City Desk: A Look Back

A look back at 40 years of City Desk, a political talk show on WMAQ-TV (a local NBC affiliate). As the tape is only a short retrospective, we see clips of many major Chicago figures but do not go in to much detail.

0:04Copy video clip URL Color bars/slate and tone.

0:37Copy video clip URL The program starts with a montage of archival footage of various news anchors throughout the history of City Desk introducing the program. This leads into the current host, Dick Kay, who also welcomes the viewer. He explains that this episode is a retrospective for the past four decades of City Desk, which at the time was the oldest and longest-running locally-produced program in Chicago.

2:03Copy video clip URL Archival footage of Sen. Otto Kerner from 1960. Kerner talks about the history of corruption in Springfield, and his promise to bring honesty and reform if he is elected governor. In a voice over, Kay explains that Kerner went on to serve two terms as Illinois Governor and became a federal judge, but ironically was later sent to jail for accepting bribes in form of race track stocks.

2:36Copy video clip URL Archival footage of Jim Thompson, 1977, who prosecuted the case against Kerner and was later elected governor himself. They also show a clip of Thompson stating he would like to be President, if he ever had the chance.

3:03Copy video clip URL Dick Kay talks about the first panel for City Desk in 1952: William Ray, the founder and first host of City Desk; Charlie Cleveland of the Chicago Daily News; John Madigan of the Chicago American; John Dreiske, Political Editor for the Sun-Times; and Len O’Connor, who was the chief panelist of the show for several decades. Archival footage from 1980 when four of the original six panelists recounted the time when, in 1954, they asked Richard J. Daley if he was planning to run for mayor. Daley responded by filibustering the last 20 minutes of the show by continuing to talk and refusing to acknowledge any of the panelists’ questions. Three months later, Daley ran for Mayor and won, and never reappeared on City Desk.

4:30Copy video clip URL The next time a Chicago mayor appeared on City Desk was 25 years later, when Jane Byrne appeared in 1979. The panelists talked to Mayor Byrne about how she was significantly more open with the press than the Mayors who came before her. Byrne downplays any criticism that she courts the press by arguing that she’s just more willing to talk to the press when they come to her to ask questions. In a voiceover, Dick Kay mentions Byrne’s subsequent feuds with the press, most notably when she kicked the Tribune out of the City Hall press room.

5:39Copy video clip URL Back in the studio, Dick Kay talks about Byrne’s wisdom in stating that television was the new Precinct Captain, and how subsequent mayors were similarly willing to appear on City Desk.

5:53Copy video clip URL Footage from 1983 of Mayor Harold Washington and his charismatic responses to questions, including his opinions on Ed Vrdolyak.

7:15Copy video clip URL Dick Kay tells a story about a time that Gov. Dan Walker was caught on an open-mic trying to arrange a secret meeting with Mayor Daley. Later that day, when Walker was appearing on City Desk, Len O’Connor asked about the secret meeting, which Walker denied. When O’Connor challenged him, Walker said, “Are you calling me a liar?” At that moment, all the lights in the studio went down, the only time that had ever occurred. “We figured it was divine intervention,” Kay jokes.

8:35Copy video clip URL Commercial hole.

9:28Copy video clip URL Dick Kay talks about how the limitations of technology made it difficult and expensive to try to save the original broadcasts of City Desk when it started as a live program. It was only when videotape became common that City Desk was able to start keeping a library of shows.

10:05Copy video clip URL Kay introduces some of the earliest clips from the archive, a series of election specials from the 1960s. Clip of Sen. Paul Douglas from 1960.

10:57Copy video clip URL Footage from 1980 of Rep. Dan Quayle and Birch Bayh. Quayle says, “Dan Quayle is a friend of the laboring man and woman,” and claims that it’s difficult to say Jimmy Carter and Bayh are friends of the working class, “when they’ve done a lot to put these men and women out of work.” Bayh fires back about Quayle’s voting record when it comes to imports.

