Rewinding a decade of Chicago media pros and cons

December 28, 2009

obama_oprahIn the first few minutes of the year 2000, planes were supposed to fall from the sky, nuclear generators were supposed to explode, elevators were supposed to stop dead, and clocks were supposed to spin around wildly. At least that's what the media told us might happen.

Despite the dire warnings of mass computer meltdowns that came to be known as "Y2K," New Year's Eve 2000 came and went fairly uneventfully. But in hindsight, that set the tone for a decade in which the media, through either exaggeration or negligence, trifled with the public's trust time and again.

From the run-up to war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to the blatant fraudulence of Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, John Edwards, Tiger Woods and many others, why were we so often misinformed? Closer to home, the same could be asked about plenty of public officials (including two disgraced governors), financial swindlers and media tycoons. To paraphrase the New York Times' Frank Rich, we've all been played for suckers.

Maybe the next 10 years will be better. For now, here's a look back at the 10 biggest Chicago media stories of the decade:

  • The Queen and the President: Could Barack Obama have won the Iowa caucuses and gone on to win the 2008 presidential election without Oprah Winfrey's endorsement? Maybe, but I doubt it. Chicago became the nexus of American politics and media when the most powerful woman in television abandoned her political neutrality and added the junior senator from Illinois to her list of favorite things. From a star-studded fundraiser at Oprah's mansion in Montecito and Election Night in Grant Park to the Inaugural Gala in Washington and Christmas at the White House, "The Oprah & Obama Show" rolls on.
  • Lord Black of Crossharbour goes to jail: A couple of con men from Canada fleeced shareholders of the Chicago Sun-Times' parent company out of millions. But before Conrad Black and David Radler were sent to prison, their nefarious deeds nearly destroyed a profitable and legendary newspaper. Only at the 11th‚ hour did Mesirow CEO Jim Tyree rescue the Sun-Times from liquidation. Just one question lingers: Big Jim Thompson, where the hell were you?
  • Sam Zell's $8.2 billion mistake: Maverick real estate mogul Sam Zell devised a complicated and risky scheme to take Tribune Co. private in 2007 and run the far-flung media empire with his customary bravado. Unfortunately, he knew way too little about what he was getting into. Within a year, he filed for bankruptcy. Within two years, he turned over the job of CEO to his henchman and old radio buddy, Randy Michaels. Zell still faces a barrage of angry creditors over what he now calls "the deal from hell."
  • Bob Collins' plane crash: He was our favorite "Uncle Bobby," Chicago's No. 1 radio personality at the height of his popularity, with double-digit audience shares often twice that of his closest competitor. He'd just signed a new five-year, multimillion-dollar contract with WGN that had him set for life. And then one Tuesday afternoon in February 2000, a midair collision ended it all for Bob Collins and two others. Mornings for millions were never the same.
  • Diann Burns' record breaker: It was a bad omen when the aerial banner flown over Chicago's Columbus Day parade to promote Diann Burns had her name misspelled. To jump from top-rated ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7 to CBS cellar-dweller WBBM-Channel 2 in 2003, the veteran anchorwoman signed the biggest local news deal ever -- a five-year contract said to be worth more than $10 million. Her tenure turned out to be such a bust that CBS cut her loose six months early without a public word of farewell.
  • Portable People Meters devour radio: A device no larger than a cell phone upended the radio industry when Arbitron replaced its long-discredited paper diary method in 2008 with a seemingly infallible electronic audience-measurement system (though questions about minority sampling persist). Broadcasters had years to plan for PPM, but still were caught short when mountains of previous ratings proved to be illusory. Coupled with an economic downturn of epic proportions, the ratings change put many of the biggest names in the business out of work.
  • Roger Ebert's amazing sequel: Although he hasn't uttered a word since July 2006, Roger Ebert's power to communicate has never been stronger. The illness and surgeries that sidelined him from television (and would have defeated any lesser man) summoned in Ebert the will not only to retain his stature as America's preeminent movie critic, but to reinvent himself as a vigorous social and political commentator, an essential blogger and an award-winning tweeter. Chicago's most beloved and admired newspaperman continues to inspire us all every day.
  • Howard Stern flips off radio: It took three tries for the New York shock jock to crack the tough Chicago market, but discerning listeners came to embrace him here as wholeheartedly as anywhere. Fed up with FCC witch hunts and corporate interference, Howard Stern declared himself "the last of a dying breed" and fled terrestrial radio at the end of 2005 for a $500 million satellite deal. It was our loss. Without the "King of All Media," his former CBS Radio affiliate here collapsed -- and FM talk soon disappeared from Chicago's commercial airwaves.
  • The lesson of 9/11: Twenty-one months after the Y2K scare, planes really did fall out of the sky -- but these were guided by deranged terrorists. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, brought out some of the worst in the media, typified by anchors flaunting American flag lapel pins and their corporate bosses stifling all dissent. But it also brought out some of the best. By focusing on matters of life and death (and setting aside the nonsense that usually passes for local news), Chicago media and their counterparts elsewhere showed what can happen when professionals strive to honor the public trust. All too quickly, however, it was back to business as usual.
  • Old media vs. new media: Troubled about the sad state of the news business, Chicago Public Radio alumnus Ken Davis rented a downtown hotel ballroom to convene what he called "The Chicago Journalism Town Hall." On Feb. 22, 2009, he assembled a who's who of media luminaries to assess the present and gaze into the future. (Included on the panel was revered elder statesman John Callaway, who delivered what turned out to be a valedictory to his brilliant 50-year career.) Beyond the bitter, often angry schism between mainstream media professionals and new media entrepreneurs, what emerged was a glimpse into an exciting, uncharted world of challenges and opportunities in the decade ahead. Years from now, I have a feeling people in that room will remember it as a turning point. I know I will.
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