Jacobson behind the apartment where she now lives. She has acknowledged that swimming in Craig Stebic’s pool after trying to land an interview with him was a “horrible mistake.” Photo Gallery »
Chicago was stewing that Friday, overtaken by humid weather and a heat index in the 90s. But nothing was steamier on July 6, 2007, than the gossip burning up the phone lines of the city’s TV journalists. The juicy chatter involved a hot tub or a pool party, perhaps sex, possibly an affair—it all depended on who was talking. One theme ran through the variations, though: “There’s this incredible video,” one newsman recalls hearing, “of Craig Stebic and Amy Jacobson in his backyard.”
Even for a rumor, it was shocking—not least of all to Jacobson, the striking and successful NBC-5 reporter. Stebic, after all, was the estranged husband of a missing woman—a hot news story Jacobson had chased in recent weeks. Like everyone else, she heard the dirt that afternoon, too—when her phone rang as she drove home from Stebic’s house. Her friend Juan Carlos Fanjul, then a Channel 9 reporter, was on the line. “Jacobson,” she remembers him saying, “what were you doing today?”
Seventeen months later, the infamous footage—which eventually aired on CBS-2 news—can still be seen on the station’s Web site. For all the controversy, the grainy six-minute video rivals a department-store surveillance tape in its monotony: Mostly, Jacobson stands behind a glass door talking on the phone, wearing a halter swim top with a beach towel wrapped around her rib cage. Yet the pictures won’t go away—nor, it seems, will the bad fortune they heaped on the reporter. NBC-5 fired her the day the tape aired, and she hasn’t landed a new job since—despite paying her way to interview in five states (one news director, she says, called her “toxic”). Without her $100,000-plus salary, she and her husband, Jaime Anglada, had to sell their 4,300-square-foot house in the Lake View neighborhood, decamping to an apartment across the street. Then, over this past Labor Day weekend, Anglada had his wife served with divorce papers. That day Jacobson, in tears, told Chicago, “I just keep telling myself, ‘Nobody’s died.’”
But if she seems beaten down, her lawyer is positively pugilistic: In July, she filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit on Jacobson’s behalf. It accuses CBS-2 and Tracy Reardon, a neighbor of Stebic’s who allegedly helped Channel 2 shoot the video, of defamation and invasion of privacy, among other claims. Much of the suit centers on whether Jacobson had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in Stebic’s fenced-in backyard. “Our position is that before you even get to Amy Jacobson’s behavior, or whether she was wearing a swimsuit, making the tape was an invasion of her privacy,” says Jacobson’s lawyer, the Oak Brook–based Kathleen Zellner.
CBS-2 tells Chicago it plans to “vigorously” defend itself. But the station has hardly emerged from the controversy unscathed; nor has it improved on its status as the also-ran of Chicago network news affiliates. In October the station booted its general manager, Joe Ahern, who had presided over six years of dismal ratings, including in July 2007, when CBS-2 finished a distant third behind Channels 7 and 5—despite its sensational play of the Jacobson tape.
Jacobson, now 39, is no wallflower: She swam at the home of a source, a man who many people think was involved in his wife’s disappearance. And her hard-charging tactics had raised concerns before. But rather than some unscrupulous reporter who stoops to seductive techniques—“bikini journalism,” as one tabloid put it—she seems, to friends, co-workers, and even those she covered, a more old-school type: a never-off-the-clock newshound, one whose competitive nature garnered scoops for her station and grumbling from rivals.
Her detour to the Stebic pool that afternoon has fueled both measured commentary and cable-TV squawking about journalistic ethics—hers (“This is an attempt at seduction for editorial purposes,” Geraldo Rivera harrumphed as he watched the video) but also CBS-2’s in obtaining and airing the tape. With these issues now likely to play out in court, Jacobson will almost certainly face questions about her hard-charging style—one that led her to a backyard pool on a suburban street, a place that makes Wisteria Lane look downright placid.
