Weisman's 'Review': Still getting raves after 35 years

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Despite all the changes in the Chicago news business over the last 35 years, one reliable constant has been the man in charge of Chicago Tonight: The Week in Review.


Each week since January 20, 1978, Joel Weisman has presided over a roundtable of reporters, dissecting the week’s news and putting it in perspective. (Technically, he was a guest on that first show and took over as host and senior editor the following week.) It’s an unparalleled run in local television.


Once describing himself as “provocateur, referee, city editor and traffic cop,” the 70-year old Weisman is uniquely suited to the role: He’s a lifelong Chicagoan, veteran newspaperman, award-winning broadcaster, seasoned political analyst, respected lawyer and trusted media agent. 


“Journalists are among the most interesting people I know,” Weisman told me the other day. “They’re quick studies and opinionated. They often have to be combative to get the stories out of sometimes-reluctant newsmakers or spokespersons spinning a point of view. I try to capitalize on that combat on the show, letting them debate me and one another.” 


As The Week in Review marks its 35th anniversary (airing at 7pm Fridays on public television WTTW-Channel 11), Weisman is likely to make mention of the milestone on this week’s show. But don’t expect him to dwell on it. He’ll probably be too busy drawing out the best from his guests, as he always does.


What accounts for Weisman’s remarkable success and longevity on the show? Here’s what some of his most frequent panelists told me:


Bruce Dold, Chicago Tribune: “Joel is a tremendous host. I really appreciated how he put me at ease the first time I did the show, which was probably close to 30 years ago. He does everything you'd expect as far as preparation, he has the institutional memory for Chicago politics, of course. I think the key is how effortlessly he sets the pace for the conversation. No gaps, no pauses. No speeches or sermons from the panelists. He keeps everybody moving.”


Lester Munson, ESPN: “Presiding over a group of four journalists week after week is a real challenge. Joel does it so well that he makes it look much easier than it is. He selects the important stories and is able to focus on economic and education issues that can be dull and boring. With his questions, comments and humor, he makes them interesting. His transitions from one issue to another are uncanny and smooth. His mastery of all issues can be breathtaking. He has surprised me with tough questions on sports issues that I thought I had mastered. He creates the right atmosphere for the show in the time for preparation with his calm demeanor and his bad jokes. It is a joy for me to be a part of the show. Based on the people I meet at concerts, at games, and on the El, his audience is the best audience in Chicago television. He has succeeded for 35 years because there is no one who can do it better.”


Mary Mitchell, Chicago Sun-Times: “A great host is able to cut you off without cutting you down. That's Joel!”


John McCarron, Chicago Tribune: “I've done the show well over 100 times since about 1979, and the thing that continues to amaze me is that Joel knows more about the news stories covered on his show than the reporters who cover them. So he must read everything and have a photographic memory. That, plus his contacts with newsroom management owing to his law practice, plus having been an investigative reporter, a city editor and a local bureau chief for the Washington Post . . . it adds up to a rare talent for separating fact from spin, truth from B.S.”


Charles Thomas, ABC 7: “What the viewing public does not see is the session before the show during which Joel preps his guests for the discussion of the week's news. After 35 years, he's become an expert in how to ‘prime the pump’ — to get the reporters talking only to cut them off in order to save their best comments for the show. Week in Review remains some of the most important journalism you'll see on Chicago television. Because of time restrictions TV news must focus on ‘hits, runs and errors’ especially when reporting on politics. Joel's broadcast offers a reporter like myself the rare opportunity to put those events in perspective.”


Mary Ann Ahern, NBC 5: “Joel asks the questions that most viewers are thinking, so it becomes more of a conversation — the kind news junkies love to hear. Nearly every time I've been a guest, I run into viewers who've watched. That's a testament to Joel making Week in Review relevant.”


Andy Shaw, Better Government Association: “Joel has a deep knowledge of news and media and decades of institutional memory, along with a sharp mind, a glib tongue and the ability of a maestro to manage egos and orchestrate a broadcast with precision. In other words, the perfect skill set for a long and successful run as host of a valuable and popular news review program. My only regret is that I haven't been on since I left ABC 7 because the only guests are accredited journalists, not civic watchdogs. But I wish him many more years of important contributions to our civil public discourse.”


 



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