• Fame and fortune and Jon and Kate

    Pedaling away in spin class this morning, and when I wasn’t thinking about possibly hurling, I was considering how fame can ruin people.

    I’m not sure how exactly I made this jump from queasiness to Kris Allen and “Jon & Kate, Plus 8.” But oddly, I have been feeling sorry for the whole bunch of them.

    Maybe it is because I have seen fame relatively close up. And I have observed how, in this country, the more famous someone becomes, the harder, seemingly, they must eventually be brought down. In a broad sense, the profession in which I have made my living has been largely responsible for this.

    I’m not referring to athletes so much. Other than the really big names/steroid users, most athletes can live fairly normal lives without worrying about showing up on the cover of the National Enquirer.

    Sure, they have to deal with being interrupted at dinner with their families, and I’m sure that can get tiresome.

    But frankly, that seems a pretty small price to pay for the salaries most of them earn. And after their careers are over, most can retreat back to living even more normal lives paying for their own meals, making reservations for dinner and no doubt craving the attention they may have complained about before.

    I remember when the Chicago Bulls were winning championships in the early 90s, their young reserve center Will Perdue told me he used to enjoy going to one place in particular for lunch because afterward, the waitress would not merely give him and his teammates leftovers in a goody bag. She would bring several shopping bags to their table loaded with bags of bagels and desserts.

    At 25, 26, I’m sure he thought this was not that unusual, and that he would walk out of restaurants with giant bags of extra food forever. Maybe he even thought we all walked out with enough stuff to stock a small food pantry, though I think he was smarter than that.

    He’s also lucky because he got out unscathed.

    After Kris Allen was named the winner of American Idol earlier this week, one of my friends remarked casually that his marriage was over. Here was this adorable 23-year-old man with his adorable wife, who were hugging each other minutes after the biggest moment of their lives, and all across America, people were shaking their heads and lamenting that their marriage would soon be in trouble.

    OK, well maybe not all across America, but at least in all the cynical sections like the one where I apparently reside.

    It’s not that the pessimistic among us assume this apparently upstanding guy will suddenly become unfaithful. It’s just that the sheer volume of attention and scrutiny and yes, guaranteed aggressiveness from female fans, is sure to put added pressure on the marriage.

    He went from a college kid to a celebrity of huge proportion in a matter of months, arguably even weeks. And his life is no longer his own. While that will undoubtedly bring with it more money than he could have imagined making a few months ago, as well as a career he apparently dreamed of having, you know it will also come at a cost because it’s not just about plying your craft. And you wonder if it will all be worth it for him in the long run.

    Same thing with Jon and Kate. When my daughter and I first stumbled across TLC and a show called “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” four years ago, it was like our own private discovery. No one was watching the network, much less this little reality show about a Pennsylvania couple who had twin girls and infant sextuplets.

    In a matter of a few weeks, my daughter Amanda could differentiate between all the kids by name. In a few months, I was considering writing to Kate and telling her that if she needed a babysitter or summer girl, I had the perfect one.

    I loved Kate. She was totally together and organized and smart and funny, even when she was losing her mind and her husband was annoying her and her life was out of her control. Her husband Jon was cute and funny also, sweet but no pushover, took as well as gave back to his wife during the daily little sniping that all couples without eight children do.

    And then you hear that Kate is being savaged in the Internet for being so bossy and nasty to her husband. And Jon is photographed at a college party with female co-eds and again, with a younger woman with whom he has been accused of having an affair, all of which he has downplayed and denied.

    When the show started, Kate said she allowed cameras to invade their lives because she loved the idea of having this amazing video diary of her children since she clearly no longer had time to do it herself. And yes, you knew they were being paid, though you never thought it was enough to radically change their lifestyle given their modest home and the way they lived.

    You surely didn’t resent them.

    But then they moved into a huge new house on 30-plus acres of land, Jon quit his job, Kate’s sniping seemed a little harsher as her little life expanded more with books and speaking engagements and yes, fame. 

    When I saw her on the cover of People Magazine with scandalous headlines last week, I had to blink a few times, like I was seeing my sister or my neighbor. Such is the nature and attraction of reality TV that we are drawn to it by the very intimacy I felt with perfect strangers. It’s goofy. Now the two are splattered across dozens of magazines and tabloids, not to mention the entertainment shows, their marital status up for grabs, and with the first episode of Season 5 upon us, it’s enough to consider actually watching it live.

