I love news guys.
I’m not talking about modern wanna-be celebs angling for a spot on “Dancing with the Losers.” Nope, I’m talking about hardcore, roll-your-sleeves-up-and-make-the-extra-call reporters who cultivate sources, live for the dig and die to break stuff ahead of rival newspapers and networks.
I also love survivors.
Journalists who last, despite the changing medium and corporate influences. They’re almost always the ones whose reputations trump circumstances. Yes, we can lay off him and her and her and him. But that That Guy—he’s our glue.
In short, I friggin’ love Jim Williams.
The anchor/reporter for Chicago’s CBS affiliate is the genuine article, and has been for decades. He’s also fascinating—a guy who covered Barack Obama before he was the Barack Obama; a guy who worked as Richard Daley’s press secretary; a guy who grew up the son of a Chicago cop; a guy who has covered death with heartache and grace; a guy who doesn’t seem to dig “Love Actually.”
You can follow Jim on Twitter here, and marvel as his dazzlingly shiny dome, too.
Jim Williams, awesome news. You’re the world’s 240th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jim, I’m so thrilled you’re doing this, because I have a question I’ve always wanted to ask a news anchor. I’ll try and not sound ridiculous here: So you’re at the desk. And there’s a story about, say, a shooting. A horrible shooting. Innocents and all. And, as the anchor, your voice is somewhat measured and somber. You know, you start with, “In [Wherever] tonight, residents are shocked and saddened by …” And you’re supposed to sound saddened, or at least have a tone of, “This is terrible.” But then, two minutes later you can say, “In other news, a dog rescued a penguin who was …” And your voice is up and peppy. So what I’ve always wanted to know is, well, how much of this is acting? Performance? And how much is feeling the news? Being sad over the killing? Being peppy over the dog? Or is it merely this instinctive thing that kicks in having done this for a long time?
JIM WILLIAMS: Jeff, if you and I were having a conversation about Walter Payton, a subject you know well, and you described a serious episode in his life, your facial expression and tone of voice would reflect that story. If suddenly you shifted to one of Walter’s funny antics with his teammates, your expression and tone would change. You’d smile. How you communicated each story would be natural. Anchoring should be the same. I don’t say, “Now I have to show my sad face.” Or, “Now I have to show my happy face.” After you’ve anchored for a while, it is instinctive. Is it a performance? Sure. But any public presentation is a performance. A speech. Teaching sixth-graders math. A television interview when you’re promoting your books. You want to emphasize the right words. You have to watch your pacing. Your face should be relaxed; you can’t look like a deer in headlights. A performance can be authentic. It’s not acting.
J.P.: From 1992 to 1997 you were Richard Daley’s press secretary. I’ve always had this image of Daley as larger than life; bigger than God. I mean, hell, the family name alone. So what was it like, being his press secretary? What was he like to work for? And do political gigs suck as much as I imagine they might?
J.W.: I was covering politics for WGN TV in 1992. Mayor Daley’s press secretary went to work for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. I wanted the administration to find a good replacement because I’d have to get information from that person. Two days later one of Daley’s top aides called and said I was on a short of list of people they wanted to talk to about the job. On a short list for a job I had expressed no interest in? I was stunned. I had never thought about being a government spokesman. After a flurry of conversations, including a two-hour lunch with Daley, he offered me the job … and I turned it down. I told myself I didn’t want give up reporting. That was part of the truth. I also feared I wasn’t up to it: the pressure, managing all media relations throughout city government, answering reporters’ questions without embarrassing the mayor or myself. His aides asked me to reconsider. After some soul searching I decided I needed to take the job because it did scare me. David Axelrod, then Daley’s communications consultant, promised it would give me a political education only an insider could get. He was right. It changed my life. He hired bright people and I got smarter through osmosis. Daley was tough. He yelled at staff. He had testy exchanges with reporters. But no one questioned his love of Chicago. He’d sit in the back seat of his car with a legal pad writing down things he wanted changed throughout the city. Heaven help the commissioners who didn’t get it done. He also helped shape urban policy across the country because he was president of the U.S Conference of Mayors. When he was elected mayor in 1989, he had single-digit support in the black community. His approval soared over time because he made a strong effort to build a relationship with African Americans. I saw it all and played a role. But I had difficult moments.
