After more than ten years as Channel 32’s alpha male news anchor, Walter Jacobson handed over his chair to Mark Suppelsa on September 7. It was the second time that Jacobson had relinquished the top anchor spot at a major Chicago station. He isn’t leaving us just yet–he’s a new Sunday morning host and still a full-time commentator–but this is as good a time as any to glance back at his unusual career.
1963: He leaves the Chicago’s American newspaper to join Channel Two, WBBM, as a news writer.
1968: He’s promoted to reporter at Channel Two.
1970: He’s named the station’s political editor.
1971: Forced out as political editor at Channel Two, he jumps to Channel Five, WMAQ, as the 5 PM commentator for $30,000 a year.
March 1973: He returns to Channel Two for $55,000 a year as commentator and coanchor at 10 PM with Bill Kurtis. He’ll tell the Tribune magazine a couple years later that his first reaction to this idea was to inform the station’s brass, “You guys don’t know _____ about this market. There is no way a Jew is going to be a successful anchorman in Chicago. Maybe New York, where the whole world is Jewish, but not here. It’s like politics. You want a successful anchor team, get a black and an Irishman and a Pole.”
September 1973: He’s approached by Chicago liberals about running for mayor against Richard J. Daley. He turns them down.
December 1973: Jacobson reports that the CTA chairman’s camper was repaired at a CTA garage at a cost to taxpayers of more than $600. He urges viewers wanting their own vehicles repaired to contact the chairman. The phones at the CTA offices begin ringing off the hook, and the CTA turns the tables by telling callers they have the wrong number and giving them the number of Channel Two.
May 1976: He tells the Tribune his goal is to write a newspaper column.
February 1977: He fails to make a 10 PM newscast because he’s being booked at a police station, charged with making an illegal left turn and driving on a suspended license. A few weeks later he’s pulled over and cited for driving at night with defective headlights. Later the same month he tells the Tribune, “I’ve lost 20 pounds in the last year. I’m a nervous wreck. I have an absolute death fear. Heart attack. I feel I’m not gonna live to be 50 years old because I don’t think the body can take the punishment mine does, meeting these deadlines. I think a lot about changing my life completely. Getting out. I wouldn’t miss all this. I mean, I was on a sensational ego trip for about six or eight months, and then the returns began to diminish to the point where my marriage of 17 years now has broken up.” Walter muses that he’s always had the fantasy of “getting in a big fight with the company and ending it by standing up, on the air, dropping my drawers, and saying, ‘_____ everybody.'”
March 1977: He’s suspended with pay for two days from his $115,000-a-year job for being what the station’s news director labels a “disruptive element” in the newsroom. “I think arguments are healthy, and I certainly don’t think I’ve been abusive,” says Jacobson.
June 1979: After six years together, Bill and Walter reach number one at 10 PM.
November 1979: Mayor Jane Byrne, known to refer to Jacobson dismissively as Skippy, introduces the new TV cartoon figure who’ll keep Chicago posted on the city’s snow plans. He’s Skippy the Snowball. “He’s not related to anybody else, contrary to what some people might think,” Byrne tells the media.
May 1983: Jacobson tells viewers that Mayor Harold Washington used city workers to paint and redecorate his apartment. Washington says city personnel were used only to make security-related modifications. Months later, at a luncheon of the Chicago Television Academy, the mayor says, “Walter, you’re the bottom of the barrel.”
July 1984: “Do I drink?” he asks rhetorically, in a Chicago Tribune Magazine profile. “Every chance I get. And I smoke pot, and I’ve done coke–twice. It didn’t do anything for me.” Jacobson also admits his joy at being one of the highest-paid journalists in Chicago. “I don’t feel guilty about the money,” he says. “I’m really very into money. I wanna make money. I LOVE making money. And I like to spend the money I make.”
April 1985: The Tribune’s Mike Royko tells a reader that the diminutive Walter is actually six-foot-four but Channel Two “uses trick lenses” to make him appear shorter “so he will appeal to the motherly instincts in female viewers. There is so much sham in the world of television.”
November 1985: Jacobson and CBS are found guilty of libeling the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company in a 1981 commentary in which Jacobson accused the company of marketing cigarettes to youngsters. “I had a very sinking feeling when the jurors came into the courtroom,” Jacobson told reporters after the verdict. “I feel real bad. I am embarrassed. I am hurt. Obviously, this is not a good day for me.” The following month, the jury awards the tobacco company $5.1 million, with Jacobson personally liable for $50,000. An appeals court will reduce the award to $3 million but lets Jacobson’s share of it stand.
Also in November, in a column headed “Walter Jacobson works too hard,” Royko mocks Jacobson’s assertion in a trial deposition that “everything I do is research . . . live, breathe, read, talk, eat, poo.” Royko comments, “We now know where he gets some of his stories and commentaries.”
April 1986: Jacobson conducts a shouting match with an executive news producer in a McClurg Court bank. The producer loses his job a few weeks later.
