If you only know Walter Jacobson in his current incarnation — co-anchoring the 6 p.m. news on WBBM-Ch. 2 with his longtime colleague/pal Bill Kurtis — you do not know Walter Jacobson at all and cannot appreciate what a long and distinguished and controversial career he has had in a business that routinely chews up its talent.
Jacobson provides most of the details in his lively and surprisingly self-effacing new book, "Walter's Perspective: A Memoir of Fifty Years in Chicago TV News."
"Never could have imagined lasting as long as I have," he told me in an interview. "From sixth grade on, all I wanted to be was a reporter. And what better place than this town?"
The title of his book refers to the daily commentaries for which Jacobson is justifiably renowned. He was not, as he acknowledges, the first to begin this news broadcast offering — "Commentary certainly is not a new or particularly bold idea, Eric Sevareid is doing it on national television for CBS. Len O'Connor is doing it locally at Channel 5," he writes — but he was arguably the best at it. Though winning a local Emmy — and Jacobson has won dozens — is not an accurate gauge of real value or talent, his "Perspectives" were for many years the stuff of next-morning water cooler conversations.
"Walter's Perspective" is mostly a joyful ride, including his days as a bat boy for the Chicago Cubs and getting up close and personal with major news players and events. There is much fun here and many fascinating stories.
Now, Jacobson has had his share of trouble. He has been fired a number of times, and he chronicles them all. He was convicted of libeling the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp., resulting in a multimillion dollar settlement. He agreed to do a jailhouse interview with mass murderer John Wayne Gacy on the assurance from his then boss, the tabloid TV fan Bill Applegate, that his "Perspective" would return from its Applegate-imposed hiatus. When that didn't happen, Jacobson fumed: "Now I'm so angry at Channel 2 that I regret delivering Gacy, so angry at Bill Applegate. … I don't want to do this anymore. I want out of Channel 2."
Now he says, "Television news is back and forth. There are periods when it is doing its best and times when it does its worst. The cable networks are another story. They are not presenting news. They are entertainment and opinion."
Jacobson has done his share of what I would call "entertainment." As this paper's TV critic, I ripped him in print over a 1991 series in which, dressed as a homeless man, he wandered the city. I wrote: "With only $3 in his pocket, Jacobson had set out to show and tell viewers, presumably, what it is like to be homeless in Chicago. He was followed by a camera crew that, with 'hidden cameras,' taped his every horrific encounter (he couldn't get a cup of coffee at Nick's Fishmarket) and recorded his observations, the most emotional of which — 'I'm miserable. I'm really, really miserable' — will long echo in the annals of Chicago journalism. Jacobson, who heretofore was best known for lambasting wrongdoers and skewering boodling politicians in his nightly 'Perspective' commentaries, provided viewers with what amounted to snapshots of a short and seedy vacation. It was amazing that he was able to transform an issue of such inherent sorrow and desperation into something that could yield so many moments of great, if unintended, humor."
I reminded Jacobson of those words, and he smiled and said, "I was mad at you when I first read it. Oh, yes, I was mad at you at that moment. But sometimes anger reveals truth, so, yes, I would also have to admit that it was somewhat of a stunt.
"But I did learn something sleeping under Wacker Drive, and when it was broadcast, maybe a few other people learned something they hadn't known. Those are things that draw the audience, and I should stop blaming the TV outlets for doing these things because surveys show that that's what people want."
But he writes in his book, "If I were a general manager … I'd pledge to inform more than entertain. I'd stop saying that viewers want their news Bud Lite because it's easy to swallow. I don't think that true. But even if it is, our mission is to do better than that."
Stylishly written, the book is a hard-eyed look at what has happened to what we call news during his many years in the game, something we viewers rarely, if ever, have time to contemplate in the rush and hustle of the next lead story or the 24-hour news cycle.
Kurtis, who writes a charming forward recalling his initial pairing at the anchor desk with Jacobson many years ago, told me that he is "pleased that someone has chronicled this time." He concludes his foreword by writing, "We're lucky, Walter and I. All these years in TV news, we've had the best seats in the house."
And Jacobson is able to vividly recall almost everything they saw.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
By Walter Jacobson, Southern Illinois University, 181 pages, $24.95