News by Numbers
We can't honestly remember the time when watching TV news was a vital part of staying well-informed. But some eras have been more useful than others. Lew Koch tells us Channel Two turned out good product back in the early 60s when he worked there. Koch was a producer, Frank Reynolds was the anchor, the ratings gleamed, and the newsroom was a "kickass, take-no-prisoners kind of place."
Just a few years ago Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson anchored, Pam Zekman led a crack investigative team, and WBBM ruled the competition. Now, after a plunge, the station is back at the top. The odd thing is that Kurtis, Jacobson, and Zekman are still around--perhaps to their own embarrassment--but they're no longer key ingredients. Channel Two owes its recent success to the lottery drawings it has been broadcasting live at ten since last December.
Two Saturdays ago Koch (now a writer of books) flipped on his old station's five o'clock news, and his sentimental heart jumped into his throat.
"Coming up tonight on Channel Two news at ten," said anchor Jay Levine in closing, "we'll go back to the World Trade Center in New York for a live update on the bombing investigation.
"Also, behind the scenes of the lottery. You watch it every night--now see what happens before the numbers are chosen. . . . Tonight, see all the action inside a special studio where the lottery drawings happen live every night. It's exciting, and it's a Channel Two exclusive. Then stay with us for the winning numbers. Tonight's jackpot is worth $18 million."
"Did you buy your ticket?" asked coanchor Dawn Stensland.
"Wow!" said Levine.
"Wow! I didn't either," said Stensland.
"Still got time," said Levine. "I'm Jay Levine. Enjoy your evening. Buy some tickets, and we'll see ya at ten. Good night!"
Sad to say, if we'd heard this carefree banter it wouldn't have troubled us at all. We're brain dead that way. We no longer convert such noise back into meaning.
But Koch understood what his ears were telling him. The Channel Two anchor was shilling for the lottery! Levine was telling his audience to crack its wallets for what Koch rightly calls "one of the worst possible investments anyone can make."
So Koch called us. "It's like--take your money and throw it down a toilet," he said. That's an overstatement. The good thing about spending money on lottery tickets is that it doesn't lead to clogged toilets. Otherwise, we see eye to eye about the lottery--and about TV news as well. Koch mourns the precious broadcast minutes now routinely devoted to the starlet of the evening's miniseries or to sucker bait like the lottery; he thinks they turn the news into show business. We think they make the news almost unwatchable.
But these views are conventional wisdom. Koch would never have bothered us if he hadn't witnessed an anchor at his old station, the place he gave his youth, go yet another step beyond.
"Buy some tickets," Levine had said.
Levine was not, by the way, following a script. The news is scripted, but according to the script the newscast was supposed to end like this:
Levine: "Then stay with us for the winning numbers. That jackpot is worth $18 million."
Stensland: "That wraps up our news for five o'clock. Thanks for making us your choice for news tonight. I'm Dawn Stensland."
Levine: "And I'm Jay Levine. The latest on the bomb at the twin towers coming up on the CBS Evening News. See you at ten."
A script, however, is not scripture. Veteran anchors are expected to let their personalities shine through. Levine likes to do what he calls some "little thing" when he signs off.
"It was an ad lib," said Bill Carey, managing editor of the news operation. "We promote watching the lottery, but it's not our job to promote buying lottery tickets. We don't condone it, and it shouldn't happen again."
The people buying lottery tickets are the ones watching the drawing on Channel Two. They're the ones who've made it possible for Channel Two to climb back to the top. Despite Carey's note of rectitude Channel Two is damned grateful for every single one of those people. All Levine did was cheer them on, and we were glad to hear from Levine that his enthusiasm hadn't really gotten him into trouble with his bosses.
"It's ridiculous. It was an innocent comment," Levine informed us. We told him what Koch had said, and he responded, "I find it hard to believe that given all the journalistic travesties that happen today someone would single out that."
But he went on, "Well, you do what you think you've gotta do."
In TV news today that's the motto.
One of Chicago's nobler lost causes of recent years was the crusade to save the old Comiskey Park--first the park itself and then some significant remnant of it. But Jerry Reinsdorf wanted a parking lot, and that's what he got.
In death there's life. A bittersweet letter arrived the other day from Mary O'Connell, a champion of the old ball yard. O'Connell's the former editor of The Neighborhood Works, the Center for Neighborhood Technology's newsletter, and she told us that just before leaving CNT she edited a book for them called Beyond Recycling: Materials Reprocessing in Chicago's Economy.
Rising to the challenge of making the book less stupefying than its title, O'Connell and authors Bill Eyring and Nina Sandlin framed their discussion of "demolition debris" in terms of the debris of old Comiskey Park. Here's where that rubble went:
Iron: 6,500 tons of steel beams and girders, barged to Arkansas and remelted into wide-flange beams for new construction.
Bricks: 100,000 of them, some sold as keepsakes, others shipped south by Chicago's Colonial Brick Company for construction projects, the rest made landfill.
Wood: Less than 5,000 cubic yards, all of it landfill.
Seats: Sold as keepsakes.
Concrete: 15,000 tons, recycled by Chicago's Sacramento Crushing Corporation and used to repair local sewers, rebuild the Kennedy Expressway, and build a new arena for the Bulls and Hawks.
O'Connell commented, "I like the idea that the park's concrete was crushed and recycled right back into Chicago's infrastructure; sort of like sprinkling its ashes over the city, with a special blessing on the West Side Stadium."
Or as Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner once put it, we're all just time-sharing atoms.
Free Money for Writers!
There's a million dollars in bread on the table, and Bohemian Chicago needs to know about it.
The bread's being sliced by the literary organization Poets & Writers, Inc., a nonprofit outfit based in New York that now wants to expand its Readings/Workshops Program into the midwest. A $1 million grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund is underwriting this expansion.
Poets & Writers is offering to match the fees paid by arts centers (a category very broadly defined) to writers who take part in readings and workshops. The extra money would let these centers afford better (at least more expensive) writers, and more of them. The average grant is under $200, says David Surface, who's running the midwest initiative, and no venue will be given more than $750 a year.
The humble size of the grants reflects what Surface tells us is his program's "priority for small, grass-roots organizations." Unfortunately, Chicago's grass roots aren't holding up their end. He says most of the grants have gone to libraries, colleges, museums--the obvious places--because the cramped, smoky joints on art's cutting edge haven't applied.
Coffeehouses? we asked. "Not enough to suit our tastes," he said. "I think the information loop is probably still too limited to the larger, more established organizations." He couldn't think of a single Chicago cafe that's asked for money.
Or independent bookstore. But he has heard from a Polish poetry society. "They apparently hold readings in various art galleries."
Yesterday's News Today
We heard the news last week on WFMT: Chicago's great human-rights attorney Luis Kutner had died. His death, intoned the announcer, reading from Reuters copy that originated in New York, had been reported in that morning's New York Times.
Reuters and WFMT probably deserve some praise for trying to give credit where credit's due. And it may be that a Times notice is what it takes to make a man such as Kutner officially dead. But as it happened, the Chicago Tribune published a more comprehensive obituary a day earlier.