A dark undercurrent ran through Red Star Drive in Plainfield, Illinois, long before Lisa Stebic disappeared on April 30, 2007. Neighbors there told the Naperville Sun that Lisa sometimes feared her husband would kill her. While visiting at the house of a friend, Amer Zegar, Lisa confided that she was seeking counseling at a domestic violence center. “If anything ever happened to me,” she told Zegar, according to the Sun, “look towards Craig.”
After his wife disappeared, Craig Stebic claimed innocence. For the first few days of the investigation, he spoke freely to reporters—including Jacobson and Mike Puccinelli, CBS-2’s Naperville bureau chief. Then a midnight police raid on his house netted 24 guns. His neighbors grew uneasy. “I don’t want to blame someone who’s innocent,” Zegar told the Sun. “[But] we’re scared; we really are.”
Gathered for a barbecue in late June 2007, the neighbors talked among themselves about Stebic’s demeanor, which they believed was growing darker. They worried that he might become violent. One visitor that evening was Leigh Harris, a former TV producer volunteering as media adviser to Lisa Stebic’s side of the family. She says she told the neighbors to put heavy curtains on any windows that faced Stebic’s house, and she advised them to keep loaded and charged video cameras at the ready—to document anything that might erupt.
A few days later, on July 5th, things got especially tense for one neighbor. Tracy Reardon, a petite 35-year-old, lived in a neatly kept house directly behind Stebic’s. Though a six- to seven-foot-tall privacy fence surrounded Stebic’s backyard and pool, this fence had failed to make good neighbors. Although Reardon had been friendly with Lisa, she didn’t like Craig. “They’d had a long-running feud,” says Melanie Greenberg, a cousin of Lisa’s.
Reardon was working in her backyard on July 5th when, she would tell police, Stebic and his sister, Jill Webb, made her uncomfortable by staring at her from over the fence. She moved to the front yard, but soon Webb appeared on the sidewalk with a camera, taking photos of her. Later that evening, Reardon told police, she saw Stebic shooting fireworks toward her house—an act that had caused friction in the past between the neighbors.
The next day, July 6th, Reardon called the police. That morning, she had found a six-inch cylindrical explosive in her yard. By 10 a.m., a police detective had confiscated the explosive and interviewed her about the previous day’s problems. “The device contained gunpowder used in a 50- or 70-caliber gun,” the detective would write in her report. “It appeared someone attempted to light the wick.”
That same morning, Jacobson knocked on Stebic’s front door.
As Jacobson explained repeatedly after she was fired, she had been driving to the East Bank Club to swim with her two sons, aged two and three, when Jill Webb called. Webb, visiting from Iowa with her husband and three children, was leaving the next day—but she invited Jacobson to the Stebic house “so we can talk about the case,” as Jacobson recalls. “[Webb and Stebic] were very upset with Mike Puccinelli, and I thought, ‘Here’s my opportunity.’” Though it was her day off, she hoped showing up would lead to an on-camera interview with either sibling. “We hadn’t heard from that side of the family much,” Jacobson says, “and I like to get both sides of the story.”
Jacobson replied that she had her two sons in tow; Webb didn’t care. “I live in Iowa,” Webb told Chicago. “It’s laid-back and family-oriented. I’m an emergency room nurse; I’ve had to bring my kids to work, too.” Jacobson turned the car toward Plainfield.
As it turned out, Puccinelli had already shown up at the Stebic house that morning. The handsome reporter—who had worked as a teacher and swim coach before pursuing a broadcast career—knocked on the front door, hoping to get a quote for his story about a search for Lisa. But Puccinelli had irritated Stebic and his sister with a recent report hinting that the police might soon name Stebic a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance. (The police did just that, on July 12th.) “My husband knows I’m not fond of Mike Puccinelli,” Webb says. “So he turned him away.”
Jacobson and her sons, meanwhile, were welcomed inside. Stebic asked what she knew about the Puccinelli report. “Then Jill told me some things about Lisa, and what was really going on in [Lisa’s] relationship [with Stebic],” Jacobson recalls. At some point, Stebic disappeared. The reporter retired to a bathroom to take off her shorts and top (her swimsuit was underneath), and she and Webb jumped into the pool with their five kids. At no time, according to the lawsuit, were she and Stebic in the pool together.
