of the neighbors, one of whom contacted WBBM.

Sharks--Rules on what constitutes a "conflict of interest" vary from one organization to the next. WMAZ is a CBS affiliate, but they aren't owned by the network. Their "rules" would be determined by the station, or their parent company.

But the scenario you raise is very intriguing. Here's how I would handle it. First, contact the station and ask to speak to the news director or assignment editor. Explain that one of their reporters inquired about your story, then backed off when you described the players. Ask if the reporter's decision reflected their editorial judgment, and why she is working for the defendants. And ask them flat-out: does the reporter's affiliation with the defendants violate their conflict of interest rules. I would also register a complaint if the reporter is still on the story. Send registered letters to the news director, station manager, and the CEO of their parent company.

Also, since you mention that lawsuits are involved, I assume that you have an attorney. I would encourage you to coordinate your "media" strategy with him. He probably has friends in the press who can present your side. Additionally, if WMAZ is being one-sided in its coverage, that could (potentially) taint the jury pool or the judge's ruling.