In my first few months with the mayor, one political columnist called me the weak link of the Daley Administration. Nearly every day Daley was losing his temper publicly because the city had nearly 1,000 murders that year (yep, it was even worse back then) and some of his proposed big public projects collapsed. Unnamed City Hall insiders blamed me for his outbursts. They thought I was not “controlling” him and making him too accessible to the press. I guess they also determined I didn’t have a strategy for creating a better image for the mayor. I had to develop thick skin. I had seen former reporters become spokesmen and turn on the press. That didn’t happen to me. I maintained a relationship with good reporters. A wise man once a said about the role of press secretary: “You protect the boss with the press; you protect the press with the boss.” Aside from my political education, I got to see the news-gathering strategies of lots of reporters. Some were excellent at interviewing, so smooth and conversational I’d have to be on guard not to disclose something that shouldn’t be made public. A few were obnoxious. Some had preconceived ideas about a story and did everything possible to support their thesis. All of those lessons—the good and the bad—I took with me back into journalism when I left City Hall for ABC News in 1997. To answer your question, it didn’t suck.
J.P.: Are you ever like, “Ugh, this is so repetitive?” What I mean is—another broadcast, another election, another Cubs season, another celebrity sighting, another tragedy, another New Year’s Eve story, another bad weather story. Are how do you survive the monotony that is life?
J.W.: Maybe it’s because of my age or I meditate every day, but I’m not troubled by monotony the way I was when I was younger. I try to find something in every experience to appreciate or at least tolerate without agitation. With my peers starting to drop and get sick, I don’t want to rush life, even the monotonous moments. Yet another broadcast, Cubs season, whatever? I say, enjoy it; life is flying by.
J.P.: I know you’re from Chicago, I know you started your broadcast career with WGN. But, soup to nuts, how did this happen for you? When did you first think, “You know what my career should be?” What inspired the chase?
J.W.: As a teenager I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was obsessed with movies. I’d read film journals at Chicago’s main public library. At 20, I found about a part-time job at WGN as a film librarian in the newsroom. I knew William Friedkin and Haskell Wexler worked there years before and had gone on to win Oscars. I thought maybe a television station could lead me to the movies. In the first two years I was there, some very kind people taught me how to write news. I became a radio newswriter (WGN Radio and TV were in the same building then) and later a TV news producer. I liked the pace of television news, different stories every day, being in the newsroom when the big story broke. But I really wanted to be on the street reporting. It didn’t seem likely I’d start on-air in the country’s third largest market. Still, two colleagues and I convinced the station’s general manager to let us do a magazine-style public affairs show—all out in the field. I was the reporter for it. The show was well received and convinced our news director to put me on the air on weekends. (In addition to my full-time responsibilities writing and producing.) That led to a full-time job as a political reporter. WGN gave me a career.
J.P.: You’ve been around the Chicago news scene a long time. So what can you tell us about Barack Obama coming up through the ranks? What do you remember about him from back in the day? When did he first seem presidential to you?
J.W.: I met Barack Obama before he was elected to the Illinois state senate and worked with Michelle at City Hall before they were married. We all knew Obama was smart, poised and eloquent. The same comportment you see now on television we saw 20 years ago, before his first election. He had a promising future. But president? I don’t care who you are, you have a greater chance of winning a multi-state lottery than becoming president. Some of us thought he might be elected mayor 15 or 20 years down the line. Today, when he comes to Chicago on Air Force One, takes Marine One to the Soldier Field parking lot, and streets are closed and cops are everywhere, I can’t help but think of Obama walking alone, unrecognized, on these same streets not long ago.
J.P.: What does it feel like to have a really awful on-air screwup? And can you tell the story of your worst?