During the course of her 90-minute stay, Jacobson says, she asked if either Stebic or Webb would do an on-camera interview. “They didn’t want to do it that day,” she says. “I said, ‘Okay.’ It was building a relationship. Then we talked a little more, about her work, and his line of work, and then the kids all ate hot dogs.”
In a radio interview after she was fired, Jacobson said that spending time at Stebic’s pool in a swimsuit was a “horrible mistake”—made, she says, in an attempt to juggle mom and work duties. News reporters are essentially always “on”—expected to jump when news breaks. But codes of ethics dictate that journalists avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and most observers agree that the images of Jacobson in her bikini top made her look far too cozy with people at the heart of a story she was reporting.
Outside, Channel 2’s Puccinelli was still working in the neighborhood. Red Star Drive was familiar territory; in the two months since Lisa’s disappearance, he and Jacobson had interviewed scores of neighbors and filed numerous stories, establishing themselves as lead reporters—and intense rivals—on the story. Now, spotting an unfamiliar car in Stebic’s driveway, Puccinelli called its license-plate number in to the CBS-2 assignment desk for a check, according to the lawsuit; when it came up as Jacobson’s, a CBS-2 staffer allegedly said: “Why is she there and you’re not? Go get her.” (Calls made to Puccinelli and CBS-2 executives were referred to the communications department, which said in a statement that the station “stands by its reporting.”)
Then, according to the lawsuit and a report on the CBS-2 evening news, Puccinelli and his cameraman paid a visit to a nearby house; the lawsuit says it was the home of Tracy Reardon, Stebic’s aggrieved backyard neighbor. They left with the now-infamous videotape, took it back to their news truck, and beamed the images back to the newsroom in Chicago. There, the video was an instant hit.
“I heard this commotion,” Gerald McClain, a freelance cameraman working at CBS-2 that day, told Chicago. “They were looking at [what] looked like a surveillance tape or something. They said, ‘It’s Amy Jacobson.’ I said, ‘No, it can’t be.’ There were maybe five or six people watching it. They said it had just been fed in. They seemed to be enjoying it. ‘Enjoying’ might not be the right word. They seemed to be looking at it like, ‘Okay, we got her now. She’s done other stuff like this.’ Kind of negative. I just left. I’m a colleague of hers, and I didn’t want to get pulled into it.”
Within an hour, word of the video buzzed through Chicago’s journalism community. Jacobson, driving past Soldier Field when her Channel 9 friend called, promptly phoned Frank Whittaker, NBC-5’s vice president of news. “I knew I didn’t do anything wrong,” she says. “I thought he’d be proud of me, that I was working on my day off, being aggressive. But I was worried about the perception it could create.” Whittaker called back an hour later, suggesting she get representation and not come in to work on Sunday. “That’s when I knew something was wrong,” Jacobson recalls.
Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp
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.
As the tape played incessantly on cable TV and the Internet that week, Jacobson’s good name was sunk—if not by the images of her in a swimsuit, or by her abrupt firing from NBC-5, then by the media’s gleeful parroting of the story’s implication: that she and Stebic were enjoying a personal relationship. From Larry King Live to the Today show, from the Chicago Tribune to the New York Post, the press reveled in the story of the “bikini-clad reporter” at Craig Stebic’s “pool party.”
On Wednesday, the day after her firing, Jacobson tried to quell the innuendo and speculation. She told the Sun-Times media columnist Robert Feder and several local radio shows that she only knew Stebic professionally; that she went to his house that day because she “was trying to see what’s going on, and trying to see if we [could] do an interview”; and that she had dipped in the pool only because she had promised her sons they could go swimming that day. “I felt the way Channel 2 cut the piece together didn’t represent what was actually happening,” she told The Roe Conn Show.
Though Jacobson acknowledged in every interview that she’d had “a lapse in judgment,” the media tour did little to quiet her critics. On Friday, the Tribune’s media columnist, Phil Rosenthal, and chief business correspondent, David Greising, published an article reporting that the video was just “the latest incident over the past several years to cause bosses to lose their confidence in Jacobson’s judgment.” Most damningly, the article said that Jacobson had been briefing Plainfield police on her interactions with Stebic; depending on the nature, regularity, and depth of the briefings, that could be a conflict of interest and a breach of ethics.
