CHICAGO CAREER IN REVIEW: An interview with Joel Weisman — journalist, lawyer, TV personality and agent for celebrity clients

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The talent for the second guess, the analysis-after-the-fact, just cannot leave Joel Weisman.

After 40 years of doing it in living color, such a stance becomes second nature.

Days after signing off his “Chicago Tonight: The Week in Review” on WTTW-TV for the final time, master moderator Weisman elaborated on a point made in his farewell broadcast. Weisman and a panel of four typically crammed in punditry, observations and a bit of inside-story into a tight 7 p.m. Friday half hour of the show.

Sometimes it appeared as if the quintet was racing to cover every topic listed in the opening graphics. Almost always they ran out of time as 7:30 ticked down.

In an interview in his Northbrook law offices, Weisman said he “would have preferred,” if the show had expanded to a full hour, but noted “it was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I wanted the extra time. On the other hand, we were a little more efficient in getting to the highlights of the stories by knowing we were on the clock.

“In my own mind, I was constantly keeping a different clock than the number of minutes remaining in the show. There was somebody off-camera who might want to move it along when I knew there was more left to say on a topic. Part of it was not just the value of the topic, it was the value of the discussion. If I had a hot discussion going, I wanted to let it play out a little bit more.”

Joel Weisman

No matter what West Rogers Park native Weisman did the rest of his work week, the Emmy Award-winning “The Week in Review” was his baby. He busted all broadcast actuarial tables by going a full four decades from Jan. 20, 1978 to Jan. 19, 2018. Weisman just kept going from young manhood to senior-citizen status at 75.

“I was always enthusiastic about it,” Weisman said. “I couldn’t wait to see these guests. I couldn’t wait to ask them questions that I thought I could stump them on or questions I had genuine curiosity about, that I knew I could get a better understanding about.

“Some of these people were just so frighteningly bright it was like being in school without being graded as you learned.  I had that thirst for knowledge and I had that excitement to see these people, many of whom over time I became friends with and I learned about their families, and vice versa.”

Among prominent panelists Weisman and his producer brought back for the final show were fellow Jews David Axelrod and Lynn Sweet. A lot happened to both in 40 years. Axelrod rose from Chicago Tribune political reporter to hired-gun political strategist to trusted White House advisor to President Barack Obama. Sweet was a hard-driving Chicago Sun-Times cityside reporter who has survived innumerable cutbacks to rank as the Edwin Eisendrath-run newspaper’s Washington, D.C. reporter and columnist.

For Sweet, guest shots on Weisman’s show were a homecoming.

“I grew up a few blocks from WTTW (5400 N. St. Louis), at Christiana and Berwyn and then at Kimball and Glenlake,” Sweet said. “I went to Peterson (elementary school) and Von Steuben, and Temple Beth Israel when it was at 4850 N. Bernard. Going to WTTW for Joel’s show was always a wonderful return to my neighborhood.

“I got my start doing television guesting on Joel’s show. It was always an honor to be asked to be on — up to and including the last show. Joel through the decades made the show a must-watch by everyone who cares about Chicago politics, sports and the big stories of each week.”

Sweet’s Chicago upbringing complemented the local, coming-up-through-the-ranks feel brought by Weisman after his 1940s and 1950s youth days, first in Albany Park, then around Touhy and California in West Rogers Park.

Weisman called his Jewish upbringing “not strict,” although he started out attending Mt. Sinai, an Orthodox synagogue near Kedzie and Montrose.

“I hated Hebrew school because it was 2 ½ hours, four days a week,” he said. “That was tough because I was also working, delivering newspapers. I also wanted to have time to play sports with my friends, many of whom were not Jewish, in Albany Park.”

With Mather High School, a straight shot down California, not opening until 1958, he had a long commute to Sullivan High school in southeast Rogers Park. “They used to call it Sul-Levin, because it was so Jewish,” he said. Far out of walking distance and with CTA service a two-bus transfer, Weisman sometimes paid 25 cents to hop the private Jerry’s Bus Service to Sullivan.

“I always wanted to be a writer. My parents (Maurice and Rose Weisman) said you won’t make that much money. We were a pretty modest (income) family.  My dad was a rug cleaner. My mom lived ‘til 101, into the 37th year of the show. She was a critic, especially about my ties. I had about 250, and I was going to say on my last show that anyone who sent me a self-addressed envelope, I’d send them a tie. It was all my own fetish. In my mind, the first thing I look at is the tie of the person delivering the news.”

Joel went where Rose Weisman could not. An amateur poet, she also wanted to be a writer, but could not get into Northwestern University due to its infamous pre-World War II Jewish quota.

“She said there can be some discrimination in journalism.” But he plowed ahead, went to the University of Illinois-Champaign, and worked in a starter job at the fabled City News Bureau before landing a reporter’s gig at the Gary Post-Tribune. Still in his 20s, he hooked up with Chicago’s American, the spunky afternoon newspaper owned by Tribune Co.

“When I started, the Tribune didn’t have any Jewish management,” Weisman said. “They had lots of Jewish writers (including TV critic Janet Kern). That was a little bit of a red flag to my mother. She used to think if you really wanted to climb the ladder, there were too few positions in management.”

At the American, converted to the tabloid Chicago Today in the spring of 1969, Weisman cut his teeth in the rough-and-tumble dual world of Chicago journalism and politics. A savvy scribe could worm his way into a politician’s or police official’s confidence compared to the choreographed gulf in existence today.

“It was a better time,” Weisman said, “not just because it was enjoyable in making friends, but you’d get whatever the statement was from the horse’s mouth, instead of from a publicly-paid PR department. There were a lot of colorful people I covered and I got to know pretty well.”

