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An image from the infamous video aired by Channel 2. Was Jacobson practicing “bikini journalism”—or hypercompetitive news gathering? Photo Gallery »
The complaint filed in Jacobson v. CBS notes that Amy Jacobson had wanted to be a reporter since she was a kid in Mount Prospect, watching the TV news. Fahey Flynn, Jane Pauley, Floyd Kalber . . . Chicago’s marquee news anchors captivated the little girl. At Hersey High School, she took her first stab at anchoring when she and other students used a video camera and makeshift desk to report school news.
Naturally social, she kept her schedule packed with activities and counted everyone from athletes to band geeks among her pals. “She befriended everyone,” says her classmate Cathy Muno Budzyn, a longtime friend. “That’s in a way what led up to this. It’s not some conniving reporter using any way to get a story. She develops a rapport with people.”
Life at home wasn’t as charmed. Jacobson’s father, Harvey, had a temper—and while her two older sisters knew “how not to get him riled up,” says her mom, Louise, “Amy spoke up to him.” In turn, he gave his youngest kid a hard time. “He’d put her down so bad: ‘That’s a dumb thing to do.’ ‘Look at how you eat,’” Louise recalls. “And he always managed to do it in front of other people.” Finally, Louise’s aunt took her aside and said, “‘You have to put a stop to this.’” She did, divorcing him when Amy was 12. (Contacted by Chicago, Harvey Jacobson says that as a child Amy was “always very questioning, very curious,” but he doesn’t recall abusing her verbally. “I was probably harder on her because she was more of a nonconformist,” he says, adding that his daughter “has [his] full support.”)
Money got tight, and Jacobson became an early latchkey kid. “I had the string around my neck and everything,” she recalls. She paid her own way at the University of Iowa, working as a waitress and graduating with Phi Beta Kappa honors. With her sights set on her dream job—reporting for Channel 7 in Chicago—she worked at KSAX-TV in Alexandria, Minnesota, then moved on to Tucson and El Paso, Texas. Finally, in 1994, she landed in a major market: Detroit.
Jumping from El Paso, then broadcasting’s 109th-largest market, to number nine in Detroit represents a superhero-esque single bound. She pulled it off by wowing Mort Meisner, then the news director of Detroit’s WJBK-TV. In the job interview, he asked her to describe the hardest thing she had encountered on a story. “Without batting an eye,” he recalls, “she said, ‘I was in El Paso doing a standup under a bridge, and some [men] peed on me. I never broke stride and finished the standup.’ I said, ‘There’s a new one. I guess you are tough, aren’t you?’”
In Detroit, she broke stories about the University of Michigan’s recruiting of athletes and went undercover as a police cadet. “If you sent her out sniffing around the nugget of a story, she was prolific at digging it out,” recalls Meisner. He also thought she could be too aggressive, however. “I’d get calls from people saying, ‘She wanted me to do an interview, but she was too pushy’—she’d have tears in her eyes or say she’d get fired if they didn’t speak to her. And I’d call her in and try to rein her in.” When her two-year contract ended, Meisner says, the two decided to part ways.
Jacobson hadn’t cleaned out her desk before NBC-5 promised her freelance work in Chicago. After four years of toiling in far-off cities, she happily pointed her car toward home.
Her modus operandi at NBC-5 seemed to be: Work hard; then, work harder. “I’d phone in every morning: ‘Did anyone call in sick?’” she recalls of her early days as a freelancer there. For several weeks, she covered the Sunday night shift and the Monday morning shift. Instead of going home in between, she slept on a couch at the station—until a manager told her she had to stop. Within 12 months—around the fall of 1997—NBC-5 hired her full-time.
“Amy was one of the most aggressive reporters out there,” recalls a former NBC-5 producer, Jessica Kelly. Even a puff piece about Bears tailgating sparked Jacobson’s competitive instincts. “We’d [have the equipment] all set up to go live, and she’d see someone with a bigger hat or a giant bratwurst, and she’d want to move to get a better shot,” recalls Kelly. “A lot of us would be exhausted at the end of the day with her. But it made her very good.”
Hard news stories took her to tense parts of the city—often at night—where she impressed veterans like Eddie Banks, a cameraman. “Some reporters hang back,” he says. “Amy just had no fear about going up to someone. We’d look up and she’d be gone, knocking on someone’s door.”
