Channel 2 gives Jay Levine free rein to pontificate

February 3, 2010

Jay Levine

Jay Levine

Now that North Shore voters have turned down Tuesday's referendum on $174 million in renovations to New Trier Township High School, some people are bound to blame Jay Levine. Ever since WBBM-Channel 2's chief correspondent delivered a controversial report about the issue last week, he's come under fire for his attitude -- if not his facts.

Levine's report was no straightforward news story. In keeping with his latest persona on the CBS-owned station as a cocky advocate for the little guy (a role created and once played to perfection by Walter Jacobson), Levine is being encouraged by his bosses to embellish the facts with his opinion. But unlike Jacobson, whose commentaries were always labeled "Walter's Perspective," Levine's editorializing carries no such disclaimer.

Even before his report on New Trier aired, it was clear the intent was to provoke an emotional reaction. In teasing the piece hours earlier, Levine's producer, Ed Marshall, tweeted: "Top high school in US fears falling behind. New Trier faces backlash for $200M taj mahal plan. Bad timing award? Jay Levine at 10p on cbs2."

If labeling it a "Taj Mahal plan" weren't enough of a signal, Channel 2 abandoned any pretense of objectivity when 10 p.m. news anchor Rob Johnson introduced Levine's piece with these words:

"One hundred seventy-four million dollars. It's a number that's almost unbelievable. While President Obama asked for $100 million to help Haiti recover from the terrible natural disaster, north suburban voters are asked to spend nearly twice that much to rebuild a high school. CBS 2 chief correspondent Jay Levine is here tonight after asking school officials a pretty simple question: "ËœAre you kidding me?' "

All that was before Levine opened his mouth. In the report itself (here is the version that still appears on Channel 2's website), he invoked familiar stereotypes to frame the issue as that of a wealthy, effete community ("the Rolls Royce of school districts in Illinois") being woefully out of touch with the economic realities of the time. His conclusion:‚ "No one's predicting the outcome of a battle based on North Shore champagne tastes at a time when most everyone else is making do on a beer budget."

Proponents of the referendum were quick to cry foul, circulating an open letter to Channel 2 news director Jeff Kiernan that called Levine's report "unethical, biased and factually inaccurate." After reviewing their detailed rebuttal of the piece, Channel 2 acknowledged a lapse in Levine's description that the renovation would include "underground heated parking" for staff. In a follow-up on its website, the station said: "CBS 2 has not been able to independently confirm that the plans for the new underground parking would, in fact,‚ include heating."

Otherwise, Channel 2 spokeswoman Shawnelle Richie said Tuesday, Levine's story was "completely accurate" and was "presented in a balanced way," adding: "We did a thorough fact-check and stand by what was said."‚ (An example of the same story --  reported without obvious bias -- aired a few days later on ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7. Here is the link to Alan Krashesky's version.)

Love him or hate him, Levine has been in the top tier of Chicago broadcast journalists for 36 years -- including the last 20 at Channel 2. His reputation as a first-rate newsman and relentless competitor is legendary. Over the years, I've watched him excel as a beat reporter, a war correspondent, an investigative reporter, an anchorman and even a talk show host. Anyone remember his old "Friday Night" show?

Personally, I have no opinion one way or another about the New Trier issue. But I don't think Levine does himself any favors when he tries to channel the spirit of Howard "I'm Mad as Hell" Beale from the movie "Network." Is this just another virtuoso performance in his repertoire? "There definitely is a change in Jay," Channel 2's spokeswoman said. "He's been let loose."

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