How a ‘horrible decision’ cost Wiser dream job at Chicago Sun-Times
Who knows? At another time or another place, maybe a talented writer like Paige Wiser (pictured above) might have gotten off with a reprimand or a suspension. But not anymore. And not at the Chicago Sun-Times.
When confronted this week with an unquestionable lapse in the “accuracy and honesty” of her reporting, Wiser knew right away that it was all over for her after 17 years of otherwise unblemished work at the paper.
“They’re laying off people left and right — good, good people,” she said after her firing Thursday. “So to go easy on somebody like me, I just don’t think they could do it.”
Wiser, 40, who most recently had been the Sun-Times’ TV critic, was busted after a reader alerted editors to her review of a pop music concert — last Friday’s performance of Glee Live! at the Allstate Arena. In it, Wiser referenced one song that wasn’t performed at the show and another that she wasn’t around to see or hear. “Accuracy and honesty in reporting are essential parts of the promise we make to our readers,” editor-in-chief Don Hayner wrote in an online announcement of her dismissal. “We regret the incident and apologize.”
Wiser doesn’t dispute the facts or take issue with her punishment, saying: “I’m just mortified. I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed. I fully understand how wrong it was what I did. And how stupid.”
So how did it happen? Wiser said she’d been under intense pressure, citing chronic headaches, a car accident in which she’d broken a finger, and an experience with vertigo while covering Oprah Winfrey’s May 17 Farewell Spectacular from a skybox at the United Center. As a result of that experience, she felt she’d disappointed her colleagues by failing to carry out her assignment properly that night.
She reluctantly agreed to cover Glee Live! only after her editor said she could bring her 7-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son to the show. When her daughter became ill and began throwing up into a cotton-candy bag, Wiser said she decided to leave halfway through the concert and take her children home.
“If I were smart, I would have written only about the part of the concert that I saw,” she said. “But after my complete failure of covering the Oprah spectacular, I just felt like that would call attention to me in a bad way. So I went home and I looked at set lists online and added those to my review. The one holdover from the last tour was Don’t Rain on My Parade, but apparently they did not play that song. They’d changed the set list the show before.
“Of course I was in the wrong. I made a horrible decision at 1am when I was tired, but I know it was not worth throwing away a career. After the Oprah incident, I felt this one had to be solid. But I have no excuse. I know the rules.”
Until recently, the Sun-Times had made special accommodations for Wiser by allowing her to work from her far northwest suburban home to avoid what she called a “three-hour commute.” But after a recent round of layoffs left her department more short-handed than ever, she was told she had to come in to the office each day.
“Trying to do this with the kids and a three-hour commute, and when every editor wants something different, let’s just say it’s become a very strange place. And because there’s not a lot of people with kids at the paper, I’m a little sensitive about coming across like I can’t do it because of my kids.”
Veteran Sun-Times staffers recalled an incident in 1986 involving reporter Patricia Smith, who was disciplined but not fired after writing an inaccurate story about an Elton John concert she falsely claimed to have attended. Years later Smith was fired from her job as a columnist for the Boston Globe for fabricating interviews and information.
Others were reminded of former NBC 5 reporter Amy Jacobson, who was criticized for bringing her two young children with her to go swimming while she interviewed a man whose wife was missing and presumed murdered. Jacobson was fired in 2007 after a rival station aired videotape of her in poolside attire at the man’s house.
Before she was named TV critic in 2009, Wiser held a variety of jobs in the features department, including as writer of Planet Paige, a Sunday column that looked at the quirkier side of the news. A lifelong Chicagoan, she holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Notre Dame. Her husband, Jim Wiser, is producer of Greg Jarrett’s morning show on Tribune Co.-owned WGN-AM (720).
If there is a silver lining in all this, Wiser hopes she’ll find it: “It might not be the worst thing in the world to take a breath and look around. And think what you want your life to be. But how do you walk away from the job of your dreams? You never would. I never looked for another job because I knew nothing else would be as fun.”