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Thursday, May 15, 2003 02:20 pm

Full Disclosure

How One-Eyed Jack wrecked my life

My nine-year-old came home from school last Friday with a carton of $1 candy bars and a head full of pep talk on door-to-door sales. He was fired up and eager to walk the neighborhood, peddling chocolate to raise money for a copy machine for the school office. I wouldn't let him and couldn't tell him why. But I blame One-Eyed Jack.

See, I got hit by shrapnel from one of Jackson's verbal pipe bombs. When he defamed a State Journal-Register reporter, I was the guest at the other end of his phone line. I was the one stunned into silence, able to stammer out nothing but, "Wow. That's a limb I'm not going out on." At least that's how I was quoted in the SJ-R's big story. Personally, I hardly remember any tidbit of the conversation--it has been wiped from my brain by shell shock.

I have never been a talk radio fan. I had no idea who One-Eyed Jack was when his then-producer, Rick Fazi Falzone, called and asked me to be on the show. I had lived in Springfield only a couple of months at that point and knew nothing about Jackson or his reputation. I stalled, but Falzone kept calling and, eventually, wore me down. Falzone is an extremely nice guy.

What Jackson wanted me to talk about was a cover story I had written--the one about Renatta Frazier. I was proud of that story and happy to have set the record straight for Frazier (the former cop accused of failing to prevent a rape), but there were a few lingering misperceptions that I thought could be addressed. Maybe this was that opportunity.

Still, I was thrilled when Falzone called me the day before I was supposed to be on the air and said I was going to be bumped out of the prime 7 a.m. slot. Jackson had lined up better guests--Mayor Karen Hasara and Illinois State Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka. Now these were real radio talk show guests! I persuaded myself they would take up all the time, and Jackson would never get to me.

So I was somewhat surprised the next morning when my cell phone rang and there was Falzone telling me to stand by. One minute I was driving my kid to school; the next minute I was on the air.

I have a tendency to say "um" and "uh" a lot. Not surprisingly, I didn't exactly sparkle across the airwaves. During a commercial break, Jackson chastised me for being stuffy, told me a shockingly off-color joke, and then put me on hold so long that I had ample time to drop my kid off and drive back across town.

After the long break, we resumed our on-air conversation, and I tried to relax and not be so stuffy. Then came the bomb.

Jackson couldn't have known how his little quip would affect my life. He had no way of knowing that the SJ-R reporter he defamed just happened to be a neighbor of mine. He couldn't know I would get a call that afternoon from another neighbor blaming me for this incident, telling me other neighbors were likewise upset and holding me personally responsible. "It takes two people to make a conversation," the neighbor told me, "and you were the other person in that conversation."

She convinced me the neighborhood was ready to rally against me. I have no idea whether she's right, but I'm not about to let my precious son take his little carton of candy bars around the block to find out.

What really troubles me, though, is that the controversy created by Jackson completely derailed public discussion about the shockingly low percentage of minority officers in the police department. He pushed the focus toward something comfortably tasteless and tawdry. Sex is a topic even the smallest mind can grasp; racism is a topic everyone fervently wants to believe is obsolete.

I talked to Jackson several times in researching this story. When I asked him to think back over his career and tell me if he has any regrets, he said he has none--"Absolutely no regrets."

I wish I could say the same.