Looking back at the top stories on the Chicago media beat in 2015:
Video vérité: Ten news organizations sought release of a dash-cam video showing the Chicago police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014. But it took the persistence of one independent journalist, Brandon Smith, to get a court order forcing the city to hand it over. Whatever misgivings local TV stations may have had about airing the disturbing images vanished as soon as the video was released. So too did a veil of secrecy and corruption that will haunt the city for years to come.
Yom Kippur sin: An overworked and undereducated producer at WGN-Channel 9 couldn’t have selected a more inappropriate graphic to illustrate a story about the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Over the shoulder of news anchor Tom Negovan appeared a yellow Star of David and the word “Jude” (German for “Jew”) — the reviled symbol European Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. “We are extremely embarrassed and we deeply apologize to our viewers and to the Jewish community for this mistake,” management of the Tribune Media station said. By then, thanks to social media, the unfortunate image had been seen and ridiculed around the world.
Press here: Chicago retained its status as a two-newspaper town, although layoffs and buyouts shrank the editorial staffs of both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times. One way the Sun-Times managed to survive despite financial losses and misguided ownership was through various “content alliances,” most notably with Gannett’s USA Today.
Debatable performance: During a mayoral candidates forum on WTTW-Channel 11, “Chicago Tonight” host Phil Ponce pointedly questioned Jesus “Chuy” Garcia about his son’s arrest record and former gang activity, linking it to Garcia’s ability to fight crime. The studio audience jeered and critics lambasted Ponce. After initially defending his series of questions, Ponce acknowledged they had “missed the mark.” An unfavorable report by the WTTW Community Advisory Board concluded: “The episode fell short of the high standards of fairness, accuracy, and journalistic integrity to which Phil Ponce, 'Chicago Tonight' and WTTW unquestionably aspire.”
Bad boys: A couple of hosts from CBS Radio sports/talk WSCR AM 670 had nothing better to do one night than exchange a series of tweets commenting on the attributes and aptitude of Aiyana Cristal, a reporter for Comcast SportsNet Chicago. By the next day, what Cristal called their “cyberbullying attack” became a nationwide cause célèbre, prompting apologies from Matt Spiegel and Dan Bernstein — not to mention calls for their dismissal. By year’s end, Spiegel and Bernstein were still employed by The Score, while Cristal (whose contract was not renewed by Comcast SportsNet) was headed to a station in Atlanta.
Rahm’s list: A Freedom of Information Act request yielded a curious exchange of emails between City Hall and a writer for Columbia Journalism Review. To help with a story about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s rocky relations with local media, Kelley Quinn, the mayor’s communications director, sent writer Jackie Spinner a list of reporters she hoped would be interviewed. “You should reach out to a few reporters like Jay Levine, Neil Steinberg, Fran [Spielman], and Craig Dellimore, if you haven’t already,” Quinn wrote. Spinner later said: “I was really surprised at some of the names that were on the list. I was surprised at the names that weren’t on the list.”
Harpo marks the end: Harpo Studios, the TV Taj Mahal Oprah Winfrey opened at 1058 West Washington Boulevard on the Near West Side in 1990, closed for good in 2015. Former home of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — the hottest ticket in town for more than two decades — the four-building property was acquired by real estate developer Sterling Bay for a reported $30.5 million. Cutting her last ties to the city that helped make her famous, Winfrey said: “It will be sad to say goodbye, but I look ahead with such a knowing that what the future holds is even more than I can see.”
Back to you, Lester: Fifteen years after Lester Holt was “demoted and pushed toward the door” at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2, he emerged as the leading man of NBC News and the first African-American solo anchor of a weekday network nightly newscast. His ascension to the top job followed the spectacular flameout of Brian Williams. “I got some advice a long time ago that you always want to prepare yourself if doors open at weird times for weird reasons,” Holt said. “And that’s exactly what happened.” As a footnote to his 14-year legacy here, Holt’s Chicago-born son, Stefan, co-anchors weekday morning news on NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5.
Need a scorecard: After spending the better part of 90 years on Tribune media news/talk WGN AM 720, Chicago Cubs baseball broadcasts moved to CBS Radio all-news WBBM AM 780. Now the red-hot North Siders are on the move again — this time to CBS Radio sports/talk WSCR AM 670. Also changing channels are Chicago White Sox baseball and Chicago Bulls basketball, thanks to a long-term deal with Cumulus Media news/talk WLS AM 890. In landing radio rights to the two teams owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, WLS instantly becomes a year-round play-by-play powerhouse.
Weigel’s winners: Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting was behind two of the year’s most promising media ventures. One was Decades, a multicast TV network launched as a joint venture with CBS Television Stations. Centerpiece of the nostalgic channel was “Through the Decades,” an hourlong daily time capsule of news and pop culture hosted by Bill Kurtis. The other notable startup was Me-TV FM, a fresh approach to soft rock/oldies radio airing over a low-power TV signal at WRME LP 87.7. In December Me-TV FM posted its highest audience share to date.