Walter Jacobson, author | Bleader

Walter Jacobson, author

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The book
  • The book
Back in the early 1980s a Chicago literary agent had a terrific idea that can be faulted in only two respects: she had it about 30 years too soon, and it involved me.

Her idea was that Walter Jacobson, then riding high as the brash coanchor (with Bill Kurtis) of Channel Two's ten o'clock news, should write a book. And as Jacobson was a busy man, and an unproven writer at any length beyond his two-minute nightly "Perspective," he'd need help. So I was roped in. Our collaboration went this far:

Jacobson dropped off a thick packet of old Perspective scripts. I made an effort to read them. My mind first reeled then froze, as if an old sock had jammed its gears. I had no idea what to do with these manuscripts, and the project collapsed. Jacobson was willing to entertain the notion that he was a celebrity worthy of hardcover treatment, but if I recall correctly, he had no more idea of what a book by and about himself should consist of than I did. The collected Perspectives of Walter Jacobson collected dust at our house for years to come, but eventually out they went.

And eventually, out Jacobson went. In 2004, by this time an anchor at Channel 32, he lost that post to Mark Suppelsa, and Bob Goldsborough Jr., a Reader contributor, took the occasion to look back at his career. "Anchorman: The Legend of Walter Jacobson" noticed the high points but focused on the low. Jacobson called, hurt. He asked me if I'd known what my paper had in the works.

I edited it, I admitted.

I deserved better, Jacobson said.

And he did.

But his life since has been graced by postscript after postscript. To his own amazement, Channel Two brought him—and Kurtis—back as six o'clock anchors, a desperate rolling of the dice by a station so far down in the ratings it was willing to gamble on experience and nostalgia. Jacobson even got to do an abbreviated version of his old Perspectives.

And finally his book is out. Southern Illinois University Press just published Walter's Perspective: A Memoir of Fifty Years in Chicago TV News. The problem with his collected Perspectives had been that each one stomped its foot for a few hundred words—and ended. The next one stomped its foot for exactly the same duration. And the next. There's a line in Walter's Perspective in which he refers to "my insolence as a commentator." It was the commentating, not the anchoring, that mattered to Jacobson, and insolent is as good a word as any to describe it. But so many small doses of insolence injected one after another quickly left this reader comatose. Who would have guessed that Jacobson could sustain a narrative not just beyond two minutes but for 170 pages? But he does. He's insolent, he's vulnerable, he's contemplative, he's indignant, and he's frequently expecting the worst: as the book is written in the present tense, he doesn't so much look back on the threats and insults and times he was shown the door as put us right in the middle of these upheavals.

He's constantly readable.

I've skimmed parts of Jacobson's book and read selected passages closely. I was most interested in his account of the libel suit brought against himself and CBS by the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation. Jacobson's alleged sin? A thundering 1981 Perspective on cigarettes and minors that cited a "confidential report . . . in the files of the federal government right now, Viceroy advertising, the Viceroy strategy for attracting young people, starters they are called, to smoking," that rose in indignation and fury to a gale-force wind, and that concluded, "That's the strategy of the cigarette slicksters, the cigarette business which is insisting in public, 'We're not selling cigarettes to children.'

"They're not slicksters, they're liars."

Everybody knows the cigarette companies sell to children. Yet in 1985 Brown & Williamson won its suit. A jury awarded the tobacco company $5 million from CBS and $50,000 from Jacobson, which his book tells us was covered by the network's insurance.

Jacobson was generous enough back then to get me full access to the trial documents, and after reading them I wrote a long Reader cover story (not online) on why CBS lost. In Walter's Perspective, Jacobson has his own ideas. One is that the "tobacco big shot" said to themselves, "That little fucker in Chicago. Let's nail him." Another is that the jury was stacked against like him. "I sense a dislike of me among prospective jurors, one of them a man in his thirties who obviously is enjoying my predicament. Maybe in 'Perspective' one night, I said something unkind about a relative or friend, and my being on trial is his chance to get even. Also in the jury pool is a severe-looking woman with gray hair and steel-rimmed glasses. She's the next to be questioned by the lawyers and is staring at me as though she'd like to slap my face."

Jacobson does not consider something I suggested in my article: that he wrote his Perspective in his typical dramatic shorthand, which made for gripping television but in this case rendered it legally vulnerable when parsed in court. However, readers tempted to conclude he's blaming everyone but himself should know that his main point is absolutely correct.

CBS got totally outlawyered. Jacobson writes that Martin London, the Brown & Williamson man, is "a street fighter, a bully and bombastic." Tom Morsch, the CBS man, "is a peacemaker, elegant and reserved. He's afraid of London. He's in over his head." Good descriptions, if incomplete. London was also a hell of a good lawyer. Rising for his opening statement, he spoke for almost two hours; and he took all the wind out of Morsch's sails by reading liberally from the supposedly damning "confidential report" that was supposed to be the cornerstone of Morsch's case. When his turn came to open, Morsch had to admit to the jury that he'd intended to read from the report but now he wouldn't because they'd already heard it.

Yet there was a key passage in the report that totally supported Jacobson's Perspective. London, understandably, had ignored it. But Morsch ignored it too.

If Jacobson remembers everything else in his career as accurately as he remembers his trial—well, then his book is accurate enough. It's his story, after all. Chicago media history is only as interesting as its eyewitnesses, and by that measure Jacobson's account of his life and times is hard to beat.

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