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‘Chicago Tonight’ — a news show in turmoil at the worst possible time

Like a bad divorce, it stands to leave everyone a loser.    

“Chicago Tonight” anchor Phil Ponce reportedly was among those who raised concerns about Hugo Balta with top management at WTTW.
Sun-Times Media

The normally sedate “Chicago Tonight” public television show is in turmoil. That’s bad for Chicago, and at the worst possible time.

Hugo Balta, WTTW’s news director and executive producer of its flagship program, was fired last week after one year on the job.

“Balta is no longer with the organization,” a WTTW spokesperson wrote in a statement. “This is the result of his undisclosed conflicts of interest related to his operational and editorial roles at other media outlets, which violated the terms of his employment. In addition, he repeatedly violated the WTTW News Standards he committed to uphold and which govern the newsroom he headed.”

“Three ‘Chicago Tonight’ news anchors — Phil Ponce, Brandis Friedman and Paris Schutz — raised concerns about Balta’s Instagram posts in a letter last week to Sandra Cordova Micek, president and CEO of WTTW,” media critic Rob Feder reported Feb. 12.

“Among posts mentioned,” Feder reported, “were a video of Balta doing bare-chested push-ups and another of him dancing in his boxer shorts, a la Tom Cruise in ‘Risky Business.’”

There also were “complaints from other employees about Balta’s use of Twitter and Facebook to express political views and support for liberal candidates and causes.” All the posts have been removed.

“Staffers feared some of his posts could harm WTTW’s reputation for credibility and integrity,” Feder wrote.

In subsequent media interviews and Twitter posts, Balta said he was “wrongfully terminated” and is “considering legal action.” The Instagram posts depicted a “slice of life” during the COVID-19 pandemic, he told Current, a national news service that covers public media.

“They could spin it whatever way they want, but I was unfairly terminated,” he told Current. “I’m proud of the work I’ve led, collaborated and done individually this past year.”

Among other television gigs, Balta has served as a senior producer at MSNBC, and he was twice elected president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. At WTTW, he took the lead in the creation of two innovative weekly programs, “Black Voices” and “Latino Voices,” with Friedman and Balta hosting, respectively.

Balta defended his political posts and has accused Ponce of “a vicious personal attack” on his credibility, in retaliation for internal conflicts over Ponce’s contract negotiations.

Ponce’s contract was renewed last month, he told me in an interview, but there were no tensions. “That was one of the least contentious contract negotiations I’ve ever had,” he said. It “was easy, breezy.”

“I bear no animosity to him,” Ponce added. “What concerns me — and what concerns Paris and what concerns Brandis — is the violation of the news standards, and the political posts.”

“It all has to do with objectivity. And objectivity is, you know, it’s at the core of ‘Chicago Tonight’s’ DNA. If we become partisan and political, or people think we are, I mean, at that point, we’ve lost our credibility and relevance.”

I am a “Chicago Tonight” devotee. I once served as a correspondent for the show and am blessed to appear there regularly, as well as on “Chicago Tonight: The Week in Review.”

For decades, “Chicago Tonight” has been one of the nation’s premier news shows. Like every legacy news operation, it can always do more to cover and reflect communities of color.

In 2020, the confluence of outrage over the police murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic sparked transformational, unprecedented calls for racial equity and social justice. Balta and his stellar “Chicago Tonight” team responded with a new series, “In Your Neighborhood,” reporting in fulsome detail in communities from Greater Grand Crossing to Hermosa to Rogers Park.

Their storytelling and news coverage have been creative and potent. “Black Voices” and “Latino Voices” are bringing faces and perspectives rarely seen on Chicago television.

Those shows will continue, the WTTW spokesperson said. “We are deeply committed to continuing our coverage of neighborhood stories and issues.”

The behind-the-scenes machinations and unanswered questions will continue. We must pick up the fragile pieces of this precious news franchise and carry on.

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