Iran is a world event that has been impossible to cover without new media. When John Callaway died this week, it reminded me about the values of journalism, which I hope will leap into new media, that John so cheerfully embodied.
John Callaway was the longtime news director at Chicago's WTTW television, and — I will use a word he's not around to wince at now — a legend. He was 72.
John hired me and fired me and always said that both times, it was the best thing he could ever do for me.
"Your career doesn't begin when you get hired," he said. "It starts the first time you get fired, and have to figure out if it's a career, or a fluke." Then he paused while his eyes, behind his thick glasses, teared a bit — as they did when he laughed, or thought of something he loved — and said, "I think you'll do fine."
In a city where journalists are proud of being boisterous and pugnacious, John was known for being profoundly kind — and pugnacious. He interviewed mayors, maestros, welfare mothers, Nobel laureates and people who had just been burned out of their homes in the middle of the night with equal consideration and grace.
In these days when every citizen can be a reporter and editor, John Callaway might remind us why real journalism is a craft. It's easy to get people to watch, listen and follow when the story is overwhelming and compelling, like today's drama in Tehran. But those days when the news isn't right in front of your eyes are important, too, because there are still millions of stories to be told. The only way you get that chance is to build and earn a relationship with an audience, who begin to trust that you can inform, amuse, move and surprise them.
Almost anything you may have heard on our show over the years that you've liked may trace back to something I learned from John Callaway:
Be persistent. Be kind. Be fair. Try to do something different. Tip the bartender. Remember that it's a blessing to be a Chicagoan, and a privilege to bring people the news.
Last year I came back to our old studios to be interviewed by John about a novel I'd written. The interview was emotional for both of us. John was effusive with praise. I had no premonition of mortality, but seeing him reminded me that the people you love do not last forever. I was happy he could meet my wife and children and see a book I'd written about the city we both cherished be so successful.
"Remember, I told you you'd do fine," he said. "If you hadn't left here, you'd still be running after fire trucks, falling down in snowstorms, and listening to low-rent politicians with me."
"Yes," I told him. "And having a wonderful time."