February 1988: A shouting match with an assignment desk editor in the middle of the newsroom makes the Tribune’s “Inc.” column.
April 1989: Linda MacLennan replaces Jacobson alongside Bill Kurtis at 10 PM.
August 1989: Jacobson trips and falls while running to first base in a celebrity softball game in which the Cubs’ Gary Matthews smashes a ball off Walter’s knee.
October 1990: He makes a cameo appearance as himself in an episode of CBS’s short-lived series Uncle Buck.
February 1991: Wearing a fake beard, Jacobson spends 48 hours wandering Chicago as a homeless person for a six-night sweeps story, “Mean Street Diary.” At one point, he’s recognized by a homeless man who shouts at him, “You don’t know nothin’ about the homeless.” Jacobson tells viewers, “I’m miserable. I’m really, really miserable.”
September 1991: Jacobson’s stripped of his early-evening anchor duties at Channel Two.
February 1992: In another sweeps stunt, he hops into a wheelchair to experience the plight of the handicapped. And “Inc”. reports that he threw a book at a newsroom staffer’s head. Though both Jacobson and the staffer are summoned to the general manager’s office to discuss the flare-up, Jacobson insists to “Inc.” that the situation was merely his producer “tossing a book over a divider” and him “tossing it back.”
November 1992: He dons a fake mustache to demonstrate how easy it is to skulk around a hospital. “I think I could take a baby from here,” Jacobson tells viewers.
February 1993: After receiving a gash in the forehead, he tells colleagues he took a spill while watching the Village People at the China Club.
Also in February, a Channel Two producer barges into a dressing room and encounters what “Inc.” calls a “lingering pungent odor [that] could best be described as eau de Grateful Dead concert.” “Inc.” notes that the unnamed “on-air personality” surprised in the room “skipped out in a cloud of smoke.”
May 1993: He jumps to Fox 32, taking a pay cut, to $700,000 a year from $1 million plus. He tells the Sun-Times, “I was like a caged tiger” at Channel Two.
November 1993: To appeal to younger viewers during sweeps, the 56-year-old Jacobson anchors the news in a T-shirt.
February 1994: He exclaims, “Oh, fuck you!” to an off-camera director during a newscast. He later tells the Sun-Times, “I just snapped for an instant. I muttered a swear word under my breath. I exploded. I’m human.”
May 1994: He wins a lottery and becomes one of 12 journalists to witness the execution of John Wayne Gacy. “This is just the kind of break we needed for our ratings,” he says.
January 1995: In a commentary decrying the Baby Richard custody ruling by Illinois Supreme Court justice James Heiple, Jacobson reveals the judge’s home telephone number and urges viewers to use it. “I wanted people to call him up and bother him until he did the right thing,” Jacobson explains. Local bar associations call the stunt journalistic stalking, and newspaper writers universally condemn the act. Jacobson later concedes that “I probably went over the line.”
Also that month: reprising his homeless stunt for another sweeps, Walter trips and falls on a concrete pillar and suffers cuts and bruises. “I saw stars for a minute or two,” he tells the Sun-Times.
March 1995: He marries his third wife, advertising executive Susan Graham. They move into the home he bought back from his first wife, who was invited to the wedding.
September 1997: He’s arrested and accused of grabbing a Humboldt Park restaurant owner who wouldn’t answer his questions about homeless people interfering with businesses in the neighborhood. Acquitted of misdemeanor battery, trespass, and disorderly conduct charges a few months later, he tells the Sun-Times, “The truth won out.”
April 2000: In an interview with the Sun-Times, he’s asked about a new sitcom, Talk to Me, in which his son Peter has a continuing role. “I haven’t seen it yet,” he says. But he goes on, “I talked to my daughter, Wendy–his older sister–the other day. She saw it and said that if you can stand watching a sitcom, Peter was pretty good.”
November 2002: He breaks two ribs in a fall outside his home.
May 2004: He’s arrested in Lincoln Park and charged with driving under the influence, running a stop sign, and obstructing traffic. Police say Jacobson double-parked his 2004 Saab outside a Lincoln Park pizzeria and was seen by police “stumbling” out of the shop. Police also contend that Jacobson ignored their warnings not to get into his car. Jacobson tells his friends that he’d attended a black-tie fund-raiser, consumed “a glass and a half” of wine, dropped his wife off at home, and stopped by the pizzeria for a slice. After returning to his double-parked car, he tells friends, he saw no police, drove off, did not ignore a stop sign, and was pulled over by plainclothes police. He also tells friends that he lost his balance during the sobriety test. Jacobson passes the Breathalyzer test, and the DUI charge is dropped. For the other charges he’s sentenced to four months’ supervision and fined $450. He agrees to undergo evaluation of his use of alcohol.
June 2004: Fox announces Jacobson will be replaced as nightly anchor by Mark Suppelsa.