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20 Very Bad Chicago Media Gaffes

Including at least three instances of journalists pretending to be homeless or disabled

Two decades ago, in 1999, Chicago witnessed one of the more ridiculous moments in our media history: Ald. Ed Burke faced off with talk show host Jerry Springer at a City Council hearing into televised mayhem on the Chicago-based show, where guests sometimes engaged in “wrestling around,” as Springer put it.

Burke wanted to know why such violence wasn’t subject to arrest. The TV host, supported by demonstrators who called themselves People for the Ethical Treatment of Springer, testified that his program did not influence viewers’ behavior: “No one watches our show and says, `You know what? I’m going to become a transsexual,’ ” Springer said.

Jerry was schlocky on purpose, but other Chicago media figures — including mainstream journalists — have made fools of themselves accidentally. In honor of the 20th anniversary of Springer’s showdown with Burke, here are the 20 most ridiculous moments in Chicago media history.

Max Headroom hijacks the news

Viewers of the WGN evening news on November 22, 1987, were likely surprised when, in the middle of a Bears recap, the TV signal was commandeered for 28 seconds by a person wearing a Max Headroom mask. A few hours later, Doctor Who on WTTW was also preempted by a masked Headroom. That signal hijacking lasted about 90 seconds, enough time for the mischief maker to pull down his pants and get a paddling with a fly swatter. The perpetrator remains unknown.

Abraham Lincoln’s lost speech

At least four Chicago journalists went to Bloomington, Illinois, in 1856 to cover the founding of the Illinois Republican Party and a speech by up-and-coming politician Abraham Lincoln. When the Railsplitter got going, the reporters were so enthralled by his rhetoric that they forgot to write down what he said. No one had more than a few random notes, and the Chicago Democratic Press’ John Locke Scripps covered his lapse by writing: “I shall not mar any of its fine proportions or brilliant passages by attempting even a synopsis of it.” The address is known in history as “Lincoln’s Lost Speech.”

A wrenching headline

In 1875, the Chicago Times ran a story on an execution by hanging with the headline “Jerked to Jesus.” Editor Horatio Seymour reportedly got a raise for writing the headline, but later expressed “regret and shame.”

Poisoning the poor

In 1877, the Chicago Tribune seemed to wholeheartedly endorse a reader’s suggestion to poison the homeless, who were then known as “tramps.” The Trib wrote: “The simplest plan probably, where one is not a member of the Humane Society, is to put a little strychnine or arsenic in the meat and other supplies furnished the tramp. This produces death within a comparatively short period of time, is a warning to other tramps to keep out of the neighborhood, puts the Coroner in good humor, and saves one’s chickens and other portable property from constant depredation.”

Dahl’s on-air vasectomy

The infamous Disco Demolition at Sox Park wasn’t the most ridiculous stunt Steve Dahl ever pulled. In 1989, Dahl gave his WLUP-FM listeners a play-by play of his own vasectomy. He later explained: “I felt that if the procedure were done on the radio that, No. 1, it would probably decrease the odds of it going badly, and No. 2, if it did go badly, at least I’d get something out of it.”

P.F. Chang 2018, et al.

Not all gaffes are ancient history. In 2018, WLS-Channel 7 reported on the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, while showing a graphic that read “P.F. Chang 2018.” Two years earlier, while reporting on the Laquan McDonald shooting, the same station broadcast an image of McDonald’s golden arches. And one year earlier, WGN-Channel 9 illustrated a Yom Kippur report with a Star of David symbol in the style used by the Nazis, along with the German word “Jude.” In all cases, the stations apologized.

Dewey Defeats Truman

The worst screw-up in Chicago media history was utterly avoidable. The Tribune could have pushed its deadline back on election night 1948, or its first edition could have read, “Early Vote Favors Dewey.” Instead, the Trib went all-in with “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The upside for the newspaper was a lesson well learned: In 2000, when many news outlets got the Bush-Gore outcome wrong, the Tribune’s headline was “As Close as It Gets.”

The Sun-Times’s short-lived mascot

In 1985, after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, columnist Mike Royko defected to the Tribune, declaring: “No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in Murdoch’s publications.” The Sun-Times responded by inventing a Page 1 mascot named Wally the Self-Respecting Fish, who was “wrapped up” in all the good things in the Sun-Times. The idea didn’t last long. A self-respecting newsroom killed it.

Ann Landers’s exploding birds

In 1988, Landers, the Chicago-based advice columnist for the Tribune and other papers, was fooled by an urban legend: She told readers that throwing rice at weddings can kill birds. According to the myth, when the birds would come along to eat the strewn rice, their digestive moisture would make it expand, causing their stomachs to explode. Landers got 6,000 letters disputing the idea, and admitted she hadn’t checked it out. “I feel like a bird brain,” she wrote.

John Cappas stops for pizza

WBBM-Channel 2 reporter Giselle Fernandez caught a great scoop in 1988: Fugitive drug kingpin John Cappas wanted to surrender to her. But when she and a crew went to meet him in Fox Lake, Cappas decided to take a boat ride first. Fernandez and a cameraman joined him because, as she put it, “I thought it would make good video.” Then Cappas stopped for pizza, and Fernandez paid the bill. Finally, he turned himself in.

