Swimming with a source: Chicago reporter leaves over pool party



By Megan Reichgott

CHICAGO – A veteran reporter left her job at a TV station Tuesday after she was caught on video in a swimsuit at the home of a man whose estranged wife disappeared two months ago – a story she was assigned to cover.

The video, posted earlier on a rival TV station’s Web site, raised ethical questions about the conduct of veteran WMAQ-TV reporter Amy Jacobson.

It showed Jacobson wearing a halter bikini top and towel near the pool at Craig Stebic’s suburban Plainfield home. Jacobson’s two young children and a bare-chested Stebic also are shown in the video shot Friday.

The Chicago Tribune reported that WMAQ staff received a memo Tuesday afternoon from Vice President of News Frank Whittaker and News Director Camille Edwards.

“We are sorry to tell you that Amy Jacobson is leaving NBC 5 News, effective immediately,” read the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune. “Amy’s contribution as a reporter over the last 10 years are numerous. Her hustle and passion for news have given us an edge on many top stories. She’s worked long hours on many days, and we appreciate all she’s done.”

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    Jacobson had not appeared on air since news of the video broke Monday and her biography – the most popular story on WMAQ’s Web site Tuesday afternoon – had been removed from the site Tuesday evening.

    “The last couple of days have been tough on everyone,” the memo said, according to the Tribune. “We appreciate your understanding…We will miss Amy, and wish her the best.”

    Neither a station spokeswoman nor Jacobson’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner, returned multiple telephone messages left Tuesday by The Associated Press.

    A telephone message to Craig Stebic also was not immediately returned Tuesday.

    Jacobson had been assigned to cover the disappearance of Stebic’s wife, Lisa, who lived with her husband while the two went through a divorce. No one has been charged in the case, which has generated high interest here since the 38-year-old mother of two disappeared April 30.

    “We’re very sad because Amy was one of our staunchest allies, she was a champion of the story,” said Melanie Greenberg, who is married to Lisa Stebic’s cousin and acts as family spokeswoman. “It makes a difference when you have a dedicated reporter covering the story. … She was doing her damnedest to cover this story.”

    Zellner told the Tribune before Jacobson left the station that she was concerned the media would distort the contents of the video posted Tuesday on WBBM-TV’s Web site.

    “There was no drinking. No one was sitting in a hot tub. She wasn’t anywhere near him (Craig Stebic),” Zellner said. “(Stebic’s) sister invited her to drop by.”

    But Jacobson’s actions generated plenty of debate over whether she violated journalistic ethics.

    “My initial reaction is that it’s a big-time mistake,” said Larry Stuelpnagel, assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Department of Political Science. “If you’re a reporter you don’t put yourself in that kind of situation, especially if you’re covering the story.”

    Jacobson told her bosses she was on her way with her sons to go swimming at a local club when Craig Stebic’s sister asked her to go to his house to talk about the case, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

    “You don’t bring your kids and wear a bikini if you’re going to talk about the case,” Stuelpnagel said. “You don’t get involved with people that you’re covering, period. The appearance of this is just wrong.”

    WBBM News Director Carol Fowler said the video was recorded Friday, but she declined to say how the CBS affiliate got the tape. Station officials held the video while they debated its newsworthiness, Fowler said.

    “As provocative as the video was it did not seem responsible to just run with it; we had a lot of reporting to do on it,” Fowler said.

    The station decided to air the video once “it was clear (Jacobson’s) own conduct was in question by the people she worked for,” Fowler said. “I really wanted to wait until it reached that tipping point.”

    Fowler said she feared the uproar over Jacobson’s actions could obscure Lisa Stebic’s disappearance.

    “I don’t want to do anything to trivialize the fact that this is a case about a missing woman,” Fowler said. “A family is positively distraught over what happened to her.”

    Jacobson had been a general assignment reporter for WMAQ since 1996, according to the station’s Web site. She also has reported in Detroit, El Paso, Texas; Tucson, Ariz., and Alexandria, Minn.