Today I am speaking with my dear friend and famous TV anchor/news reporter Walter Jacobson…
Walter, what prompted you to become television reporter? It began in third grade at the Swift public school in Rogers Park. I decided for some reason what I wanted to do with my life was to become a news reporter. And I think it must have had something to do with some innate curiosity and an insatiable appetite for knowing what people were doing and where they were doing it; especially among people who didn’t want me to know what they were doing.
It must have had something to do with (even in third grade) a disdain that I had for authority – maybe my mom’s. I also seem to have an inability to take ‘no’ for an answer and I’m very, very persistent. Where all those things came from, I can’t say…maybe it was in my DNA. The bottom line is ever since that time, I have wanted to be nothing but a news reporter and I consider myself a very lucky person. I can’t explain it, it’s something inside of me and what Chicago is to me.
The dynamics, the mystery and the problem of government and politics are so rich in Chicago, much more so than any other city that I know of in the country. New York’s Tammany Hall government and politics is like sandlot baseball to the way the game is played in Chicago, as are the shenanigans of the people in power in Chicago. It’s always a source of great interest to me. In my 50 some years as an anchorman and reporter there have been almost four dozen public officials elected and appointed that have been convicted of conspiracy, bribery, extortion and income tax invasion.
At the same time, just think of the characters in Chicago that are constantly interesting to follow: whether it was Jane Byrne, Harold Washinton or the kingdom of the Daleys, that’s what Chicago has been. Richard J. Daley and his democratic machine…his son Richard M. and his parking meters, it was just a fascinating place and being a journalist has been a wonderful career, at least it has been for me.
What are the pros and cons after your departure from the station? Do you mean, am I happy or unhappy, or do I want to be retired or not retired? I’ll try to answer that.
I have only been retired for four months, the retirement wasn’t my choice, not Bill Kurtis’s choice. We signed up to CBS for two years because CBS was trying to bring back some attention to its ratings, which were very bad, so the station decided bringing us back the station would get some new viewers or some old viewers that had turned away. The station also told us very directly that it would be no more than two years because we’re getting too old for the business. The managers these days want someone young and less expensive and we signed a two year contract, but at the end of two years CBS decided to extend it for another six months, which ended in February of this year.
CBS wanted to develop a newer and younger team, which will last the company for many years to come, so Bill and I are out on our own. However there are lots of options.
What I love doing most is the commentary, since I’ve been around and doing it for so long. Maybe I will find a radio or television station that would like me not to anchor anymore, but to do the commentary, or I can write columns and distribute them somewhere as iOnTheScene does, or I can just change completely. I always wanted to do something like be a bartender or traveler, drive a bus or even a cab. Maybe I will do one of those things, and I’d also like to earn a little money since my income has been cut off. I have been there and I have done it all in television news. I’m not looking to do that! Now I am kind of enjoying for the first time being unemployed. After all, I am 75 years old.
I’m reading books and newspapers, and we have this cottage here in Beverly Shores, Indiana. I come out and watch the lake and take walks, so I am not unhappy, I am a little anxious and my fear is that I would become stale. It’s important to me to keep my brain active. I love writing and talking about politics so I’ll do it in one form or another.
Speaking of writing, tell us a little about the book you just finished. I didn’t intend to write a book; I never thought of writing a book. I don’t feel that I should try to do some historical perspective on what government and politics in Chicago have been about. When I retired before for a couple of years after Fox, I just started thinking about where I have been and what I have done. Before I realized it, I was writing down some of my thoughts. Then I was encouraged through a friend to talk to an agent and a publisher to see if anyone would be interested in a memoir, and so I got carried away with it. An agent thought it would be a good idea; it was kind of like a cathartic thing that turned into a book, a memoir of what my life has been like inside the news business which is hugely interesting and in many ways mysterious.
What goes on behind the scenes in the television news business is really fascinating and that’s what’s there. How the television stations decide on who should anchor, how the television stations hire and fire and why they hire and fire certain anchors and what causes television stations to move from one theory of presenting the news to another. Also, how television stations decide what kind of stories are newsworthy and covered, how the television stations deal with ethnic and racial pressures, how I got sued for libel and lost the case because I accused the tobacco companies of aiming their advertising to children, et cetera. It’s a great, great business, and it changes everyday.