“The event was portrayed as some sort of rollicking pizza party,” Fernandez later recalled. “Someone even said I was in a bikini. That’s nonsense. Management approved of every step I took.” But Fernandez caught flak from the media and even U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, who complained about her “failure to tell authorities immediately” about Cappas’s whereabouts.

The Sun-Times literally quotes God

After a 1988 interview with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, Chicago TV reporter Nancy Merrill Page wrote a remarkable account for the Sun-Times, including an imagined conversation between Teresa and God. In it, Page described Teresa asking the Almighty whether it was OK for Page bring along a camera crew to their interview. God’s answer, on the record: “She’s come a long way and it means a lot to her. She’s sincere.” Why did the Sun-Times publish imaginary quotes from God? Well, maybe because the reporter was the wife of the publisher.

Walter Jacobson disguises himself as homeless, expresses misery

In 1991, WBBM-Channel 2’s Walter Jacobson wore a disguise that included a fake beard as he spent two days posing as a homeless person on the streets of Chicago. “I’m miserable. I’m really, really miserable,” he said on camera.

Lipinski swoops in

The Tribune’s WomanNews section had already been printed at the paper’s Freedom Center plant, and was awaiting delivery in October 2004. Its cover story, about a sensitive subject — the c-word — carried the headline “You c_nt say that (or can you?)”

Before the section could be delivered, Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski stepped in and answered that question: Strong no. Lipinski, who hadn’t been aware of the story pre-publication, ordered newsroom staffers to hurry to the printing plant and remove the sections by hand to prevent their delivery.

“The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults" 

Geraldo Rivera was a mere visitor from New York, but he made a lasting memory in 1986 when he tried to break news on Al Capone. He helmed the TV special “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults,” a live broadcast intended to reveal what was entombed in concrete beneath Capone’s former headquarters, the Lexington Hotel. The hype was so thick that Cook County’s medical examiner was on hand in case any skeletons were found. But after two hours, the payoff was the discovery of … a few whiskey bottles.

The other payoff was in the TV ratings. Tribune Entertainment was ecstatic about the highest-rated syndicated show up to that time.

The Chicago Times embeds in a bathtub

Why did a reporter spend 15 hours strapped down in a bathtub full of dirty river water? To get the story, of course. In 1935, Frank Smith of the Chicago Times pretended to be a mentally ill person and was admitted to the Kankakee State Hospital for the Insane. That long spell in the tub was a treatment for his supposedly violent tendencies. Smith was discharged after a week’s reporting, and wrote a 10-part expose featuring both the bathtub story and the fact that all of the inmates shared a single drinking cup.

Please do not speak to Mr. Harvey

In 2017, the star of the Chicago-based “Steve Harvey Show” got embarrassed when media critic Robert Feder published a leaked email he’d sent to his staff. “My security team will stop everyone from standing at my door who have the intent to see or speak to me,” it read. “Do not approach me while I’m in the makeup chair unless I ask to speak with you directly … Do not wait in any hallway to speak to me. I hate being ambushed.”

Chicago Fire fools WGN

WGN-TV broke a big story one morning in 2012: A single-engine aircraft had crashed on Martin Luther King Drive. As WGN’s chopper beamed back video, host Robin Baumgarten said, “Can you imagine, you’re driving down King Drive and a plane just comes down in the middle of the road?”

Yes, you can imagine: After about 3 minutes, WGN learned that the “crash” was just a scene being filmed for the TV series Chicago Fire.

Jane Addams’s devil baby

Social do-gooder Jane Addams never hid a devil baby in Hull House. But for weeks in 1913, that rumor made the rounds, and people flocked to Addams’ settlement house to see if she was keeping an infant with cloven hooves, pointed ears, and a small tail. The rumor went that a relative had cursed Addams because she married an atheist, or, in another version, kept giving birth to girls.

Enter the media: The Chicago Examiner introduced the myth to a wider audience with a story headlined “’Devil Child’ Still Sought by Thousands.” Ben Hecht of the Chicago Journal tried to track down the Devil Baby himself, and recalled that he developed “an almost hysterical belief in the story.” Hecht’s editor reassigned him after three days.

Oprah eats blindfolded

For a 1984 show about the challenges of the visually impaired, A.M. Chicago host Oprah Winfrey ate dinner at the restaurant Yvette while blindfolded. The Tribune’s Inc. column said Winfrey “did pretty well (though she didn’t try soup).”

The Sun-Times gets pranked

It was bad enough that the Sun-Times food section published a reader’s letter in 1995 seeking recipes for “Western cheese livers” and “toasted chicken fish” — two things that, of course, aren’t things. Worse, the letter was signed “Olga Fokyercelf.”

Mark Jacob is a former Sunday editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune. 

Sources: The AtlanticChicago Reader, listverse.com; “Gaily Gaily” by Ben Hecht; United Press International; Washington Post; WMAQ-TV; Editor & Publisher; McBride’s; wlup.com; Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Timesrobertfeder.com.

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