She’s baaack: Fox Chicago’s in for a rude awakening

Pardon me if I don’t join some of my fellow media critics and bloggers in cheering the firing last week of Carol Fowler as vice president/news director of Fox Chicago and hailing the arrival of Phyllis Schwartz in her place. Having closely followed the careers of both women for more than 20 years, I find no cause for jubilation on either side.

It’s worth noting that both are three-time news directors in Chicago: Fowler, 54, headed the news operations at WGN, CBS 2 and Fox, while Schwartz, 56, has done so at ABC 7, NBC 5 and now Fox. (Only one other person, Greg Caputo, 62, has achieved a local news trifecta — at CBS 2, Fox and currently WGN). But that’s pretty much where the similarity between Fowler and Schwartz ends.

The rap against Fowler was that she failed to boost the ratings in her three years as news director, and that she dismissed or declined to renew the contracts of more than a dozen competent, experienced news anchors and reporters at Fox Chicago. True enough, although I suspect most of her personnel moves were financially motivated and/or dictated by her bosses in New York. The most egregious example was the hiring of a marginal reporter named Tisha Lewis, who’s known to be a protégé of Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes.

But the news wasn’t all bad on Fowler’s watch. Despite an overall reduction in staff, the station increased its output of local news, delivered a respectable product, and expanded its use of new technology and social media. In 2010, Fox Chicago won a Peabody Award, one of broadcasting’s highest honors, for its coverage of the beating death of 16-year-old high school student Derrion Albert. And the newsroom added such market veterans as Bob Sirott, Mike Flannery and Anna Davlantes to its ranks.

If Fox Chicago staffers think they’re in for better times under her successor, good luck to them. Where Fowler was even-tempered, considerate and professional in her demeanor, Schwartz has to be one of the nastiest, rudest and most unpleasant characters I’ve encountered in the business. Unless she had a personality transplant to go with her facelift, I feel sorry for anyone who crosses her.

“Yeah, I think sometimes I know how to be tough,” Schwartz told The Stock Market Observer’s Jack Taylor in 1999. “Sometimes I have to be the Mother Superior of the newsroom.” In that same interview, she vehemently denied reports that she’d soon be leaving Chicago, calling them “wishful thinking on the part of my competitors.” Four weeks later she was named president and general manager of NBC-owned KNSD-TV in her hometown of San Diego.

Schwartz spent the next 10 years with the company there, eventually rising to executive vice president of news, promotion and original content for the NBC Universal Local Media division. Lucky for her no one was reminded of NBC 5 Daytime, the fluffy weekday morning “news and lifestyle” show she created that crashed and burned after viewers rejected it in droves.

After leaving NBC, Schwartz spent a year as president and CEO of a San Diego-based children’s entertainment group called The Jumpitz. When that gig ended, she formed a consulting company, which she named Phyllis Schwartz Solutions.

On the day Schwartz’s appointment here became official, the Fox P.R. apparatus in New York gave the exclusive to TVSpy’s Merrill Knox before releasing the announcement to others in Chicago and the trade press. While I admire Knox for getting the scoop, I detest the way Fox does business with the media. Reporters who don’t kowtow to publicists or those who are the least bit critical are shut out. I know that firsthand.

In her statement, Schwartz said: “I am thrilled to be coming back to the city I consider to have the best competitive local news scene in the country.” Maybe she really is “thrilled” — just as she said she was “thrilled” to join Jumpitz and “thrilled” to join NBC. But it seems an odd career trajectory to go from station president and general manager, network group executive and corporate CEO to overseeing a perennially last-place news department.

For all I know, Schwartz may have her sights set on replacing Mike Renda, the ineffective general manager of Fox Chicago, who famously told TVSpy’s Andrew Gauthier last June: “Carol [Fowler] and I are here for the long haul.”

For Fowler, as NewsBlues editor Mike James pointed out, the long haul lasted 214 days.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)