Her aggressive work ethic and ability to break stories won her four local Emmy Awards, not to mention the praise of her bosses. “Management loved her,” says a former Channel 5 anchor.
As her reputation grew, she became a master at landing the “get”—a ratings-friendly interview with a high-profile newsmaker. In 2005, when a Southwest Airlines jet skidded off the runway at Midway Airport and onto a nearby street, killing six-year-old Joshua Woods, the boy’s parents decided to do a single interview—with Amy Jacobson. “We told our lawyers, ‘We’re only going to talk to her,’” says Lisa Woods, Joshua’s mother, who had watched Jacobson on TV for years. “You can see her concern for the families. She cares about the other person’s feelings, not just her job.”
That type of chumminess may have pleased sources, but it also helped make Jacobson a lightning rod for rumors. During the 2002 Illinois governor’s race, Jacobson’s boss grilled her about scuttlebutt claiming Rod Blagojevich was having an affair with a tall blond TV reporter (Jacobson stands six feet). Though she’d had a business dinner with Blagojevich and two other people—including her boyfriend at the time—in Washington, D.C., five years earlier, she says, “I could count the number of times I’ve even seen him on one hand.”
Others complained that she would use any means to get a story. One question came up in 2001 when Channel 7’s Chuck Goudie rented a motel room where an Indiana principal, on the run with a sixth-grade student, had reportedly spent the night. Goudie says he filmed the room for a package that appeared on the six o’clock news, then shut the blinds, locked the door, and left—but kept the key, having rented the room until the next day.
Four hours later, videotape from the same room appeared in Jacobson’s report on the ten o’clock news. When Goudie went back to the room to see how that was possible, he found the window jimmied open. “Did she climb through or did somebody else?” Goudie asks. “I have no idea.” (Jacobson and her cameraman on that story, Bud Stuchly, both told Chicago they would never break into a room to get footage. “My recollection,” says Stuchly, “is that we shot through the window [from outside].”)
In the days after Jacobson’s firing, articles in both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times asserted with little detail that Jacobson had a history of questionable journalistic practices. But except for Goudie, reporters contacted for this article were unable or unwilling to point to specific instances of problems; several instances that have been mentioned in the press turned out to be equivocal at best when Chicago looked into them.
If there is more at play in the criticism than strong rivalries, the facts are hard to pin down. “She hung out a lot after work, and she was friendly with reporters from other stations,” says Jessica Kelly, the former Channel 5 producer, who is now out of television and living in the East. “But when one of those big stories breaks out, no one is friends then.”
After Jacobson called her boss about the rumored videotape, she called Leigh Harris, the media adviser to Lisa Stebic’s side of the family. Harris knew Puccinelli, and Jacobson asked if she could intervene—or at least glean some information about the tape.
“I knew there was competitiveness between the two reporters,” says Harris, who phoned Puccinelli immediately. “He said something like, ‘I’ve already sent it; it’s out of my hands.’”
Jacobson settled into the longest weekend of her life. “It was just two and a half days of hell,” Jacobson says. “I couldn’t eat, and everything I did eat I threw up.”
This would hardly be the first TV-news scandal to erupt in Chicago, though in several notable cases, the station stood by its embattled employee. In 2004, for example, the ABC-7 anchor Hosea Sanders made headlines when two men tried to blackmail him for $5,000, threatening to expose his alleged drug use and, according to Chicago police, post incriminating photos of him on the Internet. Channel 7 gave Sanders medical leave for rehab; he’s now a popular morning anchor for the station.
Jacobson had not done anything criminal, much less, as her lawsuit points out, had a personal relationship with Stebic. So she hoped she would get by with a reprimand. She knew management valued her: Her contract—a four-year deal—ran out in November, and her boss had already asked for her agent’s name to negotiate a new one. “I thought I’d be suspended, maybe,” she says. “Or nothing at all.”
As of Monday, no one outside CBS-2 and perhaps a few people close to the station had seen the tape. That afternoon, NBC-5 summoned Jacobson to a meeting that included Whittaker, news director Camille Edwards, and an NBC corporate lawyer who was in town on other business. They told Jacobson not to bring her lawyer or agent; only her union rep could join her. “[The meeting] lasted a long time,” Jacobson says. “They mostly asked [about whether] I was having an improper relationship [with Stebic]. ‘Was he in the pool? When? Walk us through the day.’ And they honestly seemed relieved when I told them [everything].”