But the allegations were made by anonymous sources, and NBC-5 management isn’t talking. In his blog on July 13, 2007, Eric Zorn quoted Jacobson as admitting that her bosses had indeed accused her of “getting too close to the police.” But Jacobson tells Chicago that in the long Monday meeting with her bosses, no one ever brought up her dealings with the police. “It was all about Craig Stebic, and that day,” she says.
Contacted by Chicago, Plainfield’s police chief, Donald Bennett, said Jacobson acted like any other reporter on the case. “They all called me, Puccinelli and Craig Wall from Fox,” he says. “They all share certain tidbits so [that] there’s some type of friendship. It’s like anything else: Communication is a two-way street in any business, and if you don’t give a little, you feel you’re not going to get any in return.”
In any case, the Tribune article took on a life of its own. Carol Marin wrote a Sunday opinion column in the Sun-Times dubbing Jacobson a “police informant.” The Tribune devoted a Sunday editorial to the matter, writing: “As the full story comes out, though, it’s easy to see why [NBC-5] bosses fired her. They were right to do so.”
Recalls the Tribune’s Eric Zorn, who wrote about the brouhaha for several days on his blog: “She went on her day off to try to advance this story somehow. Suddenly she’s a national slut, and all these commentators are wagging their fingers at her.”
Meanwhile, though, a lot of the public was jumping to Team Amy. In three unscientific Web polls—at Zorn’s blog, wgnradio.com, and suntimes.com—voters who said she shouldn’t have been fired outnumbered those who agreed with the termination, by two or three to one. (Zorn’s poll drew nearly 7,000 votes, and the Sun-Times’s more than 18,000.) CBS-2 was getting heat from viewers, too—so much so, that it ran a special segment at the end of the week explaining how the station had landed the videotape. “[We want] to put to rest claims that we were stalking Amy Jacobson out of professional jealousy,” anchor Rob Johnson told viewers, “or that we ran out to [Plainfield] on a tip, to catch her doing something wrong.”
Though the Sun-Times had quoted Carol Fowler, the news director, on Wednesday as saying that “the tape fell into our lap”—leading many to believe that it had been given or sold to CBS-2—Johnson told viewers: “Puccinelli and our photographer went into a neighbor’s home and from a window of the neighbor’s home could see Stebic’s backyard. . . . He shot the video of the backyard with Jacobson in clear view; what we saw was what neighbors could see.”
Jacobson’s lawsuit initially named as defendants CBS-2, Stebic’s neighbor Tracy Reardon, and Weldon, the journalism professor. (The claims against Weldon were later folded into the claims against CBS-2; she is no longer being sued individually.) NBC-5 was not sued because the station didn’t violate the terms of Jacobson’s contract in firing her, according to Kathleen Zellner, Jacobson’s lawyer.
Should the case go to trial—that would be many months away—much of the dispute will focus on the right to privacy.
Privacy laws protect people from, among other things, a form of invasion of privacy called “intrusion upon seclusion”—which makes it illegal to photograph, videotape, or report on someone where, as the courts often put it, the person has “a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Zellner plans to argue that Jacobson had that expectation—as did everyone else at Stebic’s house—due to the six- or seven-foot-tall privacy fence around the backyard. “When he put that tall wooden fence up, Mr. Stebic clearly created an expectation of privacy,” she says.
Steven P. Mandell, a Chicago lawyer who represents media companies for Mandell Menkes LLC, says intrusion upon seclusion cases usually involve filming inside someone’s home, say, or hacking into a computer. A lawsuit based on videotaping someone standing in a backyard—even if a tall privacy fence surrounds the yard—sounds like a “weak claim,” he says.
Mandell says that “it might get more interesting” if the defendant had used a telephoto lens to capture images that could not otherwise be seen by neighbors or passersby. “The notion is that if you have to use a technological means to look inside someone’s dwelling, then that is likely invasion of privacy,” he says. (Zellner says she plans to prove that a telephoto had to be—and was—used to get the images.)
