Remembering Jane Byrne’s run as TV news pundit

Jane Byrne and Walter Jacobson (1989)

Jane Byrne and Walter Jacobson (1989)

In all the remembrances you’ll watch or read about Jane Byrne this weekend, I doubt that any of them will mention her brief tenure as a Chicago television news commentator.

In 1989 — six years after she left City Hall — Byrne signed on as a paid political analyst for WBBM-Channel 2. No past or present mayor had ever done anything like that.

To negotiate the deal, Byrne retained the preeminent media agent Don Ephraim, whose blue-chip client list included heavyweights from Bill Kurtis and John Drury to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Ephraim got the CBS-owned station to pay Byrne a cool $40,000 to make up to 10 appearances on the air, but the deal came with one catch: It put a muzzle on her.

“The contract with Channel 2 says my voice cannot be heard on any television or radio station within a 90-mile radius of Chicago,” Byrne told me at the time. “Jonathon Brandmeier [the WLUP morning personality] used to call me once a month, but I’m not even talking to him because of the deal. I feel bad because I used to have a lot of people who called me once in a while and joked around. We had fun and it didn’t hurt anybody.”

CBS 2 bosses took pains to separate Byrne from any potential conflicts of interest. (Historical footnote: Journalism ethics mattered to some TV news executives then.) So the station insisted she avoid endorsing anyone in the 1989 mayoral primary, as she had two years earlier when she publicly backed Harold Washington for reelection.

“Jane Byrne is not planning to endorse anyone in this election in part because she realizes that that’s not what a guest analyst for a television station does,” news director Colleen Dudgeon said. “She’s not there — and has not been hired — to promote Jane Byrne. She’s there to give us the flavor and the feel of what’s going on from an inside political viewpoint.”

An unusually agreeable Byrne added: “I know I can be a very fair person, and I intend to be.”

Byrne did a reasonably respectable job on the air, although viewers missed seeing the sparks that flew when she and anchorman Walter Jacobson used to go at it in the old days. Once the two were on the same side, watching them together was never as much fun.

For the consummate politician and media personality that Byrne was, the toughest part of the CBS 2 deal was steering clear of all other microphones and cameras for a whole year.