Thursday, July 12, 2007
Career Suicide Blonde
If you have an IQ slightly above that of a toaster oven and pay attention to the news only when it's something actually worth paying attention to, you might've missed the ridiculous controversy that's been the talk of Chicago over the past few days.
It involves a (now former) local television reporter who was caught on camera by a competing station visiting the home of a missing woman's estranged husband.
In a bikini.
With her kids.
According to Amy Jacobson -- who up until two days ago was an investigative reporter for WMAQ, the NBC owned-and-operated station in Chicago -- she was invited to come over to the house by the sister of Craig Stebic while she was on her way to the beach with her children. Stebic's wife has been missing since April 30th.
Since no reporter had yet landed an interview with Stebic, Jacobson made the necessary detour and just happened to be on the patio deck while a camera crew from WBBM, the CBS owned-and-operated station in Chicago, was shooting.
WBBM's news-director Joe Ahern, purportedly sensing impropriety afoot, immediately decided that the video was "newsworthy" and by that afternoon pictures of Amy Jacobson -- standing by Stebic's pool, sans full clothing -- were splattered all over WBBM's air.
Since the incident, Jacobson has embarked on a round-the-clock contrition tour -- apologizing to anyone who will listen for what she admits was a monumental lapse in judgment. It hasn't, however, been enough to save her from the axe; WMAQ fired her within 24 hours of the tape's airing, leaving the 11 year veteran (an eternity in local news incidentally) devastated, according to friends.
I'm not going to delve too deeply into whether Amy Jacobson deserved to be fired for her admittedly stupid mistake; she didn't, and the fact that she was no doubt encouraged to do whatever was necessary to get the story and was then unceremoniously kicked to the curb when the tactics she employed left egg all over WMAQ's face -- well, that's just par for the course from the gutless wastes who run NBC these days. (They were willing to can Don Imus, a guy who was irrelevant to be sure -- but an irrelevant rainmaker; there was no way a local nobody like Jacobson was safe.)
What's truly offensive though, insofar as it assumes a spectacular level of stupidity from the rest of us, is WBBM's sanctimonious assertion that it had only the noblest of journalistic intentions in airing the video of the Stebic/Jacobson pool party in the first place -- citing the public's supposed right to know and employing the ubiquitous defense wherein its managers purport to have "thought long and hard" (no pun intended) before making a decision that they no doubt figured would almost certainly increase ratings exponentially.
If you believe for a second that Joe Ahern, when presented with salacious pictures of his competition's star reporter, ran it to air faster than you can say "Sweep the leg Johnny" because he truly believed that his little exclusive was newsworthy -- congratulations, you're just about as bright as the average local news station needs you to be.
There's an unspoken "gentleman's agreement" in most news markets that the scandal and gossip of one station won't become fodder for another. The reason for this is obvious; it's the same reason that mistreating POWs is an entirely ill-advised endeavor -- it's only a matter of time before the tables are turned. Traditionally, local TV stations are populated with the largest group of drunks, drug-users, sexual-deviants, and generally dysfunctional misfits and lost souls not also confined to 6-by-10 foot cells.
I have yet to work in a newsroom that isn't bursting at the seams with amoral behavior -- the kind that would make the sickening, secret undercurrent of Blue Velvet look like an episode of Leave it to Beaver; the kind that would make for the most titillating of prurient headlines were someone actually willing to report it.
But rarely is anyone, and often with good reason. There have been times when I've marveled at how an honest news item involving a competing local anchor or reporter can be swept so quietly under the rug, but likewise, I have -- on rare occasions -- watched the line between the legitimate and the frivolous blurred to the point where the dignity of that same anchor or reporter can be gleefully sacrificed on the altar of ratings-driven Schadenfreude.
I concede that to the average person, it's probably difficult to feel any kind of sympathy for Amy Jacobson. Make no mistake though -- a shark's sudden willingness to rip its own kind to pieces, as opposed to innocent people, in no way makes the shark a more honorable creature. This would be particularly true were that shark to suddenly stand up and begin attempting to justify its actions through self-righteous bullshit.
WBBM ran the video for one reason and one reason only, and it certainly wasn't that Joe Ahern felt he would be shirking his journalistic responsibility by choosing not to run it. The video was aired because it was an almost surefire ratings grabber.
Except that it wasn't.
On the evening that Ahern decided to air a piece of video which had no actual story to back it up -- merely innuendo and a call for the audience to "make up its own ending" -- his station, WBBM CBS 2, finished where it always does in the ratings: Dead last.
A pathetic and desperate gamble -- one that cost a woman her job and surrendered what little journalistic integrity WBBM may have had in the first place -- paid out absolutely nothing.
Amy Jacobson did what has, sadly, become expected of today's news reporters.
Joe Ahern did what is, infuriatingly, becoming all too common for today's news managers.
Both should've done better.
(Update: As of Friday morning, Craig Stebic is regarded as a "person of interest" in the disappearance of his wife. In other words, he's a suspect; the half-assed "person of interest" designation rose to prominence immediately following the whole Richard Jewell debacle. Since Jewell's investigation in the aftermath of the Olympic Park bombing back in 1996 -- a crime with which he was never charged but was nonetheless tried and convicted of by a frenzied and irresponsible media -- police are now careful to rarely name an official suspect in high-profile cases.)