J.W.: It’s awful. It’s especially bad is when you make a mistake and hit the slippery slope, then it’s one mistake after another. It’s like the shortshop who commits three errors in the first inning. I don’t know if this is my worst screw-up, but a several years ago I covered a sentencing hearing for two young men convicted of murdering an elderly couple in their home. The couple’s adult children made deeply emotional statements about the loss of their parents and how they must have suffered. People in court were crying. The hearing went on all day and ended moments before our first afternoon newscast. I rushed out to the cameraman and delivered a live report so discombobulated it makes me cringe describing it now. I had been so moved by the children’s statements that I tried to cram too much information into the live shot, including some legal technicalities. The advice I give young people starting out in television is when you make the first mistake take a deep breath, settle down and let the mistake go.
J.P.: Back when I was a kid, I used to think the news media had to be, truly, fair and balanced, because, hey, it’s the news media, and they’re honest. But now, as an adult, all I see are leanings. Left leanings, right leanings. Is there any unbiased media out there? Is there such a thing? I mean, you worked for a staunchly liberal mayor. Are you unbiased in your reporting?
J.W.: First, some here would quibble with your description of Rich Daley as a staunchly liberal mayor, but we’ll save that discussion for another time. Countless reporters keep their biases out of their reporting. When I have a contentious issue, I give both sides equal play in my reports. I try not to let even the nuance slide in either direction. That extends to my activity on social media where the bomb throwing seems to rise to a new level every day.
J.P.: Your dad was a Chicago police officer, and obviously America’s law enforcement has been in the news a ton of late. I’m wondering two things: A. What was your dad like, and how was it growing up as a police officer’s kid? B. Do you think people don’t understand the police and are making something out of something little, or do you think police departments have turned to the dark side?
J.W.: My father was courageous, fiery, outspoken, and though at times distant, he loved his children. Born in 1923, he was an artillery soldier in New Guinea during World War II, and returned to Chicago only to face racism in the country he fought to protect. Though some called him a militant, he rose through ranks of the Chicago Police Department to become a lieutenant. Black officers who worked for my dad tell me he was one of the few bosses to fight for African Americans. Yet white officers tell me he was the best boss they ever had. With my dad it was all about fairness. He certainly had his demons. He was an alcoholic (though he conquered drinking in the last 15 years of his life). Married and divorced three times. My mom was wife Number Three. (By the way, wife Number One was the sister of Lorraine Hansberry who wrote “A Raisin in the Sun.”)
Imagine all the ugliness he must have seen in 35 years on the job. He never discussed it. My brother and I found a photo from the 1950s of my father in uniform holding the corpse of a baby who had been thrown into Lake Michigan. Yet he didn’t have that tough guy cop persona. He was a gentleman. But make no mistake; he didn’t suffer foolishness. One night, off duty, he fought off two armed robbers. He wrestled one to the ground. As he snatched the gun away, the robber fired up the sleeve of my dad’s winter coat. (He wasn’t hurt other than powder burns on his hand.) Both guys ran. You asked what it was like growing up the son of a cop? I loved it. I thought he had a cool job. Not only was he a Chicago cop, so was his father. We had a cousin killed in the line of duty. My brother’s wife is a lieutenant in the Chicago Police Department today. I’m proud to come from a police family. No one has to convince me how important police are. I respect their work and honor their courage. But every segment of society has flawed individuals, including law enforcement. Police brutality is not new. Old timers on Chicago’s south and west sides describe how they were treated decades ago for just standing on a corner. But they didn’t have cellphones and social media. I understand officers’ anger over how they’re portrayed by protesters and commentators. They feel under siege and that civilians can’t possibly understand the dangers they face at a time when they’re under tremendous pressure to reduce crime. But a man or woman with a badge and gun has enormous power. Some abuse it. We can’t ignore it.