Now that you are home more, how does that effect your relationship with you wife Susie? Well, it’s a whole new experience for us to be together around the clock. Susie is a very independent woman and she has her business of horse riding that she is committed to. So we still try to do our separate things like we have always done, but it is nice to have some time together for a change, too.
Tell us some of your passions. My passion is for Susie my wife, my passion is for my children, my passion is for politics – I am a political junkie. My passion is learning what goes on inside politics, especially about people who don’t want me to learn. It goes way back to my childhood as I said earlier.
Are there any new ventures in the future that you can talk to us about? Right now I am working on becoming accustomed to retirement, and at the same time I am working on sending out feelers around the community to see what kind of interesting opportunities there would be out there for me. I believe the opportunities are vast, and I am trying to steer myself away from television news at the moment because, as I’ve said, I’ve been there and have done that, and I am trying to do something else new. I’m not sure what it will be, but I do know it can’t be business. I’ve never have been any good with numbers and business theory.
I did go to the Art Institute the other day to see the fashion exhibit. Maybe it would be fun to be a docent at the Art Institute or hooked up someway in an art gallery, because I love the art world. I still think bartending would be fun, if it didn’t have long hours, but then of course I would have to go back to school to learn!
I spoke with Walter’s ‘powerful partner’ Susie as well and here is our conversation…
Is Walter as inquisitive at home as he is on the air ? Yes, he is a very, very curious person altogether. He has gigantic curiosity.
Does that work for you or does that drive you crazy? It’s actually kind of a double-edged sword: it’s great because he is so curious and interested in things (especially me), but on the other hand it sometimes can be a little bit too much. I’m sure some of the people he’s interviewed professionally will tell you the same thing.
And you were his agent at one time? I was his agent for 16 years. I now have a separate company I run for all his speaking engagements, and I did all the marketing for his book (PR, advertising, social media, et cetera). I also run all the finances, estate planning, the households, et cetera.
When I talked to Walter, he mentioned you are a fantastic cook, and when you both go up to your summer home in Indiana you host some wonderful dinner parties with some of the most critical foodies. Did you go to school for that, or is that something that came to you naturally? Yes, and it is one of my passions. It wasn’t at all when I was growing up. My mother was a pretty good cook, but she worked so she was an efficient kind of cook, and I never really started cooking until she got sick and I had to take care of her. So I started making all of the family dishes, I started cooking on of a regular basis. It really wasn’t until I met Walter that I got seriously involved in cooking because he loves food, probably even more than he loves me. He is a total, total foodie. He can eat more than anyone I’ve ever seen and he is greatly appreciative as well. So it was great to have somebody to cook for and loved food so much. Also that’s when I really got into it and started entertaining a lot.
You entertain some of the most affluent couples in the city. How does that feel being a part of the A-list? For me, I’ve been able to keep a good balance. It doesn’t bother me because I always worked full-time in advertising and marketing. Now I’m very involved with horses, and the sport has become a full-time passion of mine. I really have been doing it for over 15 years. The challenge is that Walter likes to be out more than I do, he’s more sociable than I am. He could be out every single night. And when I ride so early in the morning, I must get my proper rest.
How many horses do you have and where do you keep them? I have two jumpers and I keep them in Elgin.
Do you compete? Yes, I’ve been competing and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do in my life and wasn’t able to do when I was younger, working all the time. It’s been my focus and I compete nationally. I’m probably ranked at the top in the country in my age group, which was my goal. I’ve also been winning some money and that is always nice, too.
How do you juggle a full life with horses, a famous husband, your own goals, entertaining, trying to travel, maintain two houses, et cetera? Tell us your secret. I’m fairly used to it since I used to travel all the time internationally and kept a pretty heavy pace. Now the challenge is driving back and forth all the time to horse shows from Indiana to Glen Ellyn. It gets to be a little too much, but I accomplish all this juggling through focused organization.
Well, keep doing what you’ve been doing, it apparently works. Thanks for you time!