Lilia Chacon was on her way to New York Sunday to pick up a Peabody Award -- one of the highest honors in all of broadcasting -- when I called her to confirm the news that she'd been fired as a general assignment reporter at WFLD-Channel 32. It was one of those little ironies you couldn't make up.
Chacon was part of the team cited for its nationally recognized coverage of the beating death last fall of Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old Fenger High School honor student. But after 21 years at the‚ Fox-owned station, Chacon won't be on the team much longer.
On Friday she was told that her position was being eliminated and that her contract would not be renewed when it expires July 3. She's the latest in a growing list of on-air veterans who've been purged from Fox Chicago News in recent months, including Jack Conaty, Lauren Cohn, Byron Harlan, Nancy Loo and David Viggiano. Close to two dozen technical staffers also are slated for unemployment in the coming weeks.
Chacon, 56, insisted that she has no hard feelings about the move, saying: "I've had a very good ride there -- 21 years. That is extraordinary." But she expressed sadness at the thought of leaving a job and a station she loves:
"I'm sad about it because I really am not sure what the future holds -- especially for reporters like me. I have played it pretty much down the middle with my reporting. I've always wanted to be part of what was good about journalism. . . . You need to work for people who value the skill set you've spent a lifetime assembling."
The elimination of Chacon's position underscores what she called "a fundamental change in the way the Fox affiliates do news." As the stations try simultaneously to cut their budgets and differentiate the formats of their newscasts from the competition, reporters are getting edged out. Instead, unpaid "experts" or free-lance pundits are hauled into the studio to comment on the stories of the day and fill air time -- the cheaper the better -- just as cable networks have been doing for years.
Even as Carol Fowler, vice president and news director of Channel 32, was conveying the dismissal Friday, Chacon said Fowler called her "a classic general assignment reporter" and lauded her talents as a writer and a storyteller. True as it may be, such praise provides little consolation for Chacon, who offered this perspective:
"I know it's not personal with Carol, and I truly feel no animosity toward her. [But] I told her I think it would be really criminal if there weren't a place for me in a newsroom. With the kind of equity that you build in a city and the credibility that you build with your viewers, you wouldn't think it would be so easily squandered. . . . In my work, I feel like I reward people who listen to language. I like writing. I like stories. I'm still in love with the stories. So we'll see if there's a market for that."
While she hopes to land at another station here, Chacon said she's also open to relocating. One possibility -- where there happens to be an opening -- is Albuquerque, N.M., where she had her first on-camera job at what is now KRQE-TV. (During her five-year stint there, she worked alongside the late Ray Rayner, the legendary Chicago children's show host, who moved to Albuquerque and did the weather on the weekend newscasts Chacon produced and anchored.) "I loved, loved, loved the place," she said.
Born in Syracuse, N.Y., to a Costa Rican father and a Guatemalan mother, Chacon grew up in the north suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Glenbrook North High School and Northern Illinois University, where she majored in broadcast journalism. She also worked for Chicago's City News Bureau and traveled extensively before turning to television. She joined Channel 32's news operation in 1989 -- two years after its startup. Among numerous awards for reporting and writing, she's won six Emmys and the Peabody.
Despite the latest setback, Chacon remains cheerfully optimistic: "I just end up happy no matter how things twist and turn. It just feels good to know that your own happiness is so self-generated. I'm really willing to roll with whatever comes my way."