12:02Copy video clip URL Carol Moseley Braun in 1992 talks about trying to prove racist politics no longer work.

12:26Copy video clip URL In 1990, Mel Reynolds talks about cutting back on military spending to help pay for other programs. He says that “it’s a question of priorities,” not taxing people.

13:20Copy video clip URL Bernard Epton, who would later run racially-charged “Before It’s Too Late” campaign ads against Harold Washington, claims that the ’83 election is not about race. His argument seems to largely claim that politics should be “colorblind,” i.e. that Washington should not discuss how his race might affect the election. “But if you insist on bringing it up… you’re telling people to vote black or white.” He also claims that he would get along better with a Democratic City Council than Washington would.

15:03Copy video clip URL A clip from 1986 of Ed Vrdolyak, who talks about the so-called Council Wars. “My position, basically, is anyone but Harold. I think he’s been a disaster for the city.” The City Desk panel also presses Vrdolyak on his meetings with Republicans. Vrdolyak says he will meet with anyone if he thinks it will do some good for Chicago and Cook County. Dick Kay explains that soon after the interview, Vrdolyak switched to the Republican party and ran for Mayor.

16:45Copy video clip URL Commercial hole.

17:26Copy video clip URL Dick Kay tells a story about Ed Hanrahan, who “fumed” during his interview on City Desk and returned later that day to tear up his release form and called Kay a “junior Len O’Connor.” Kay says he took it as a compliment and they ran the show.

18:02Copy video clip URL Footage of Malcolm X as a guest in 1963. Len O’Connor asked Malcolm X what his “real name” or “legal name” is, and Malcolm X rebukes his attempts, saying that Malcolm X is his real name and “I didn’t have to go to court to be called Murphy or Jones or Smith.” O’Connor continues to press, asking for Malcolm X’s father’s last name. “My father didn’t know his last name… The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery.”

20:13Copy video clip URL In 1982, Former Bears Couch Mike Ditka talks about his contract at the time: A $12,000 contract with a $6,000 bonus. “I thought I was extremely overpaid.”

20:41Copy video clip URL Former Park Superintendent Ed Kelly talks about his desire to put a dome over Soldier Field.

21:14Copy video clip URL Dick Kay says that the Bears are once again threatening to leave Chicago. They show a contemporary (Nov 1995) clip of Mayor Richard M. Daley reaffirming his current offer to the Bears and saying they aren’t going to try to compete with other cities that might offer more money.

22:06Copy video clip URL In a clip from 1977, Bill Veeck says, “We have lost sight of the fact that it’s supposed to be a game,” and says it’s a shame more time has been spent in courts of law, barister’s offices, etc. than on the field.

22:51Copy video clip URL An introspection of City Desk itself. In 1980, Len O’Connor talks about the early days. He says that the program suffered when it transitioned into being pre-recorded on tape instead of being broadcast live. “The convenience is not worth the price of spontaneity that you lose.”

23:19Copy video clip URL Footage of NBC Newsman John Chancellor appearing on the 30th anniversary of City Desk in 1982. “I think the definition of news has undergone a considerable change in American life.” He says television has brought a lot of “information” that’s not what he would call “hard news” and that people increasingly aren’t getting from their local newspapers. He says perhaps it’s a trade-of, “but soemtimes when you watch [television news shows], you do hope that they will put in a little news.”

24:21Copy video clip URL Dick Kay concludes the program by apologizing for all the guests they missed in the retrospective, and offers a special salute to all the crew and other people who helped make the program possible.

25:30Copy video clip URL A final clip from the 1980 anniversary show, where the panel discussed how television journalism has changed. They suggest that although television news has certainly grown, perhaps it has lost some of the content. Len O’Connor says, “I think we have lost some of the sharpness of our inquiry.” The end credits roll as they continue talking. O’Connor says that past presidents like Washington and Lincoln wouldn’t have survived television broadcast. “They couldn’t make it in a day of television.”

27:02Copy video clip URL End of program.



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