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John Callaway

Wednesday, Jun 24, 2009

* John Callaway was a mentor to me without him even knowing it. I had watched him for years on Chicago Tonight and always wanted to be there with him, talking about the issues of the day. I practically worshiped the man. So when the big call finally came during the 1998 gubernatorial campaign, I immediately hopped on a plane and flew to Chicago just to be on the set with the person whom I considered my journalistic idol.

Callaway died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 72…

“It has been said that John Callaway, who has won more than 60 awards, including seven Chicago Emmys, is the best interviewer on television,” according to a 1994 Tribune article. “He can be tough, like when he told Sen. Paul Simon he hadn’t mastered his own campaign material. He can be sensitive, like when he delicately asked director Gordon Parks about the death of his son. He can elicit quotable sound bites. Mike Ditka, when he was Bears coach: ‘My motives are right, even if my methods stink.’ Rich Daley, when he was state’s attorney: ‘I could subpoena you overnight if you became my enemy.’ He made the Frugal Gourmet cry. When Johnny Carson asked William Buckley who was the best interviewer, Buckley answered, ‘That chubby fellow in Chicago.’ “

When it started in 1984, Callaway envisioned Chicago Tonight as “the second half of the news,” a program that provided a forum for a more reflective discussion of the news.

Speaking about the show around the time of his retirement in 1999, Callaway said: “We tried to be fair. We tried to view complexity as complexity, as opposed to trying to oversimplify it. And we had a lot of fun, too. But I think if you looked at that program for 15 years, you’d see a lot of the fabric and soul of the city.”

Callaway continued to work in the final months of his life, conducting interviews and mediating panels, his wife said. Most recently, he moderated a panel at an iron and steel industry conference in St. Louis in May, she said.

He can’t ever be replaced.

* Related…

* Ch. 11 broadcast legend John Callaway dies

* Legendary Chicago journalist John Callaway dies

* Chicago Journalist John Callaway Has Died

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Quinn T. Sential - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 5:08 am:

    I really enjoyed John Callway a lot. While I would not say that I idolized him in the way that you did, I also didn’t aspire to follow him in a common profession.

    I did respect him a great deal for his unique talent and skiil. He would get as close to the core of the soul of his interview subject as possible, and his success in doing so did not come simply just from their respect for his reputation.

    In deferrence to other Chicago journalists, Callaway’s Chicago Tonight format allowed him the opportunity for a more in depth interview, but given that same opportunity, very few other reporters could have replicated his success, which arose from his personal interviewing style.

    Callaway gained the trust of his interview subjects in part by asking thoughful and engaging questions, but in a way that did not portray the same cunning “gotcha” motivation that others with less air time seem compelled to deploy. Callaway approached the interview subject in the same way a lion might circle its prey, and the “gotcha” moment came usually when they let their guard down, and often came in the form of a follow up question.

    Watching him was almost like witnessing the questioning of a grand-father and teen aged grand-child. Interrogation from someone who had become wiser than simply just a parent over the years. He would listen patiently to the patronizing responses that most interview subjects were accustomed to giving, and then he would lean forward, get close to the person, stare directly into their eyes over the top of his glasses like a grandfather might, and then BAM! He would ask “the question” that would shake people to their foundation.

    Once that question was asked, and in that way, the interview subject immediately knew that there was no more wiggle room. For those that might have been purposefully or skillfully obfuscating, that question was the velvet hammer which meant, “look, quit with the BS, you don’t expect us to believe we’re getting the entire story or the whole truth here. This is your chance to come clean, and you better do it now because there is nowhere for you to go here.

    In the more sensitive interviews; like those referenced above, that one question compelled the interview subject to pull back the curtain and reveal more of their human emotion than they had up to that point, and perhaps more than they ever had with any other interviewer.

    For those less senstive types of interviews, when this one question was asked, and in the way it was posed, they knew for certain that this was their opportunity to come clean and be more forthcoming with their answer by revealing not just different, or more facts, but also their motivations on which their experience and opinions on the subject were grounded.

