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The [Wednesday] Papers

UPDATE 2: See Ray Hanania's response below.

UPDATE 1: See Jacobson's revealing comments below to Spike O'Dell on WGN-AM this morning.

*

I was on Chicago Tonight last night discussing the Amy Jacobson kerfuffle - I thought it was right that she lost her job for crossing what is an obvious ethical line to me and anyone who was paying attention in J101. I'd like to make several additional points and address the real issue that few want to talk about.

1. Getting the story isn't everything. Taking your children to the home of a man still under police suspicion in the disappearance of his estranged wife is not a great idea - even if Craig Stebic is innocent. (Though police haven't officially named Stebic as a suspect - they have all sorts of reasons for not doing so - he is indeed under suspicion, and in fact is refusing to speak to investigators. AP also reports that "Lisa Stebic had mailed off a petition seeking to remove her husband from the home. In the divorce case, she accused him of being 'unnecessarily relentless, cruel, inconsiderate, domineering and verbally abusive." Those allegations aren't necessarily true, but they ought to be enough for a sensible reporter to keep the appropriate distance.)

"It was a way for me to do my work and have fun with my kids," Jacobson told the Sun-Times's Robert Feder.

Oy.

2. What if police, acting upon evidence they had developed, showed up at the home with a search warrant, or to make an arrest, or had reason to surround the house with a SWAT team? You don't put your kids in the middle of a live criminal investigation. At least not as a reporter. Friends and family can make their own determination.

3. Stebic is not allowing his kids to speak to police. But what if they speak to your kids while they are playing? You don't put your kids in the middle of a live criminal investigation.

4. What if your kids stumble upon evidence playing in the rec room?

5. Is this all because of the bikini? Yes and no. People in skimpy swimwear - men and women - in a public place like a beach is one thing, or even at a pool party among strangers if you are also among friends. But it's a level of intimacy that is just plain creepy in the home of a man - innocent or not - in the swirl, again, of an ongoing criminal investigation into the disappearance of his estranged wife.

6. But that's Jacobson's M.O.

"Throughout her 11 years at the station, Jacobson has been known as an aggressive reporter who ingratiates herself with sources and sometimes employs questionable methods to get stories," Feder reports. "Though she was a lightning rod for rumors, her bosses generally looked the other way and praised her for bringing them the scoops."

"Attorney Ronald A. Stearney Jr., who represented the family of a 6-year-old boy killed in a 2005 plane accident outside Midway airport, accused Jacobson of 'a classic bait and switch' at that time for dangling a big appearance on NBC's Today to secure a Channel 5 interview with the late boy's family," Tribune media writer Phil Rosenthal reports.

"Stearney said Tuesday 'she is able to deliver the interviews at whatever costs.'"

7. "There was never any challenge as to my motivation or intent," Jacobson told Feder.

"Sources said Jacobson told her Channel 5 bosses she was trying to gain the confidence of Stebic's sister by accepting an invitation to visit the family's home on her day off," Rosenthal reports.

Did Stebic's sister know she was being played? Or was it a mutual play-off? Either way, it's patently dishonest and it stinks.

(From AP: "'We're very sad because Amy was one of our staunchest allies, she was a champion of the story,' said Melanie Greenberg, who acts as the Stebic family spokeswoman. 'It makes a difference when you have a dedicated reporter covering the story.'"

(A reporter's job isn't to be an ally and champion to anything or anyone but the truth. It's not clear at all that that is what Jacobson was dedicated to here.)

8. But isn't that what reporters do? The crappy ones. The idea that socializing with "sources" is good reporting is noxious. First, newsmakers aren't sources. They are newsmakers; usually public officials or operatives. Sources are the whistleblowers who tell you what's really going on, as opposed to what the newsmakers want you to think is going on.

Too few reporters learn that it's better not to be friends with newsmakers. You don't need them to do your job. In fact, you're better off without them. You want whistleblowers calling you, not their bosses.

