We’re learning a bit more about that infamous videotape that “sunk” the career of Chicago TV reporter Amy Jacobson. You’ll recall that she was fired by her employer (WMAQ-TV), after rival WBBM aired a tape of Ms. Jacobson, clad in a bikini, frollicking at the backyard pool of Craig Stebic. Jacobson has been covering Mr. Stebic for the past two months, following the disappearance of his wife, Lisa. Stebic has not been charged with any crime, but police describe him as a “person of interest” in his wife’s disappearance.
In her mea culpa tour of Chicago media, Ms. Jacobson admitted that she made a mistake, but also suggested that the incident had been blown out of proportion. After all, she was taking her sons to a local swimming pool when a member of the Stebic family called, and asked her to stop by and discuss the case. And since she was already wearing a swim suit, and her kids were looking forward to a splash in the pool, well, what the heck.
We believe that WMAQ made the right call in firing Ms. Jacobson, who clearly stepped over the bounds in getting “chummy” with her sources. And we still think that WBBM made a bad decision in airing the tape. First–and most importantly–it did absolutely nothing to advance the story. A woman is missing–quite likely, the victim of foul play–and the focus suddenly shifted to an attractive TV reporter, swimming with the “person of interest” in his backyard.
Secondly, we don’t buy Channel 2’s claims about its “days” of agonized decisions about actually broadcasting the video. Rumors about the tape started swirling immediately in Chicago media circles, and both the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune had stories about Jacobson’s little swim party before the story appeared on WBBM. In hindsight, it seems likely that Channel 2 used the four days of “deliberations” to build some buzz on the segment before it aired. We haven’t seen the Nielsens, but it’s likely that the Jacobson story produced a nice little spike in Channel 2’s news ratings, which lag well behind those of WMAQ and market-leader WLS.
From those reasons, we believe that WBBM News Director Carol Fowler committed a serious error in judgment by splashing the video (pun intended) across her newscasts and the station’s website. But we will give Channel 2 credit for one thing: they obtained the tape honestly, not through some cheesy “sting” operation aimed at nailing the competition. According to WBBM, reporter Mike Puccinelli and his videographer went to the Stebic home last Friday, in search of an interview with members of the family. Apparently, the team from Channel 2 was turned away and they went to a neighbor’s house in search of information.
While in the neighbor’s house, the WBBM photographer spotted Jacobson at the Stebic home. With the neighbor’s permission, the videographer began recording the swim party, with the bikini-clad WMAQ reporter clearly in view. Having secured the permission of the property owner, there was nothing unethical about the Channel 2 crew taping the poolside activities, and reporting what they saw. From our perspective, the problems began with the station’s decision to air the tape.
Before moving to Chicago, Mr. Puccinelli was an anchor and reporter for WMC-TV in Memphis, where he’s remembered for being aggressive, but fair. Certainly, no one in the Mid-South remembers him going for a dip with a “person of interest” in a major police case. Like any good reporter, he was probably disappointed when he saw “the competition” inside the Stebic home, angling for a major scoop. But Mike Puccinelli and his videographer played by the rules–even if their bosses at WBBM didn’t. That’s one reason they’re still employed, and Amy Jacobson is looking for work.