After 18 months as chief spokesman for Gov. Pat Quinn, veteran Chicago reporter Bob Reed is ready to return to the sunnier side of journalism. As much as he enjoyed having what he calls “a front-row seat to the wildest and biggest political drama in Illinois’ history,” he seems even happier to resume the life of a private citizen.
Reed surprised colleagues in December 2008 when he accepted Quinn’s offer to become the lieutenant governor’s communications director. One day after Reed was hired, Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested, setting in motion the events that would elevate Quinn to the state’s top job and put Reed’s phone number on every reporter’s speed dial.
It proved to be the professional challenge of a lifetime for the respected business journalist and commentator, whose resume included work for Crain’s Chicago Business (where he was editor), Bloomberg Business News, Businessweek.com, Huffington Post, BNET.com, Chicago magazine and CBS all-news WBBM-AM (780). Reed also served as a frequent guest expert on WTTW-Channel 11, wrote a lively and insightful blog, and headed his own media and consulting business.
Earlier this month, after fulfilling the 18-month commitment he’d made to Quinn, Reed chose to step down.Now he’s figuring out what’s next.
Over lunch last week in Evanston, a relaxed and cheerful Reed, 56, shared his thoughts about his whirlwind experience with Quinn, his view of the media from “the other side,” and his prediction of the Blago verdict:
Q. Why did you decide to leave a career in business journalism for state government in the first place?
A. It was all part of my plan to attain world domination — along with a steady paycheck and health-care benefits. Seriously, I got an unexpected call from then-Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, who knew my work and offered me a spokesman position. His offer prompted me to seriously think about doing something besides traditional journalism. You know, go outside my comfort zone. I also knew in my bones that this was going to be a whale of an assignment. Although I accepted the job before Rod Blagojevich was arrested, it was pretty obvious the state was going through a rough time and something was going to give. But I had no idea how the fast and furious the changes would be. And then there was the opportunity to perform some type of public service. I’ve never served in the military or as a civilian-volunteer for AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, so this job allowed me to help out, in a small way, during a major crisis.
Q. How would you sum up your experience?
A. A once-in-a lifetime experience. I had a front-row seat to the wildest and biggest political drama in Illinois’ history — the arrest and impeachment of Rod Blagojevich and the transition to Governor Pat Quinn. There were days when I would ask my wife, Janet: “Do you believe we’re in the middle of all this?”
Q. Tell us something about Pat Quinn that we don’t know.
A. He has physical stamina that defies nature — gets up very early, works all day, goes to sleep late. It wasn’t uncommon to get a call from him at 11:30 p.m. — after he just finished shooting baskets at a local gym — and then hear him do a live in-studio radio interview at 6 a.m. the next morning.
Q. Now that you’ve been on “the other side,” do you have a different perspective on the news business?
A. The never-ending news cycle is not a myth. It’s stark reality. And everyone — journalists and sources — are trying to adjust to this new rhythm and pressure to meet an increased demand for immediate online content. As we speak, someone is tweeting about something going on in government, politics, business — you name it. Even state legislators are getting into the act — some like to tweet while they’re in meetings with the governor or senior staff. I guess they can’t wait to share their vital opinions with the world.
You’ve heard this before, but the casualty of this rapid pace is context and sometimes, I’m afraid, the truth. Reporters get frustrated because they are under pressure from editors to post right away, and sources feel burned because they don’t think they’ve been given a fair amount of time to look into a situation and provide a thoughtful answer. It’s a tension that isn’t going away any time soon.
Overall, I leave with a pretty good impression of the press.No big surprises coming or going.
The TV, print and radio journalists that cover politics and the governor’s office are pros. But the cutbacks at media outlets are causing problems. One example: Among the Chicago TV stations, only ABC/Channel 7 consistently travels to Springfield to cover budget-related issues. The other stations have to fight with their bosses to go. I mean, c’mon. How much does a day-trip to the state capitol cost?
And too many good people are going away. I want political-reporting aces like Jack Conaty in this market doing what they do best. But there are cutbacks everywhere — the Downstate newspaper chains are curtailing Springfield coverage, too.
Sad. Again, it all comes down to context, balance and fairness. These cutbacks mean the press is forced to focus on the one big “hot” story of the moment. But a lot of other issues and stories are going under-covered or are ignored for lack of firepower. You tell me how that helps to inform a free society and fuel the marketplace of ideas.
Q. What was the oddest question you received from a reporter?
A. Well, the Daily Herald did an in-depth feature story on the governor’s ties. You don’t see much sartorial coverage these days.
Q. What are you planning to do now? Do you think your work for government will help or hinder those plans?
A. Right now, I plan to take some time to decompress and re-energize. So not working for the government will definitely help there. Going forward, I envision writing, guest-lecturing and doing some teaching. There’s always the possibility of returning to management — I’ve managed teams for over 10 years — but it depends on the opportunity.
Q. Think Blago will be convicted?
A. Yes, of something. But it may not be the “marquee” charge of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat.‚ But I’m speaking beyond my competence here, because I only know what I see in the press.
Q. So just where are all the bodies buried, anyway?
A. My family and I just came back from a trip to London, where we visited Westminster Abbey. Now that’s a place where the bodies are buried. But I doubt we’ll ever find any Illinois politicians there.