When I was police reporter on my first newspaper job in Lakeland, Florida, we exposed wrongdoing in pretty much every law enforcement unit in our area within my first month on the beat - the county sheriff's department, the city police department, the local state highway patrol office. I said half-jokingly to my editor, "Now no one will talk to me!" He replied quickly and curtly: "Like they're talking to you now!"

He was right. My phone never stopped ringing from whistleblowers during the rest of my time there, we could write any story we wanted from police reports and court records, and in fact the good cops and sheriff's deputies as well as the highest officials respected the accuracy and fairness of our work. We weren't treated like the suck-ups, and it was for all the better. My phone calls got returned, and it wasn't to make lunch dates.

9. Did Jacobson really deliver "scoops"? To steal a line from Zay Smith, add scoops to the list of things that aren't what they used to be. To what end was Jacobson insinuating herself into the Stebic family? To get some sort of tearful tabloid interview in a story with marginal public value? It's not as if Jacobson was spending her day off crunching numbers to show us how much the Olympics will really cost should we land them, or dogging the mayor to find out why he won't sit for a deposition about police torture despite his promise to do just that.

Soap opera voyeurism should never be mistaken for journalism.

10. Was Channel 2 right to air the video? Well, it broke news that cost a well-known broadcaster her job, so I'd say yes. Would Jacobson still have her job if the video wasn't aired? Probably, because neither the public nor possibly her bosses would have known what she had done. The existence of the video also shredded her credibility unless she could offer an innocuous and easily believable explanation; every time she would report a story in the future all we would think about would be that video, and if she was palling around with her sources.

Who shot the video? I have no idea, but Channel 2 has said it wasn't a freelancer, though they seem to be hinting that it wasn't them either. Here's one suggestion I've heard (and it's only an unsubstantiated suggestion): The Stebic house is probably under police surveillance.

11. The real problem? The energy and resources invested in soap opera tabloid voyeurism disguised as journalism. Local TV news shows are essentially entertainment packages built around content with news elements. In a crowded (and distrusted) media marketplace, a brand with authority is hard to find. Oldstream broadcast outlets (and newspapers) have squandered their most salable quality - that this is where you can turn to for the truth about important things in your world.

12. Would this have been a story if Jacobson was a man? Absolutely. Contrary to what some folks are saying, including the Tribune's Eric Zorn, a male reporter in a Speedo at a pool party for a woman under a cloud of suspicion in the same circumstances would absolutely be news. Bob Greene was fired for a tryst he had with a subject of one of his columns - some 15 or so years earlier. Ray Hanania lost his cityside reporting job at the Sun-Times at least in part due to his romantic relationship with then-City Treasurer Miriam Santos*. While there is no evidence (that I'm aware of) of a romantic relationship between Jacobson and Craig Stebic, befriending - and even in many cases merely socializing with - sources is a clear ethical violation that knows no gender boundaries. If Mark Suppelsa was seen in a swimsuit at a pool party at the home of a woman whose crime story he was covering, it would have been news just the same.

13. But don't male reporters do it all the time? Don't they golf and drink and chase skirts with sources? Yes, and it's disgusting and wrong. It's hardly "enterprising reporting." It's schmoozing of the worst kind that results in little Judith Millers everywhere. And what reporters learn from "sources" in these situations is almost always entirely useless (especially if it's all off-the-record) or simply a reinforcement of the prevailing view.

Zorn writes in response to a commenter on his blog: "You make my case when you observe that 'other journalists in this town' and, in fact, all over, routinely attended such functions. They go to social functions to schmooze and dish and make connections that pay off later on."

Just how do they pay off? I spent 20 years as a newspaper and magazine reporter and I was never a schmoozer. When, at my editor's urging, I took a series of folks out to lunch while at Chicago magazine, it was a waste of time. It can make you feel like an insider, but it's a horrible substitute for real reporting. All it does is bend your worldview to that of the pols and propaganda artists by softening you up and putting yourself in a position where you have a personal and professional stake in the people you cover - exactly what you don't want.