Weisman signed on at the tail end of an era where the Chicago Daily News’ Mike Royko, covering the County Building in his pre-columnist days, competed directly against future anchorman Walter Jacobson of the American. Royko roasted Jacobson on the beat and for years afterward. The rivalry was emblematic of the journalistic competition at the time.

“The scrappiest paper was the American, because we had the fewest resources,” Weisman said. “So if we got scoops, and I got a few of them, we really felt good, because the whole world was against us. The Daily News prided itself not only doing a good job locally, but they had this big national staff.” The Daily News’ top names outside Chicago were Washington, D.C. heavyweight Peter Lisagor and globetrotting reporter Georgie Anne Geyer, later one of Weisman’s clients.

“Everybody thinks his day was the good old days. I miss it because I used to devour newspapers wherever I went. I think when you have four (daily newspaper) voices, you have more choice. In terms of immediacy, it’s definitely better now. But that immediacy gives birth to some errors. Once somebody gets it out, the question is will the next guy putting it out vet what the first guy did?”

Eventually, Weisman moved on to the Sun-Times, which had far more resources than Chicago Today, which ceased publication with much of its staff absorbed by the Tribune in Sept. 1974. He moved up to metropolitan editor. Then Weisman became Midwest correspondent for the Washington Post.

Weisman began law school at Chicago-Kent College of Law while still a reporter.

Family connections lured him to the law full-time. Rose Weisman and the mother of attorney Ken Siegan had been friends since both boys attended Camp Chi.

“I thought it would be fun to practice law with him,” Weisman said of Siegan. “I thought it was a way to make more money than as a newspaper reporter. Coming from a poor background, money was something I valued highly. Before I went into partnership with Siegan, I actually did some law stuff at the newspaper. People would come up to me and say, would you do this real-estate close?”

As a full-time attorney, Weisman would build up a portfolio of big-name broadcast clients in Chicago. Most famous are WGN’s Tom Skilling and WLS’ Mark Giangreco, the longest running weather and sports anchors, respectively, in Chicago. WMAQ’s lead co-anchor Alison Rosati also is in the Weisman stable. But he started out representing talent because he was in the media business at the time.

“Dick Kay was my first client and he asked me to do his contract,” Weisman said of the legendary WMAQ reporter, whose real name was Dick Snodgrass. “I said I don’t have any experience doing it. Dick said, well, you’re a terrific reporter so I’m sure you’d make a tough lawyer.

“Well, I was tough. Some of our clients were the highest-paid people in the business.  I was not in awe of the management of the stations or newspapers or publishers.”

Weisman believes the 10 p.m. news will still have a market for years to come, even if serious news sometimes must take a back seat.

“You have a different thirst for news,” he said. “People don’ t care as much about worldly things. They’re more into their own lives and pleasures. They’re not as interested in the day-to-day minutia of politics and government.”

Weisman first went into TV with WTTW in 1973, as a political editor and commentator on the public station’s first nightly news program, “The Public News Center.” After that series proved too expensive to produce on a daily basis, it was cancelled, but there was a strong belief that it was still important to maintain a local news presence on the station.

The concept for “Chicago Week In Review” was conceived at the Palmer House Hotel as Weisman, top WTTW host John Callaway and then-WTTW President William J. McCarter had coffee. It made its debut on the second anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s presidential inaugural.

Although heavy on politics and Chicago news, Weisman always kept a sports segment near the end of the half-hour. He classified himself as a North Side White Sox fan because “they were kind of an underdog, and I was an underdog because I was a poor kid on a kind of rich block.”

Yet Weisman was no stranger to Wrigley Field. He was old enough to remember an era of 60-cent bleacher admissions. “When my father died, I tried to cheer up my mother by taking her to a game in the bleachers,” he said.  “Billy Williams hit three home runs.”

He joined future White Sox co-owner Eddie Einhorn working as a vendor at Comiskey Park during the 1959 World Series.   He also worked Wrigley Field. He cut corners  — and the law – by vending beer before he was 21.

“At a Sox-Yankees game, you might sell 50 cases of beer if you really hustled,” he said. “You got 20 percent of what you sold. Some people might make $100 if there were beer people. Cokes, we might average $25 or $30.”

Weisman now works for much higher rates in the law, which unlike his show on Channel 11, does not have an end game.

“I’d like to do it really forever,” he said. “I like it a lot. It suits my personality. I’m very interested in trends in media and journalism. I like other legal things, too. I’m interested in some of the class-action suits. Years ago I did some matrimonial law. We’ve done some labor law.”

Law partner David Rosenberg, son of legendary WGN sports editor Jack Rosenberg, confirmed Weisman’s zest for legal deal-making.

“Joel is hard-working and has a lot of energy,” Rosenberg said. “It’s remarkable how much he gets done.  At the law firm he’s the same guy you saw on Channel 11. He’s smart, honest, witty and personable.  He enjoys helping clients and is a tough negotiator. Between the law practice and his television career, Joel found the perfect match for his talents as an attorney and journalist.”

Weisman has learned to never say never on both TV and in the law. Thus he left the door open a noticeable crack for more broadcast work. An election year is coming, and Weisman always supplemented his WTTW work with WGN election-night analysis.

“A number of people have talked to me about a variety of part-time opportunities,” he said. “I’m catching my breath for the time being.  I may do some appearances for political analysis. I have a lot of out-of-town obligations. Two of my kids are lawyers, but one isn’t practicing.”

That “one” is Matt Weisman, aide to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, a high-ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. And in a hyper-charged 2018 campaign, the siren call of political rancor should be enough to point Weisman again at a camera’s red light, somewhere.

With a face he’ll admit was not made for TV, he’ll know exactly what to do.

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