    Most often the interview subject took advantage of the opportunity to respond more fully to the question asked. Sometimes I think it was as much out of respect for Callaway as a person, as it was due to the simple effectiveness of his style. Other times his effectiveness came about when the subject finally sensed that there was nowhere else to turn.

    Those that did not take the opportunity to respond to “the question” in the way it had been elicited, and instead chose to continue to spin the answer in the same well rehearsed way that they did to all tough questions, were then slowly disected and exposed for what they were, and that was just unable to provide the truth, not just factually, but emotionally as well.

    This to me is why “he can’t ever be replaced”.

    John Callaway RIP

  2. - soccermom - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 6:25 am:

    Oh no. I just opened up my computer and saw this. How sad. We will miss him tremendously.

  3. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 7:27 am:

    He always did his homework and could call his subjects on their contradictions, inconsistencies and evasions, not in a hostile way, but to cut through the fluff and talking points to get to the heart of the matter.

    Very rare today, especially on television. They trained them well at the old City News Bureau.

  4. - Cassandra - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 8:01 am:

    I really love Chicago Tonight, which I only started watching in the last year or so. I wish I’d found it sooner. He died way too young.

  5. - Amy - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 8:05 am:

    very sad loss for his family (love those singing daughters), for his viewers, and his journalist family. and you, Rich, the loss of a powerful figure in your life. so sorry for all of us. a huge hole in the thinking world of Chicagoland.

  6. - VanillaMan - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 8:49 am:

    He was an outstanding questioner. He listened. His follow ups were often better than ones you could come up with yourself. He was disarming. He looked like your favorite uncle.

    He was really, really good.

    No one gets out of this life alive, so all you have to hope for is a great ending. John Callway was a smashing success, wasn’t he?

  7. - Steve - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 8:51 am:

    This is a sad, sad loss for all of Chicago. He was a guy who knew how to ask questions. John Callaway knew how to do an interview.

  8. - Abe Froman - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 8:56 am:

    Never a hint of bias, never an attempt at “gotcha.” Informed, incisive and thorough. Losing John Callaway is a blunt reminder of how mediocre television journalism (particularly in covering politics) is today.

  9. - Luke - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 9:00 am:

    John was the best - he will be greatly missed…

  10. - Phineas J. Whoopee - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 9:06 am:

    Even though he can never be replaced, he mentored so many fine journalists and created a show that (I hope)will live on for as long as Chicago and Illinois politics needs it to. I honestly don’t know where Chicago politics would be without Chicago Tonight. It is the one consistent voice of integrity in a commercial television bordello.

    He gets to join Royko and a few others at the card table set aside for the Chicago guys who knew their biz and he may even be the dealer.

  11. - Levois - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 9:18 am:

    May he rest in peace. I really used to like his Chicago Stories segment. He was a great story teller. Who may take up his mantle now. And you’re right he will NEVER be replaced.

  12. - Chicago Cynic - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 9:20 am:

    Great interviewers are few and far between. Tom Russert was the nation’s. John Callaway was ours. It’s a great loss and I’m very sad.

  13. - Third Generation Chicago Native - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 9:29 am:

    John Callaway’s passing is a huge loss for Chicago, the County and the State.

    He gave us Chicago Tonight which is Chicago’s fair and balanced news. News topics were covered with people from all sides, with people involved in the story on the segments, and they were all given equal time to state their sides. News stories are given more time on Chicago tonight instead of the quick condensed evening news version. John Callaway gave us quality news.

    John Callaway’s Chicago stories, and Friday night interviews were high quality. He definately did his homework before interviewing someone, or covering a story.

    John Callaway is a newsman whom will be missed, he is responsible for showing many how to do responisble and quality news. I can only hope that future newspeople can look up John’s segments and learn from them.

