Red ink spills over black-and-white at ‘Chicago Tonight’

Red ink spills over black-and-white at ‘Chicago Tonight’

The idea of a Chicago television news operation without a single African American reporter or anchor on staff seems like a throwback to some other era. But that’s the situation now at WTTW-Channel 11, the public television station owned by Window to the World Communications and partnered with the new Chicago News Cooperative.

Since July, when “Chicago Tonight” correspondent Christian Farr announced he was leaving to join NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 as a general assignment reporter, Channel 11’s flagship news program has had no black presence on its full-time roster. (By my count, there are four whites and two Hispanics.)

Photo by Chicagoist

For WTTW, whose call letters have long been mocked as standing for “Winnetka Talks to Wilmette,” it’s admittedly a sore subject.

“Because we reflect Chicago and we’re so Chicago focused, we know we’ve got to have African American talent,” said a corporate spokeswoman for the station. “We have to have that representation on our air. Absolutely. It’s very front of our minds.”

But given the station’s financial straits, it’s not likely to happen any time soon. With a strict hiring freeze on, the best anyone there can hope for is to bring on a freelance reporter or two who can “possibly fill in on ‘Chicago Tonight’ in Christian’s stead,” the spokeswoman said. “If there’s an addition to the core group [eventually], it will definitely be an African American.”

The racial makeup of front-line news teams has been a fixation for Chicago television bosses since 1985 when the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a black viewer boycott of CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2. Sparked by the demotion of Harry Porterfield, the station’s only African-American weekday news anchor, the demands by Operation PUSH for greater diversity on the air and behind the scenes placed the industry on notice once and for all.

Although the boycott lasted only 10 months, the effects are still felt today — as evidenced by the recent return of Porterfield, 81, to Channel 2 after his contract was not renewed by ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7. Cynics wonder whether by bringing him back, Channel 2 hopes it can lift the station’s “curse” — and somehow reverse the 24-year ratings drought — brought on by Porterfield’s ill-advised demotion. For better or for worse, the 1985 boycott also elevated Jackson to supreme media power broker in the market. At an Operation PUSH meeting in 2002, Jackson publicly claimed credit for his role in protecting and advancing the careers of Porterfield, Warner Saunders, Felicia Middlebrooks and Johnathan Rodgers. It was no idle boast. He personally has intervened in contract negotiations for numerous anchors and reporters. To this day, no station manager in Chicago makes a significant move involving top African American news talent without consulting — or, at a minimum, informing — Jackson first.

Conflicts involving Jackson’s relationships with media people abound. In September 2008, Allison Payne, the chronically ailing news anchor at Tribune company-owned WGN-Channel 9, told me she was grateful to Jackson for using his influence to get her an immediate appointment at the famed Mayo Clinic for tests. “If he hadn’t called, I know I would have had to wait months to get in,” she said.

When pressed on the matter, Payne’s boss, WGN news director Greg Caputo, told Phil Rosenthal: “[This] absolutely will not change coverage” of Jackson and his family by the station, “and if that limits Allison’s participation in stories involving Rev. Jackson, then that’s what we’ll do.” Lo and behold, less than a year later, there was Payne accompanying Jackson on his three-day tour of the Ivory Coast, delivering an eye-roll inducing puff piece on Jackson’s royal treatment by the West African kingdom for Channel 9’s newscasts.

jessejackson Photo by Reuters

Wisely, the station removed the video from its website before others could link to it.