J.P.: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign makes me want to slap my head, because—sadly—it reinforces my belief that a large chunk of people are, simply, dumb and anxious to follow the neon puck. Am I wrong? Are we, as a whole, smarter than I think? Because I just don’t see it …
J.W.: The United States is a huge country full of people who try to stay informed. Yes, some people surprise you with what they don’t know and often they’re the loudest on social media. But we have more information than ever before at our fingertips and a large percentage of the population uses it well. I meet them every day.
J.P.: What’s your workday like? You wake up, you get to the office, and then …
J.W.: I report three days a week, anchor on the weekends. Our news director, Jeff Kiernan, expects each reporter to have a story idea at the 9 am editorial meeting. I call sources, check email, get ideas from neighbors or see something odd in the city and ask why. The news of day determines whether an idea is accepted and put in a newscast. Part of my job is calculating logistics. How long is it going to take me to get from Chicago to Naperville in bad traffic? How long do I need to shoot the story? Am I live in the field or bringing the story back to the station? I eventually screen the video, choose my sound bites and write the script. I cover a variety of stories: crime, disputes, features, but not much politics these days. My most painful days are when I have to talk to the parent of a child who’s been murdered. People ask me why we have to do it; isn’t it an intrusion? We do it because the victims aren’t mere statistics. They lived and were loved, and we can’t sweep these crimes under a rug. A few months ago, I covered the shooting death of a 15-year old track star in Gary, Indiana. By all accounts, she was a wonderful girl. In a car fired on by a gang, though she wasn’t in a gang, nor were the other kids in the car. I couldn’t sleep that night.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JIM WILLIAMS:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Jody Davis, Lionel Moise, Thomas Edison, “Love Actually,” flag football, Samuel L. Jackson, sugar cookies, Nikes, hot steam bath, green T-shirts, the number 42, Emery Moorehead: Thomas Edison, Number 42, Lionel Moise, Jody Davis, Emery Moorehead, sugar cookies, flag football, Samuel L. Jackson, hot steam bath, Nikes, “Love Actually,” green T-shirts.
• Is the South Side of Chicago truly the baddest part of town?: Forgive me for taking a little more time with this one. When people outside Chicago write about dangerous places they often include the South Side: “Chicago’s notorious South Side,” etc. The South Side is enormous, bigger than most American cities, home to the University of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry, DuSable Museum of African American History, beautiful, well-maintained homes and parks. Tough neighborhoods, yes. But much more.
• Three memories from your first on-air appearance?: 1. It included a story on the 100 Club of Chicago, which helps the families of fallen police officers and firefighters; 2. I recorded my first on camera standup when it was below zero and I could barely move my mouth; 3. As it aired on WGN, a tape operator accidentally hit the rewind button.
• Celine Dion calls right now. She offers $10 million annually to move to Vegas and anchor the Celine News Network—all Celine, all the time. Conditions: You have to live in her guest bathroom and eat five strands of her recently brushed (by you) hair per day. You in?: Can you thrown in the all-you-can-eat buffet at Circus Circus?
• What do you think Rod Tidwell did after his career with the Cardinals ended?: Moved to Hollywood and played the lead singer in “The Main Ingredient,” an original VH1 movie.
• Five reasons one should make Chicago his/her next vacation destination?: 1. Gorgeous lakefront and architecture. 2. It’s one of the world’s culinary capitals. 3. You can walk miles through vibrant neighborhoods. 4. Rich culture and nightlife. 5. Wrigley Field
• After my book, “Sweetness,” came out, Mike Ditka said he’d spit on me. It’s been four years. Do you think if I approached and re-introduced myself, he’d actually spit on me?: I think he’d invite you to his restaurant here for pork chops. But bring a raincoat.
• How did you propose to your wife?: On one knee, ring in hand, at the Peninsula Hotel bar where we had our first date exactly one year before.
• I say this as a compliment—you have the shiniest head of all time. Explain the process: Daily shave followed by oil-free moisturize with sunscreen.
• What’s the kindest thing someone has said to you of late?: “Hey Jim, would you be up for doing a Quaz?”