to hear some tell it, the Chicago media has suffered two terrible tragedies in recent days: the death of Mike Royko and the hiring of Jerry Springer as a commentator on the Channel 5 evening news. Royko's death inspired a flood of warm reminiscences in the local press; Springer's hiring led to a nasty bout of name-calling that ended, last Thursday, with the resignation of Channel 5 news anchor Carol Marin, who had made it clear she has no desire to share the anchor desk with the talk-show sleazemeister when he begins his commentaries tonight at 10 p.m.
The news of her departure made the covers of both major Chicago papers, and her longtime co-anchor, Ron Magers, said that Marin's departure "feels like a death in the family." Marin and Magers, who had presided over the NBC affiliate's evening news for more than a decade, went public with their displeasure soon after Springer's month-long contract was announced. But it was Marin, who'd long been dissatisfied with the direction her station was taking, who seemed more offended by the move. She bad-mouthed Springer to the local media, and in an appearance on public television's "Chicago Tonight" she seemed almost to explode with rage. "Just say Jerry Springer's name, and it is a statement of the kind of television that descends to the lowest rung," she told the Chicago Tribune. And in a "guest commentary" in the Chicago Sun-Times, she went even further. "Many of us in the trenches of this battle believe that television news is already overwhelmed with too many transient fires, random acts of mayhem and network programming plugs,'' she wrote. "And now we see Springer, the poster child for the worst television has to offer, being added to the 10 p.m. news menu."
Springer didn't exactly try to smooth things over. "What the hell?" he told the Sun-Times. "It's only reading a prompter. I mean, they make it seem like it's journalism." Indeed, Springer even suggested that local news was a step down from his talk-show perch. "I'm lucky enough to have a national show," he told Chicago Tribune TV critic Steve Johnson. "Why in the world am I gonna give it up to do local car accidents? ... If anything, everybody's gotta lighten up. It's local news ... It's people talking about what the weather's gonna be tomorrow and what the traffic's like and who got shot the night before."
Springer has a point. The lead story on the 10 o'clock news on Thursday night, the night of Marin's teary farewell, was a live report from the scene of a freak elevator accident that killed a 5-year old girl -- a story so insignificant that the Sun-Times, the more sensationalistic of Chicago's two big papers, buried the item in a collection of "Metro Briefs" on Page 19. (The Tribune didn't even run a story.) Channel 5 even got the girl's age wrong. The lead story the day before? Bad weather.
Still, neither Marin nor Springer was particularly well served by the acrimonious debate. Marin, as Springer undoubtedly knows, does a good deal more than read from a prompter. She's been one of the most aggressive investigative reporters in Chicago television news. And Springer is something more than a "poster child" for bad TV. Actually, his talk show is the best of its particular breed. He eschews the gimmicky and salacious schticks of Ricki Lake's show, and he avoids the sanctimony of Montel Williams and Sally Jesse Raphael and the cloying "niceness" of Oprah Winfrey and Jenny Jones.
Sure, the show is unabashedly sleazy. Some recent topics: "I'm a Teen Call Girl," "Our Brother is a Pimp" and "Quit Your Sexy Job." (You may notice a common theme here.) Springer is big on so-called "ambush" shows, in which teen call girls and unfaithful lovers spring their little surprises on loved ones on national television. Springer, invariably, looks on with concern, and sometimes even upbraids the confessor for making such a public confession. ("Did you really need to tell them on national television?") These performances are, to say the least, disingenuous: After all, Springer is the one who handed them the rope to hang their cuckolded lovers and genuinely shocked parents. But Jerry is a natural in the role of the wise paterfamilias, and his "Final Thoughts" at the end of each show attempt (perhaps a bit hypocritically) to draw a moral lesson or two from an hour of trash-TV shenanigans.
What no one noticed in all the controversy is how similar Springer and Marin really are. Both stand out as the best representatives of rather degraded (and degrading) professions; they're both clearly smarter than most of those in the business. Both have a tendency to indulge themselves in self-righteous moralizing. Both delight in taking on easy targets.
Marin's investigative reports have tended to focus on the obviously bad -- gang leaders, government corruption and the like -- and she delivers her indictments with an almost gleeful earnestness. She's shocked -- shocked! -- to find bad people in the world, doing bad things to the good people of Chicago. Just as Jerry Springer is shocked by the bad behavior and poor life choices of the guests on his show.
Springer seems never quite so happy as when he can expose a "controversial" guest as a hateful bully -- not exactly a difficult job when you bring on, say, a neo-Nazi mother who's repudiated her mixed-race baby. (I swear this was an actual Springer topic a month or two back; if not, it should be.) Springer uses his "Final Thought" to denounce all forms of bigotry and call for interracial harmony; the audience cheers wildly. Boy, oh boy, Jerry sure gave it to that Nazi! Well, who wouldn't?
Carol Marin's own "Final Thought" came in her guest commentary in Thursday's Sun-Times. Like Springer, Marin dealt mainly in platitudes. She set up straw men. Her tone was that of a stern mother addressing a recalcitrant child. (Indeed, the column seemed to have been deliberately written at a fourth-grade level -- a full two grades below that of a typical Sun-Times commentary.) She declared herself opposed to "salacious" show topics, to "programs that ridicule. Subjects that demean and debase rather than enlighten and enrich." Presumably, she is also opposed to Nazis, mass murderers and man-eating sharks.
Even with Marin gone, I have the feeling Jerry Springer will fit right in at Channel 5.