  14. - Stones - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 9:42 am:

    Without a doubt one of the best interviewers I have ever heard. RIP

  15. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 9:45 am:

    The more I think about it, the sadder I am.

    Compare and contrast Callaway’s work with the know-nothing yammerers currently holding sway on cable and radio. It’s thoroughly depressing, and show’s just how low the public discourse can go in search of ratings.

    Last year about this time it was Studs, whose oral histories will probably never be equaled.

    I encourage everyone while they can to tune into one of the last Chicago icons, Milt Rosenberg for Extension 720 on WGN radio, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday.

    Milt has a Hyde Park conservative point of view, but he’s civil and respectful of his guests and callers. Plus, he’s genuinely curious, and there’s no more erudite interviewer on the scene that I’m aware of.

  16. - A Springfield Veteran - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 9:54 am:

    For so many John Callaway was an intricate part of our intellectual evolution. Watching his nightly show, in a real fasion, reinforced our interest and passions for public affairs. Always serious and always probing for something called the truth; he was a credit to his profession.

  17. - Niles Township - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 10:04 am:

    One of the few journalists in Chicago who had the knowledge and history to be able to call out politicians when they spoke malarkey. May his family be comforted.

  18. - Six Degrees of Separation - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 10:08 am:

    He was every bit the equal of other, more nationally famous interviewers such as Tim Russert, Mike Wallace, and Barbara Walters…and probably better. Quinn T waxed eloquently and VM waxed succinctly on why.

  19. - Six Degrees of Separation - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 10:11 am:

    And Word, you are right about Milt Rosenburg. He is an oasis in the desert of talk radio,

  20. - Anonymous45 - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 10:15 am:

    A loss for anyone who is a fan of respectful and lively dialogue, lovers of great stories, and political junkies like myself…he and Studs Terkel were Chicago originals from a certain time and place that has sadly passed…rest in peace and my sympathies to his family…

  21. - Will County Woman - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 11:27 am:

    I agree that he can’t be replaced, and he will be missed.

    I find it very chilling that Sun-Times columinst Mary Mitchell was his last interview, of which I am aware. The two discussed her bout with breast cancer. Though she is cured, the issue was still death.

    At one point they discussed her decision to delay her annual exam because she thought that since she never had any health problems delaying her annual exam would not really hurt her. In a friendly way Callaway kinda chastised her for making that fateful decision. Had she delayed it any further it may have been too late, but fortunately for her the cancer was caught in time.

    so it made me wonder if he had his annual check-up when he was supposed to as well.

    on a lighter note…
    Channel 11 has been highlighting 25 years of Chicago Tonight, and occasionally the program in which Mr. Callaway hollers at John Stroger to in effect STOP FILERBUSTERING AND JUST ANSWER THE TOPIC QUESTION. It’s priceless! It is so funny to watch, even if only for the brief 30 seconds that it airs. Callaway always seemed liked one of the nicest guys and I’m sure it took a lot to annoy him to the point where he had to holler at a guest (and I don’t doubt that John Stroger deserved it).

    I’m sure Chicago Tonight/Channel 11 will do a nice tribute to him, and I can’t wait to see it.


  22. - Michelle Minkoff - Wednesday, Jun 24, 09 @ 5:50 pm:

    I’m the web intern here at Chicago Tonight (a somber first week), and I wanted to take a moment to thank you for your kind words, both in the original post and in the comments regarding John and the overall show. I’ll pass a link on to the CT staff. I, too, watched John for years and as a new journalist, I looked up to him as a role model.

    As Will County Woman suggested, I wanted to confirm that we are planning a tribute for this evening, and will devote our entire hour from 7-8 pm to celebrating John’s life and work. On Friday, we will also devote the 7-8 pm hour to an additional tribute - all on Channel 11.

    The shows will be posted on by noon the day after they air.

    In addition, we would love for you to share your memories on our discussion board at At that site, you can also find written tributes from those at the station and videos of some of John’s past interviews.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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