    OK, I think I’ve been out of work long enough.

    But seriously, I actually just went to the TLC website to see what’s up – telling myself it was all in the interest of good, solid reporting – and they had a little preview of what’s to come. 

    “It’s the best thing and it’s the hardest thing that’s ever happened,” Kate said of the show and her newfound celebrity.

    “We have to live in the public now,” said Jon. “I’m happy our show is popular but it’s hard being on this side of the camera. We don’t have any privacy at all. . . . That’s tough for me. I can’t be Jon. I have to be Jon and Kate plus eight.”

    I was riveted. Again, I am not proud of this. But when Kate said, “We can now never go back,” I felt for the woman.

    I wanted her new kitchen. But I felt for the woman.

  • Patti B. Won’t Last a Minute in the Jungle

    Took an early-morning power walk today with my friend Shari in which we walk really fast unless, a) Shari is waving to a passing car driven by someone she doesn’t know; or b) we forget to walk really fast because c) we’re talking about something important like how long Shari would last living in a jungle.

    This was not idle chit-chat. This was a current events topic initiated by the news story broken exclusively on the Today Show this morning that Patti Blagojevich, wife of disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, was taking her husband’s place on the NBC reality show, “I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here,” set in a Costa Rican jungle.

    Rod had been barred by a judge from appearing on the show – which I’m not entirely convinced isn’t filmed on a backlot in Burbank – because it would take him out of the country when he might need to be proclaiming his innocence on more talk shows.

    Patti said she hoped that being on the show would put to rest her profanity-spewing image caught on federal wiretaps.

    This would not be my first concern as I would surely begin swearing like a sailor the minute I stepped off the plane and discovered we were filming during the rainy season and that I would have nowhere to plug in a blow dryer, which, come to think of it, may have been Rod’s reason for backing out.

    Patti said she was doing this to support her family during these tough economic times, made tougher, no doubt, when your husband is no longer able to ply his trade trying to sell the President’s vacated Senate seat or shake down companies with state business for campaign contributions. Allegedly.

    And so I posed the question to Shari: What would she be willing to do to support her family?

    “Anything,” she said. “For my family? Oh my God, absolutely anything.”

    “So, you’d go to the jungle?” I asked

    “Oh, definitely,” she said, adding for effect, “I’d even eat worms.”

    “No, you wouldn’t,” I said, remembering that she was once grossed out by the prospect of using a shared yoga mat at the ‘Y.’

    “Oh no,” she said proudly. “For my family? I’d eat bugs, worms. I’d climb mountains.”

    “Would you eat a squirrel?” I asked and instantly knew I got her.

    “Well, no, because, you know, I don’t eat meat,” she said thoughtfully.

    “Shari, the bugs and worms wouldn’t go that far,” I pointed out. “And, incidentally, the bugs and worms are technically meat too, I think.” 

    “Oh, I wouldn’t eat worms,” she said, forgetting her earlier proclamation. “But I’d do anything else.”

    “Would you kill a squirrel or a rabbit or some animal they have in Costa Rica?” I asked.

    “Sure, I could do that,” she said.

    “Not with a specially equipped dart blower that would put the bunny to sleep,” I pointed out, watching as her expression turned markedly less tough. “With a real knife.”

    “A knife?”

    I could tell I had her.

    “Yes, Shari,” I said, going in for the proverbial kill. “A knife. With real blood.”

    “Well, I don’t know,” she said, weakening.

    “You wouldn’t last five minutes in the jungle,” I said. “They’d bounce you out of there in the first episode.”

    “But I’d form alliances,” she said.

    She had me there. She would be great forming alliances. In a day, she’d have the women a tight, united pack. Sanjaya and John Salley would be begging for mercy. Of course, on Day 2, it’s quite possible her women’s group would be arguing over who would have to kill the squirrel and Shari would have squared off with the super model who is supposedly meaner than Patti.

    No matter. By now, Shari was bored with our conversation, so I had to quickly segue to the movie with Robert Redford and Demi Moore called “Indecent Proposal,” the one where Redford’s character offers a million bucks to Moore’s character and her husband, played by Woody Harrelson, to have Demi spend one night with Redford.

    “A night with Robert Redford?” Shari said, when I reminded her of the movie.

    We weren’t talking worms anymore.

    And she didn’t have to answer.

  • The Future of Journalism – Part II

    So it appears I filed the last blog a little too soon.

