If Allison Payne came clean, what's WGN trying to hide?

January 25, 2010

Steve Sanders and Allison Payne

A confused and angry Allison Payne took to her Facebook page Friday to denounce me as a "miserable, inadequate journalist" and "an irresponsible writer." I know she was confused because she said I worked for the Sun-Times, which hasn't been the case since October 2008. And I know she must have been angry because she typed her message in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.

What was my offense? Earlier that day here, I reported on a startling admission Payne made Thursday on the midday newscast she co-anchors with Steve Sanders on Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9. During an interview with author and former NHL player Theo Fleury, Payne disclosed that she and Fleury had shared the same Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. Payne's comment, which I quoted verbatim, struck me as newsworthy because it marked the first time she'd publicly acknowledged a battle with addiction.

Such a confession from any other news anchor or prominent personality no doubt would have merited a headline. But considering Payne's well-publicized history of slurred speech, glassy-eyed gazes and odd behavior on the air (coupled with numerous and lengthy absences from work in recent years), her revelation seemed especially pertinent. Up until then, she and her bosses attributed everything to her recovery from a series of ministrokes and related depression. No mention had ever been made of addiction or substance abuse of any kind.

Even after Payne, 45, was demoted in 2009 from the 9 p.m. newscast she'd co-anchored for 18 years and moved first to 5:30 p.m. and then to 11 a.m., her performance and appearance on the air seemed to fluctuate day by day. Whether her admission Thursday was deliberate or a slip of the tongue, there was no mistaking her reaction to my account of what she'd said. On Facebook she wrote:

"DEAR WGN VIEWERS, UNFORTUNATELY, AN IRRESPONSIBLE WRITER FOR THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, ROBERT FEDER, HAS TAKEN SOMETHING I SAID IN A RECENT INTERVIEW OUT OF CONTEXT. DURING AN INTERVIEW WITH FORMER BLACKHAWK THEO FLEURY, I MENTIONED THAT HE AND I HAD THE SAME SPONSOR. I WAS REFERRING TO A 12 STEP SPONSOR I HAD NEARLY 20 YEARS AGO WHEN I SOUGHT HELP FOR WHAT I FELT WAS A DRINKING PROBLEM. I WAS IN NO WAY REFERRING TO MY RECENT HEALTH PROBLEMS. IN FULL DISCLOSURE, I WAS TREATED BY ADDICTION SPECIALISTS FOR CLINICAL DEPRESSION AND ALL POTENTIALLY ADDICTIVE PRESCRIPTIONS WERE TAKEN AWAY FROM ME. IT IS TRULY TROUBLING THAT THIS MISERABLE, INADEQUATE JOURNALIST TRIED TO TURN A BRIGHT MOMENT WITH MR. FLEURY INTO A DARK ONE. FAR TOO MANY OF US BATTLE ADDICTION IN THE DARKNESS. WE SHOULD NEVER BE ASHAMED OF OURSELVES OR OUR BATTLES."

In a subsequent interview with Tribune media columnist Phil Rosenthal, Payne again insisted she was not drunk on the air the night viewers flooded the station with calls after observing her swivel in her chair and slur her words in 2008, and said it's been "probably five years since the last time I went on a big drinking binge."‚  Added Payne:

"There is no shame in all of this. That's why I was so happy to talk to Theo. Because he was coming clean and he was letting go of his shame. In saying to Theo that [Michael Harvey] was my sponsor too, I was letting go of some of my shame that I've held on to."

Before we start handing out awards for courage and honesty, it's worth mentioning that Channel 9 chose not to post video of Payne's interview with Fleury on its website --  a conspicuous omission that suggests her bosses are still covering up. Now that Payne has spoken out, just what are they ashamed of?

When it comes to Payne --  or anybody else, for that matter --  I have no idea what happens in private. It's none of my business what substances she's taken or how long she's been sober. If she needs help, I hope she's getting it and I sincerely wish her luck. But that doesn't mean we have to pretend that things she's done in public haven't been raising eyebrows for years.

I still recall an incident in 2006 -- before her ordeal with ministrokes -- when Payne showed up as "critic for a day" on WTTW-Channel 11's "Chicago Tonight." Assigned to review "The Devil Wears Prada," Payne admitted that she walked out in the middle of the movie because she was offended by its "emphasis on appearance." (It was, after all, a movie about a fashion magazine.)

Things turned even more bizarre when Payne leaned over the table and handed "Chicago Tonight" correspondent Elizabeth Brackett a check as a donation to the public television station. "We appreciated the contribution -- though I was a little startled to receive it on the air," Brackett later recalled.

Then there was the time in 2008 when Payne was sent to Denver to cover the Democratic National Convention and was seen cheering and applauding speakers while she was seated with the Illinois delegation. Even her own colleagues were embarrassed by the sight of a news anchor displaying such unprofessional partisanship.

And just last August, there was Payne accompanying the Rev. Jesse Jackson on a tour of the Ivory Coast. Never mind that Payne's bosses publicly promised to limit her participation in stories involving Jackson after he had pulled strings to get her an immediate appointment at the Mayo Clinic. "If he hadn't called, I know I would have had to wait months to get in," Payne told me.

The result was an unabashed puff piece by Payne on Jackson's royal treatment in the West African kingdom. How bad was it? So bad that Channel 9 removed the video from its website before anyone could link to it.

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