Another Zorn commenter identified as Ig posted this: "As a former reporter, I couldn't disagree more on this line from one of your responses:

"'Again, reporters hang with sources all the time.'

"I never went to a source's home. I didn't because I never wanted to give the the competition (in my case, the Tribune) or anyone else the opportunity to question my integrity.

"I don't care if Amy is a man or woman, she is (was?) a journalist. I understand in competitive markets you toe the line to get an advantage but Amy crossed it - big time.

"And you know, the Tribune wouldn't even be thinking about what action to take. If one of your reporters was in this situation, they'd be fired."

14. So Channel 5 did the right thing? Almost. The station's failure to make public the results of its own review and provide the transparency it demands of its news subjects does us all a disservice.

15. But . . . what about Marion Brooks? Good question. Channel 5 doesn't have a problem employing someone who had an affair with the mayor of Atlanta while she was a reporter there. Just to show you how fraught with danger that is, Brooks was compelled to testify at a federal corruption trial about the affair.

16. But reporters are human too, aren't they? They develop feelings. Well, yes. You inform your bosses, beg off your beat, wait until after you are done covering a story to befriend or date someone, or find another line of work.

*

UPDATE 1 at 10:30 A.M.: Jacobson had this to say on Spike O'Dell's show this morning:

"I'm very good friends with Lisa Stebic's family . . . I'm friends with Lisa's family because when I'm on a story I don't want to get beat."

So you're a professional friend-maker?

"I know I made a horrible mistake."

But not a firable one, she says.

She also said this was a chance for her to be a mother with another mother with kids of a similar age as hers. So it was a social visit, at least in part.

"Channel 2 took extreme measures to get me off the story."

Sounds more like Channel 5 did.

- The full interview is available at chicagotribune.com.

*UPDATE 2 at 2:45 P.M.: From Ray Hanania: I just wanted to add a note about my relationship with Miriam Santos, which I am sure will come up more as a result of the Jacobson firing.

It's a point that always gets lost in the story. (But I am not criticizing your reference to it at all.)

When I started dating Santos, I immediately made the editors of the Sun-Times aware of it. In fact, several Sun-Times editors had dinner at our home while we were living together. Even the Tribune reporter who "broke" the story eight months later had dinner at our home without raising an eyebrow before. When I started dating Santos, I transferred to the Cook County beat - off the City Hall beat - to avoid a conflict-of-interest. I worked at the County beat for about eight months when Mayor Daley and his staff got into a fight with Santos and began attacking her. They alleged I was telling her what to do, trying to make her look like Jane Byrne, whose reporter/husband Jay McMullen often managed her politics.

Instead of standing by me, the newspaper forced me out. My dismissal was more about politics between the newspaper and Mayor Daley than it was about an ethical lapse, but the ethical lapse always makes for a better story than to believe that somehow a mayor often goes to bed with the editors of a newspaper :)

And, I wasn't covering City Hall and had been off that beat for eight months when it all came down.

Anyway, just a note on the issue and thanks for listening.

*

EDITOR'S NOTE: I can't vouch for the varying claims in the widely-reported Hanania-Santos case. Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown put it this way in 2002:

"[Hanania] got himself in trouble by getting into a romantic relationship with former City Treasurer Miriam Santos. He was accused of helping Santos prepare a press release, a conflict-of-interest that he still denies, but the result was that he and the Sun-Times parted company in 1991."

*

Comments? Send them through the Tipline. You must provide a real name to be considered for publication - or a good reason why you'd prefer not to.

*

In Today's Beachwood
In case you missed these fabulous offerings:

* Jim DeRogatis responds to my Live Earth commentary.

* The [Tuesday] Papers.

* Four Decades in the (Time-)Life of Folk Rock.

* Ramen Review #1.

* Cate Plys's Open Letter to Eric Zorn and Rich Miller.

* Hail Kwik-E-Mart! Including a review of Buzz Cola.

The Beachwood Tipline: Like a pool party in your head.



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Posted on July 11, 2007


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