They did the crimes. So why is WGN punishing us?

February 22, 2010

Friday was a good day for convicted felons at Tribune Co: One turned up as a commentator on its television stations, and another landed a midday fill-in gig on its flagship radio station. Both acts showed the depths to which a once-great company has sunk under its current regime of cynicism and contempt for the audience.

Larry Mendte

On the TV side, the infamous Larry Mendte made his surprise debut on WGN-Channel 9's 5 p.m. newscast with a commentary about Tiger Woods. Not since Jerry Springer stepped into a similar role 13 years ago has there been such horrendous miscasting on the local news. (The Springer fiasco, you'll recall, cost WMAQ-Channel 5 the services of its two esteemed principal news anchors, Ron Magers and Carol Marin, and nearly wrecked the NBC-owned station.)

Mendte, 53, will always be remembered here as "Scary Larry," the showboater who anchored and reported for WBBM-Channel 2 from 1991 to 1996. Suffice it to say that he represented the worst of the tabloid news era at the CBS-owned station, inspiring Chicago Tribune media critic James Warren to keep tabs on him in a weekly feature called "Mendte Watch." "I apologize for not being boring," Mendte told me years later. "I know you like that."

Mendte showed his true colors as a journalist when he left Channel 2 to become the first co-host of "Access Hollywood" (alongside the equally qualified Giselle Fernandez). But all that was just a prelude to his performance of a lifetime as a criminal defendant in Philadelphia.

In 2008, Mendte pleaded guilty to illegally accessing the email of Alycia Lane while the two were anchors at Philadelphia's KYW-TV. It was the culmination of a scandal that involved his breaking into her email more than 500 times and leaking embarrassing information about her to gossip columnists. Mendte acknowledged that he'd carried on "a flirtatious, unprofessional and improper relationship" with Lane while he was married to anchorwoman (and Channel 2 alum) Dawn Stensland. Lane reportedly told the FBI that Mendte bought her a platinum necklace from Tiffany's, and that the two "had kissed approximately four to five times with a regularity of approximately once every three weeks; the relationship never got to the point of touching bodies." After the relationship ended, Mendte apparently channeled his jealously and vindictiveness into illegal computer hacking. Although he could have been sentenced to five years in prison on the felony charge, he received six months of house arrest, three years probation and a fine.

Despite that baggage, Mendte was able to parlay his friendship with Bill Carey, a former co-worker at Channel 2 here, into a gig as a commentator at Tribune-owned WPIX-TV in New York (where Carey landed as news director after his own scandal at a station he headed in Tampa, Fla.). The deal calls for Mendte to do five pieces a week ‚  --  "based on Larry's unique take on topics that Larry chooses" -- that are intended to air on Tribune stations nationwide.

What we witnessed on Friday was Mendte, dressed in a black leather coat, sauntering into a bar and expounding on the Tiger Woods scandal, which he observed was "like something out of a farcical comedy."Not once did Mendte refer to his own brush with public disgrace or marital indiscretion. Instead, he smugly talked about how for men everywhere "the 'what do you think of Tiger?' question became the biggest trick question since 'do I look fat in this dress?' or 'do you think my girlfriend is pretty?' " He then proposed that guys use code names to rate the attractiveness of Tiger's mistresses when other women are around. (Here is the link to his commentary.)

How could "Chicago's Very Own" justify airing such a horribly inappropriate spectacle from such a stunningly inappropriate source? Despite three inquiries Friday, Channel 9 officials refused to answer my questions or provide any comment whatsoever. Which leads me to surmise that they find it as indefensible as I do. It has all the earmarks of a corporate cram-down from Tribune Tower. (Channel 9 news director Greg Caputo did tell the Tribune's Phil Rosenthal that he believed "viewers would appreciate the pieces.")

But that's not all.

James Laski

Friday also saw news/talk WGN-AM (720) pass over countless more qualified professionals so that another convicted felon, James Laski, could begin a fill-in stint for midday host John Williams. Laski, 56, who's been free-lancing on weekends under program director Kevin "Pig Virus" Metheny, is the former city clerk of Chicago who served 11 months in a federal penitentiary for accepting bribes in exchange for steering business to personal and political friends. Unless you count his being picked up on wiretaps soliciting bribes, Laski's prior radio experience was nil.

Setting aside his obvious deficiencies as a talk show host, what's even more jaw-dropping is to hear Laski rail against public corruption and dishonest politicians, as he did during a monologue Friday about Mayor Daley's plans to fill aldermanic vacancies.

Showcasing scoundrels like Mendte and Laski is emblematic of today's Tribune Co. under the stewardship of CEO Randy Michaels, a radio reprobate and old crony of Sam Zell, who seems to show no regard for the legacy he was handed -- or respect for Chicago viewers and listeners who expect and deserve a lot better.