Then Jacobson was asked to wait while the others conferred privately. When Whittaker and Edwards returned, as Jacobson tells it, they said, “We don’t know what to do.”
“At that point,” Jacobson recalls, “I was just like, shoot me or cut my arm off or something. Just put me out of my misery. I just said, ‘Oh, God.’” They told her, “You’ll hear from us.”
Meanwhile, CBS-2 was wrangling over whether to air the tape at all. “Once we got this video it was clear it was provocative, but there were so many questions,” news director Carol Fowler said in an interview on CBS-2 after the Jacobson footage finally aired. “I mean, we could have thrown it on the air, but that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do because there was no context. What was it? Was it newsworthy? We had many, many discussions about that.”
Over the weekend or on Monday, the Jacobson camp got good news. Fowler told Jacobson’s agent, Todd Musburger, that CBS-2 had decided not to air the tape, according to the lawsuit. Hearing that, Kathleen Zellner, the lawyer Jacobson had hired on Saturday, quit work on a temporary restraining order that could have barred broadcast of the footage for at least ten days. Filing the order would have launched a wave of publicity, Zellner reasoned, “and we had been told they weren’t going to air the tape,” she says. (Musburger declined to comment for this article.)
Fowler apparently changed her mind when she learned that both the Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune were working on stories about the tape. “At that point, it met the threshold of a news story, in my judgment,” she said in the TV interview. Fowler gave the go-ahead to air a story about the videotape on Tuesday’s 5 a.m. news.
It wasn’t the first time a news executive had wriggled out of a jam by waiting for another outlet to report a story first. But Fowler’s decision seemed especially weak-kneed to some observers. “A lot of people in my business thought that [Channel] 2 took the chicken route,” says Chuck Goudie. “It was their tape; it was their story. Just the fact that another news outlet is writing about it doesn’t give you clearance to air it. Either you think it’s the right thing to do or you don’t.”
The CBS-2 story on Jacobson showed about 34 seconds of the six-minute videotape, while a reporter, Alita Guillen, narrated over the images. “Neighbors tell CBS-2 that Jacobson has been visiting Stebic’s home frequently since his estranged wife’s disappearance,” Guillen announced. “Why she’s been there is unclear; though she’s covered the story, she never mentioned her social relationship with Stebic or his family.” Michele Weldon, a journalism professor at Northwestern’s Medill School, appeared on camera, too, saying: “Clearly this is a conflict of interest” and “It’s going to make [viewers] wonder what else has she done.”
The story showed images of Jacobson peering out Stebic’s glass door—some thought furtively—followed by a shot of Stebic putting on his shirt. (“It looked like they just finished having sex,” exclaims a journalist who covered the controversy.) The report left many thinking that CBS-2 had it in for Jacobson. “I think [CBS-2] saw those pictures,” Roe Conn said on his radio show the next day, “and they thought, ‘Bang, we’ve got a competitor in a situation that we could create a sense of impropriety around.’”
By Tuesday afternoon, CBS-2 had aired the story several times and posted it on the station’s Web site—where it would quickly get more than 200,000 hits, becoming the most widely viewed video of the year. E-mails poured into CBS-2 and NBC-5, and CNN ran the video nearly every hour. Back at NBC Tower that afternoon, Jacobson was called in a second time; again, her agent and lawyer were barred from the meeting.
After settling into a conference room, Whittaker and NBC-5’s president Larry Wert told Jacobson they had made their decision: She was fired. “They said, ‘At this point in your career, you should have known better,’” she recalls. “I remember looking at this peacock that’s on the wall. I think I said, ‘But I do everything for you guys.’ And they said, ‘We appreciate all your hard work.’”
(Later that day, Wert told the Sun-Times the firing was “a complicated issue” and “a close, tough call.” Recently, he told Chicago: “I’ve been in communication with Amy; I’ve tried to help her and will continue to, but I don’t think it’s in our best interest to comment.”)
Jacobson left the room to tell Musburger the news. She says that Wert followed her, asking if she’d agree to resign. Her agent said no and hustled her away. (She later got a $49,000 severance payment.) Jacobson still had not seen the tape—and wouldn’t, she recalls, until that night. “I was having trouble just breathing.”
And then things got worse.