Now-departed exec producer threatened show’s journalistic legacy
If the decision to sell the Chicago Tribune – a local institution dating back to 1847 to out-of-town hedge fund interests who are known as newsroom gutters weren’t enough, now another headache as emerged at another of the city’s top news organizations.
WTTW’s Chicago Tonight – long considered one of the best local news shows, is in turmoil as the station recently fired executive producer Hugo Balta after a year because of posts he made on social media.
As documented by Robert Feder, Balta posted bizarre videos on Instagram, not to mention showing support for liberal candidates on social media – a no-no according to the station’s ethics and journalism guidelines. The issue came to light after co-hosts Phil Ponce, Brandis Friedman, and Paris Schultz brought the matter to WTTW bosses in a letter.
Balta also failed to disclose to WTTW he was owner and head content writer of the Latino News Network, an online news outfit in New England. He has since emerged at the Chicago Reader, according to the Tribune.
In the past, Chicago Tonight and the WTTW call letters had a representation for what critics stood for as “Wilmette Talking To Winnetka”, and a report was released about the show in the mid-2000s, criticizing the way it covers Chicago (I’ve praised the Chicago Week In Review in the past in this space, although the show hasn’t the same since Joel Weisman retired.)
But in recent years, the show has done a better job covering the Chicago area – especially in minority neighborhoods with the coronavirus pandemic and focusing more on social justice issues in the wake of the killing of George Floyd as Balta was a key component. He was instrumental in creating two public affairs shows targeting minority audiences: Latino Voices, which he hosted, and Black Voices, hosted by Friedman (who is also taking over as host of Latino Voices on an interim basis.) Both air at 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, respectively.
However, as this space has said before – if you are in this business, you represent your employer around-the-clock – and that includes social media posts. Certainly, endorsing any political candidate – no matter what your position is – violates most journalistic standards and he should know better, especially given his experience. The late John Callaway helped build credibility for Chicago Tonight since it launched as a half-hour late night show in 1984, and it’s hard to feel sorry for Balta and even more so now since he was scooped up by a publication whose former editor lasted just ten days.
In an interview with Laura Washington of the Sun-Times – a former Chicago Tonight correspondent and often appears on the weekly wrap-up show, Ponce said Balta’s termination had a lot to do with violating WTTW’s ethical standards more than anything else. “It all has to do with objectivity. And objectivity is, you know, it’s at the core of ‘Chicago Tonight’s’ DNA. If we become partisan and political, or people think we are, I mean, at that point, we’ve lost our credibility and relevance” Ponce said, whose been with the show for more than 20 years and recently renewed his contract.
Chicago Tonight is certainly a treasure, at a time when many for-profit news organizations are cutting back – and especially when the major broadcast news networks have abandoned serving the public interest to chase ratings and revenue (and to appease Republican members of Congress who hold the key to deregulation) if the Sunday morning news shows, the lackluster coverage of the insurrection, and last year’s Presidential debate debacle are any indication. If you’re looking for non-partisan news programming, this is the place to be and it should stay that way.