    I just discovered a report that the 136-year-old Harvard Crimson, which has turned out 12 Pulitzer Prize winners among its crop of future journalists, are “fleeing the ravaged profession.”

    According to the report, just 3 of 16 of the paper’s graduating seniors who were on the paper’s executive board, plan to pursue a career in journalism. Of the last 10 managing editors, only two are working at newspapers.

    One student said that newspaper recruiters that came to the Crimson’s job fair encouraged students to consider other professions. The same student said that after the event, work samples given to the recruiters by students were found in the garbage.

    Another student said that classmates considering journalism don’t typically tell others to avoid ridicule.

    While other students their age are looking at the industry’s transitional period as an exciting time to get a foothold and be a part of a new and exciting future, the kids from Harvard are smart enough to know that the non-traditional journalism fields are still a risk.

  • The Future of Journalism

    We were between innings at my son’s baseball game, yesterday. When he was younger, and the kid playing catcher needed half the team to help put back on the equipment, you could basically run home, have a snack, come back and not miss a moment of action.
    Now that Alec is 11, it has been cut down considerably. But there was still enough time for a glance at my Blackberry and the e-mail that had come in from an unfamiliar address.

    Michael Conroy, a former journalist, and for the past nine years an English teacher and school newspaper adviser at my alma mater, Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., was writing to tell me that he had watched my interview by John Callaway on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” last Friday, and that a mutual friend thought I might be interested in what he had written in his latest blog.

    He called it “A journalistic epiphany” and it took me the next couple innings to recover from it.

    Conroy wrote ( that for the past two or three years, he had been vaguely dissatisfied with his job, but didn’t know why. He liked the school and the kids but he had lost his sense of passion.

    Then a few months ago, he decided that after next year he would step down from teaching kids journalism and photojournalism, and heading up the school paper, something he wrote would once have been “unthinkable.”

    While he felt somewhat satisfied with his decision, he still couldn’t quite figure out why, after working as a publications adviser for 19 of his 32 years since college and being a former newspaperman himself, he was moved to do it.

    And then, he wrote, he watched “Chicago Tonight.”

    “I am not being hyperbolic,” Conroy wrote, “when I say that a tear slipped down my cheek as I listened to [Isaacson’s] account of being given a complimentary press credential at the United Center, the halls of which she roamed with impunity for most of her career, so that she could bid farewell to fellow journalists, Center employees, Bulls and Blackhawks staffers, etc.  I was moved beyond words by the pain in her eyes, the catch in her throat as she related her the specifics of her dismissal, and the resigned slump of her shoulders that suggested that she doesn’t expect to work for a newpaper ever again.

    “Watching her heart-wrenching interview with Callaway brought home to me the reason why teaching journalism and producing a student newspaper no longer bring me any joy:  teaching journalism has become a discrete task, somewhat like instructing students in the rudiments of the five-paragraph theme (which I loathe) or preparing students for standardized testing (which makes me cringe).

    “Isaacson’s situation and that of two of my former editors (one of whom will head to graduate school after leaving the Charlotte Observer one step ahead of the pink slip and the other who is hanging by his fingernails onto his sports writing gig at a Texas daily) make me realize that I can no longer in good conscience or good humor prepare my students for a profession in which, chances are, they never will find employment.

    “Teaching is challenging (and often frustrating) enough when teachers actually feel that they are making a difference.  It is almost intolerable when it becomes an exercise in futility.  . . . ”

    It was not the first time I have thought about this. In recent years, as I have continued to talk to journalism students who have called or e-mailed, or in classes I have visited at Columbia College in Chicago or DePaul or Northwestern, I have wondered how to advise them.

    I often ended my talks by saying that I hoped and prayed there would always be a place in the world for the news gatherer and the storyteller. Deep down, I truly thought there always would be.

    I mean, in whatever medium it happened to be, a free society demands a free press, that news be gathered and reported, that stories be told, whether to inform or to entertain. And if it wasn’t a newspaper, it would be on the Internet or television.

    But with the downturn of the newspaper industry, I certainly questioned where the future storytellers would come from.

    With a little bit of research, I found out.

    It seems college students are not shying away from journalism. Quite the contrary, according to the Columbia Journalism Review and Forbes Magazine, which have reported in the last eight months that despite the thousands of jobs lost in the newspaper industry, enrollment in J-Schools continues to grow. That rather than discourage kids who didn’t grow up reading newspapers anyway, the new crop of digital media jobs, in an almost romantic way, are encouraging students who see that anyone and everyone can be a journalist.

