Will half a reporter make 'Chicago Tonight' whole?

March 17, 2010

Ash-har Quaraishi

Three months after WTTW-Channel 11 cut veteran correspondent Rich Samuels from the staff of "Chicago Tonight" because of a "seven-figure shortfall" in the public television station's budget, there's a new reporter coming on-board. But in this case, the newcomer's duties (and presumably his salary) will be split between Channel 11 and the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative.

Ashhar Quraishi has been hired as a multimedia correspondent and content producer who will alternate working for Channel 11 and CNC each week, according to a joint announcement Tuesday. His duties will include reporting for "Chicago Tonight" and its website, writing for CNC's Chicago news pages in the New York Times and CNC's website, and helping other employees "broaden their talents for video-based reporting."

Quraishi, a former CNN correspondent and bureau chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, most recently was chief investigative reporter for KCTV-TV in Kansas City, Mo. He's a Chicago native and a graduate of Von Steuben High School and the University of Illinois.

"Sharing a journalist is one of the initial steps in cementing a collaborative relationship between the excellent journalists at WTTW and the Chicago News Cooperative," CNC editor Jim O'Shea said in a statement. Since its launch last fall, CNC has been sharing facilities and resources with the public television station. Dan Schmidt, president and CEO of parent Window to the World Communications, said:

"Ash-har Quraishi brings to WTTW and the CNC an impressive depth of experience reporting both domestically and in strategically critical areas of the world. With his investigative reporting experience, his superior digital skills, and the fact that he was raised in Chicago and is a product of our public schools, we expect he will be a major asset to 'Chicago Tonight,' wttw.com and the Chicago News Cooperative. We hope to achieve our mutual goal of producing the finest public affairs journalism in Chicago -- on television, on the Web, and in print."

Ironically, the highly respected but now-unemployed Rich Samuels is spending much of his time these days teaching himself advanced video editing and Web-design techniques (which, he reports, "would be easier for my wife to take if‚ they offered senior citizen discounts for the software upgrades").

Whether the addition of a "shared journalist" will substantially improve "Chicago Tonight is a fair question. Samuels' ouster late last year (which followed the death of founding host and revered elder statesman John Callaway and the resignation of correspondent Christian Farr) left the Monday-through-Thursday news program severely understaffed. Even if you throw in part-timer Carol Marin with regulars Phil Ponce, Elizabeth Brackett and Eddie Arruza, there still aren't enough bodies to go around anymore.

I want to love "Chicago Tonight." I really do. But more often than not, what should be local television's newscast of record misses the mark. Night after night, it's same tired formula with the same talking heads. Roundtable discussions drag on interminably, turning even potentially interesting topics into snoozefests. Why does it have to be so dull?

And as charming and engaging a fellow as I know him to be off the air, Ponce plays it bland and robotic on the air as host. Just once I'd love to see him conduct an interview without appearing to read every single question off his note cards. Wing, it, Phil! The closest I've seen him come to showing his real personality was in his rollicking interview earlier this month with recently fired radio personality Mancow Muller. (Here is the link.)

Watching Ponce and Muller mix it up on the show that night reminded me of the energy, spontaneity and wit it had during Bob Sirott's too-brief run as host from 2002 to 2005. That's the "Chicago Tonight" I miss.

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