Looking back on a ditzy year in Chicago media

Cheryl Burton and Mark Giangreco

A few of the stories that made headlines on the Chicago media beat in 2021:

An offhand remark by Mark Giangreco at the end of a sports segment on WLS-Channel 7 (“Cheryl can play the ditzy, combative interior decorator,” were his precise words) sounded disrespectful to news anchor Cheryl Burton, who set off enough alarms that what might have been a newsroom squabble turned into a serious corporate matter for the ABC-owned station. It triggered a process that led to a payout on Giangreco’s contract and an early, bitter exit after 27 years as ABC 7’s top sports anchor — and one of Chicago TV’s all-time greatest. The year will end with WMAQ-Channel 5 shrewdly reuniting Giangreco and Janet Davies (another outcast from ABC 7) as contributors to the NBC-owned station’s New Year’s Eve special. Despite all the uproar, ABC 7 still leads in the late-news ratings, with Burton more powerful than ever.

Eric Ferguson

Twenty-five years as top-rated morning host on WTMX 101.9-FM turned a journeyman disc jockey from Elburn, Illinois, into a millionaire many times over and enshrined him in the Radio Hall of Fame. But it all came crashing down for Eric Ferguson when former co-workers accused him in lawsuits and other public filings of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior toward women at the Hubbard Radio hot-adult contemporary station. The allegations forced him out of The Mix (with a settlement on his contract), but an unrepentant Ferguson vowed to defend himself. “I am confident that at the end of the day the courts will rule and the right outcome will prevail,” he said.

Chicago Tribune

There were more than enough villains to go around in the tragedy that led to a notorious New York-based hedge fund acquiring the Chicago Tribune. Start with Michael Ferro, the disgraced ex-chairman of Tribune Publishing (aka tronc) who sold out to Alden Global Capital, and Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, who did nothing to block Alden from buying up the rest of company. In the end, no one from Chicago’s philanthropic or business communities came forward to challenge Alden’s $630 million winning bid. The takeover triggered a stampede of top-flight journalists from the Tribune — including dozens of prominent columnists, critics, writers and editors. A 174-year-old civic treasure that long proclaimed itself the “World’s Greatest Newspaper” became a sorry shell of its former glory.

Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ Chicago

After years of bleeding red ink, owners of the Chicago Sun-Times devised an unusual plan to cut their losses and secure a brighter future for the paper. Chicago businessman Michael Sacks, principal investor in the Sun-Times, proposed a partnership with Chicago Public Media that would merge the paper with the nonprofit parent company of WBEZ 91.5-FM. Chicago Public Media board chair Piyush Chaudhari called it “truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an essential new asset for Chicago – bringing together two of the city’s most respected news organizations to establish a new model of local nonprofit journalism that is entirely focused on serving the public good here in Chicago and our region.” If the deal goes through, the Sun-Times could emerge stronger than the Tribune — a prospect once thought unimaginable.

Jennifer Lyons

Viewers weren’t the only ones deceived when Nexstar Media Group pledged to transform the Chicago-based WGN America cable channel into a national news operation that would be totally free of bias. By the time it was revealed that Bill Shine, a former senior executive at Fox News and advisor to Donald Trump, was secretly working as a consultant for NewsNation, the network’s cover was blown. In short order, three esteemed professionals — vice president of news Jennifer Lyons, news director Sandy Pudar and managing editor Richard Maginn — resigned after they learned of Shine’s interference in news decisions. NewsNation suffered another black eye when former ABC News executive producer Michael Corn, who came on as president of news, was accused in a lawsuit of sexually assaulting a staffer at ABC’s “Good Morning America.” (Corn denied the allegations.) Ratings remained subterranean as NewsNation expanded its primetime programming to include opinionated talking-head shows — just what Nexstar CEO Perry Sook once derided.

Derek Dalton

Citing a toxic culture of sexism and racism, an external investigation into allegations of misconduct at CBS Television Stations led to the firing of Derek Dalton after three years as president and general manager of WBBM-Channel 2. “This has been a difficult period for everyone in the group,” George Cheeks, president and CEO of CBS Entertainment Group, told staffers following the top-management housecleaning. “The investigation cited painful revelations about experiences that we cannot tolerate today or in the future.” No specific allegations were cited against Dalton, who did not comment on his departure. In a move widely hailed by staffers, CBS replaced him with Jennifer Lyons, the former NewsNation vice president of news and former WGN-Channel 9 news director.

WGN Radio Walk of Fame

It came to symbolize management’s disregard for the legacy and tradition of WGN 720-AM, once the crown jewel of Chicago radio. Nexstar Media Group, which took over the news/talk station in 2019, had promised to find a suitable location for the WGN Radio Walk of Fame when plaques honoring dozens of current and former personalities were removed from the pavement outside Tribune Tower. Instead they were discovered laid out at WGN’s transmitter site in Elk Grove Village and inaccessible to the public — “looking like badly placed cemetery markers” in the words of 2014 honoree Kathy O’Malley. WGN bosses eventually admitted they’d given up on finding a new spot and offered to hand over the plaques to any of the inductees or their families who wanted them.

Toony and Bill Leff

A sad year for local production saw the demise of “Windy City Live,” “Check Please!” and “Chicago’s Best,” among other long-running but still-popular programs. But Weigel Broadcasting, Chicago-based parent company of MeTV, struck gold with an inspired throwback to an earlier era. Channeling the spirit of Ray Rayner, host Bill Leff proved pitch-perfect as cartoon curator of “Toon In With Me,” an hourlong cavalcade of sketch comedy and Looney Tunes classics for viewers of all ages. Kevin Fleming and Leila Gorstein play a variety of odd-ball characters alongside Leff, but the real star may be talking-fish puppet Toony the Tuna (voiced by Fleming). When Toony and friends cross over with MeTV’s Rich “Svengoolie” Koz and rubber-chicken sidekick Kerwyn, it’s almost surreal.

A personal note: I’ll be on vacation until the second week in January. Wishing you a safe and healthy New Year.