Another media lawyer, Len Rubin, with the firm ReedSmith LLC, thinks that videotaping over a neighbor’s fence won’t be easy for CBS-2 to defend. “Stebic and Jacobson had an expectation of privacy because of the tall privacy fence,” he says. Because the law tries to strike a balance between the right to privacy and freedom of the press, he says, “CBS-2 will have to assert a defense of newsworthiness”—that is, that the scene they were videotaping was so newsworthy that it trumps Jacobson’s privacy rights.
Mandell says CBS-2 can make a strong argument that Jacobson’s poolside visit was indeed legitimate news. “She had been on TV reporting about a high-profile investigation [for two months],” he explains, “arguably projecting an air of independence and unbiased reporting. She is later seen at the home of the investigation’s central figure in a bathing suit with her two kids. That is arguably overcasual and unprofessional, and suggests that there is some sort of relationship that goes beyond just the professional. It’s reasonable to comment on that—and an argument can be made that it’s a newsworthy matter and of public concern.”
Zellner argues that CBS-2’s attempt to justify the story by saying it’s newsworthy is “pathetic.” “The case law is very clear: You cannot commit a crime using a hidden camera to get tape that you then call newsworthy. And how is it newsworthy, that she’s over there gathering information as a reporter?”
One point lingers: Did CBS-2 make the videotape, or did one of the neighbors? While the law gives the media an enhanced right to invade privacy to gather news, it doesn’t look kindly—even in the age of YouTube—on private citizens’ filming through windows and over neighbors’ tall fences. “‘Who did the taping?’ is my bottom-line question,” says Rubin.
Both CBS-2 and Reardon have said in recent court filings that the station’s cameraman shot the footage. But two days after CBS-2 aired its story on Jacobson, a man knocked on Tracy Reardon’s door. The man told her his name but didn’t tell Reardon that he was a private investigator hired by Kathleen Zellner. In a report made available to Chicago by Zellner, the investigator wrote that Reardon told him she made the tape and gave it to CBS-2. The report adds, “Clearly she does not like Jacobson. . . . I asked her why she hated Amy so much. She indicated that she did not like the way Amy covered the Stebic story and that she especially could not stand Stebic. . . .” (Reardon declined to be interviewed for this article.)
So, who shot the tape? Stay tuned.
As for the defamation claims, CBS-2, represented by lawyers Bryan Sher and Dimitry Shifrin of Bryan Cave LLP, declined interview requests made by Chicago. But in a motion to dismiss the case, filed in October, the lawyers argue—among many other points—that Zellner’s defamation claims are based on statements by Weldon, the Northwestern journalism professor, and that the quotes were “a classic expression of opinion that is protected by the First Amendment.”
A year and a half after the tape that torpedoed Jacobson’s career, she’s dealing with a different vein of issues. She has little income, and in September her husband moved out. “I didn’t want my marriage to end. Because I lost my job and I was depressed, I feel he made some poor choices,” she says. “But he is a good person and a good father to my children.”
For his part, Anglada says that while his wife’s job loss played a part in the unraveling of the marriage, it “wasn’t the ultimate cause. There’s a lot of things that have to happen for a bridge to collapse.”
Despite the new battle of her pending divorce, Jacobson is starting to piece her life back together. She fills in occasionally as a news reader on WLS-890 AM radio, and she does a weekly two-hour gig on WIND-560 AM. She’s still a reporter at heart, she says, fanatically reading the papers and watching the news. “I do miss my job, a lot,” she says.
But she’s intent on looking forward. Asked if, given the chance, she would do anything differently regarding that July 6th day at Stebic’s, Jacobson says: “I can’t think about that. I had to go through a year of counseling about ‘Why didn’t I put my shirt on? Why didn’t I wear my big, frumpy maternity bathing suit? Why couldn’t I have had a flat tire on the way there?’ There are so many ‘what ifs.’ It was eating me up.
“But I know I didn’t do anything improper. And that’s what I live with: knowing that my heart was in the right place and that it was for the cause of the story.”