    Rather than being scared off, the next generation of news gatherers and storytellers believe they can join and create new mediums through which to report, and more freelance opportunities which are already forming the new-look industry.

    So why am I still worried? I guess because as I join the great blog beyond, I see greater volume, yes, but also less credibility and accountability. Anyone and everyone really can be a journalist.

    Maybe that’s why I’m worried.

  • Why I Love Double Stuf and Dave Barry

    Sometimes I feel like I am getting this unemployment thing all wrong.
    For three weeks now (or is it two? Or maybe four?), I have been all charged up (aside from just a few intermittent bouts of crying and that was early on) and excited about the adventure of exploring all the new and wonderful possibilities for the future.
    In fact, I have filled up almost an entire spiral notebook with all of these new and wonderful possibilities. And I have spoken with scores of people to gets ideas on even more new and wonderful possibilities.
    Up until now, I have not, as I thought I might, retreated to the Double Stuf Oreos (one “f,” I checked, as this was important to me both as a reporter and consumer) or any number of TLC marathons (“Little People, Small World” and  “Half Man, Half Tree,” being particular favorites).
    But then yesterday, it hit me. Somewhere between being rejected as a ghostwriter; told I needed to “inform, impart ideals and move minds” if I wanted to be a successful speaker; and finding out that an eight-year-old would soon be covering hockey for the major daily for whom I used to work, I became, well, a little down.

    This morning, I got frantic phone calls from my sister and my mother-in-law asking if I was OK. No blog entry for more than 24 hours and I must be dead. This actually brought back warm memories of my father calling and checking if I was dead when I missed a day in the paper shortly after I began working for the Tribune.

    I’m not sure he would have always noticed, except that my Uncle Dan would call him first thing in the morning telling him my byline was missing and asking what happened to me, causing my father to immediately call me and ask if I had been fired or any number of other catastrophes had occurred.

    This was not unusual in my family. My mother rarely began a phone conversation without the words, “Hi honey, it’s mom. There’s nothing wrong. Are you OK?”

    But I digress.

    I didn’t know they still used the word “ghostwriter,” but apparently they do and I was referred to a large, out-of-town corporation that wanted me to “ghostwrite” a white paper for one of their executives. This all sounded very exciting, even though I did not know what a white paper was and still really don’t, which may provide some clue as to why I was rejected.

    The speaker thing was another slight setback. For years, I have spoken to virtually whomever has asked. When we’d get to the part where they asked for my fee, I’d go into my standard negotiator mode and immediately stutter, maybe laugh and say I didn’t really have one. This typically resulted in many speaking engagements for which I would receive a thank-you, a pen and once in a while, a Starbuck’s certificate.

    Not that I didn’t appreciate all of the above. But without a paycheck, Starbuck’s is going to have to come up with more options if I’m going to do my future food shopping there.

    And so I decided to get some advice (and perhaps some high-paying jobs) from the highly respected head of a highly respected speakers bureau, who first yelled at me for taking free gigs.

    “You need to tell people, ‘I’m a journalist, so I believe in free speech but not in free speeches,’ ”  he told me.

    I told him this sounded a bit off-putting to me. But clearly I have been setting a bad precedent in the speaking world, running around and taking pens as payment, so I told him I would try to do better.

    But then he told me that in today’s climate, people hire speakers “to help them achieve their business objectives.” I took that to mean that my story about B.J. Armstrong and Ron Harper and I simulating birth in the Bulls’ lockerroom wasn’t going to do that.

    I asked him if entertaining was good enough, and wasn’t Dave Barry a highly successful speaker, and wasn’t he entertaining? And he said, essentially, “You’re no Dave Barry.”

    I would have been really depressed at this point, except that I actually know Dave Barry, have been friends with his wife Michelle, a sportswriter, forever. So, borrowing a scene from “Annie Hall,” with Dave playing Marshall McLuhan, I called and asked him about the art of speaking.

    “I have no message,” Dave said. “Nothing useful, whatsoever.”

    Which is why I love Dave Barry.

    Still, short of stealing his speeches, I understood the speaking guy’s point. So maybe I’ll stick to writing. I was a respected sportswriter for many years, wasn’t I? I’m confident in my craft, aren’t I?

    Then a friend e-mailed and asked if I heard about the eight-year-old from Batavia who was going to write hockey in the paper.

    I said I hadn’t.

    And then I headed for the Oreos.