BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
When she anchored the Chicago CBS news desk, Mary Ann Childers always asked the questions she thought her viewers most wanted to know. In her new role as media consultant with Res Publica Group, working on strategic communications planning, she is helping high profile clients across Chicago and the country, answer these same probing questions.
Although she and Jay Levine, her husband and CBS correspondent, from time to time escape to a favorite destination in Italy, her focus remains on Chicago, particularly on how we communicate.
Sitting down recently with Childers proved once more that there is no one who answers questions as well as she asks them (or with more grace, intelligence, and humor). She remains one of Chicago’s greatest assets.
“We all think we know our stories, but how can we better communicate them? I have always had a comfort level with chaos, and journalism suits my personality, but I have felt that preparation is the key. For example, I might tell an author to convey what his or her book is about in one great sentence.”
Tell me about your work with Res Publica Group.
We are a strategic communications firm, and we work with health care systems, transportation systems, newspapers, law firms, international facilities management companies, pro spots teams, their facilities and their owners (including Rocky Wirtz), as well as a host of civic, cultural, and philanthropic organizations. As public relations specialists, we assist with a wide range of communications issues. We help our clients communicate internally, with their employees and stakeholders, and externally, with broadcasters and print journalists.
Often, I help clients prepare for those encounters—what to expect in an interview, and the kinds of things a reporter will want to know. Most of my work is with C-suite level executives. They’re often excellent communicators, but for many, talking with a reporter is something new. So being prepared is important.
What do you think about news coverage in Chicago?
Chicago is the best news town in America. People in the Midwest are very savvy and care very much. They are loyal to their newspapers, TV stations, and excited about their sports. There is such a tradition of strong reporting.
And all of the newsrooms reflect the diverse composition of our city, with all ages, ethnic groups, religions, races, and genders on staff. Above all, my colleagues and competitors valued truth and fairness.
What does it take to be a good TV reporter?
It takes the right temperament and a real passion, and you have to be comfortable with a little chaos. News is definitely not a 9-to-5 job. You compete with many talented people. You have to have confidence in yourself. Most of all, you have to be prepared—if you are covering City Hall, you have to know what all the issues and problems are. It’s a lot of work.
When I worked as an anchor, I read all the local papers, as well as many national ones and several from downstate. I also had a lot of people making me look good! I worked with real pros throughout my career. TV news is really a team effort, and I was privileged to work with many fine technicians and producers.
The days are gone when anchors just pick up scripts and read them. Most anchors are working anchors. I think you can tell when anchors are invested in their stories.
What are some of your favorite memories of being an anchor?
I loved breaking news—real breaking news, not the kind you see every 10 minutes now on cable news channels. As an anchor, it’s a challenge to be right in the middle of things, trying to make sure information is verified and putting it into an intelligent format that makes sense to viewers. Some of my favorite stories were Chicago’s underground flood, and of course, elections.
Who are you watching these days?
I love the CBS morning news, and I think Gayle King is so natural and smart. She has a way of asking very difficult questions in a very sensitive way. When I first heard that she had this job, I thought it was an unlikely choice, but she is very powerful as an interviewer.
CBS political editor John Dickerson is a very strong correspondent. His mother Nancy Dickerson was so smart and so comfortable in her reporting, and I always admired Chicagoan Bill Plante.
There is much confusion today about where our news is coming from. What advice would you give to viewers?
There have always been people floating stories out there, but now so many more people have a voice because of the Internet. That’s good, but there is also that person out there who is writing from his basement. I think it is now more important than ever to be a smart consumer of the news.
You have to find sources you think have high standards, and articles that are vetted and checked. I read the local papers and have Crain’s, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times on my phone. By the way, the Internet hasn’t destroyed TV news any more than the radio didn’t stop newspapers.
You have said that you saw yourself as, first of all, a surrogate for your viewers. You wanted to ask what was sometimes not the most obvious question, but what the viewer might want to know. What would be a not-so-obvious question to ask Mary Ann Childers?
Ha! I guess anything personal. With so much of my life public, I rarely discuss my personal life.
I will ask just a couple of questions about what you are doing when you are not focusing on communication. Do you have favorite places you and your husband Jay Levine like to travel?
Jay is still a special contributor to the CBS news team. He reported from Rome when Chicago Archbishop Cupich became a Cardinal and had a one-on-one interview with President Obama just before he left office. But we do have more time for travel now. We love traveling in Italy, and it was wonderful to accompany Jay when he went to Rome for the installation of the Cardinal. Every day while he worked I took a walking tour of the city.
We also enjoy skiing in Colorado and spent three very interesting weeks in Australia. We would like to spend more time in Asia. I’ve started writing a travel blog, but just for my friends.
I remember that some of your strongest stories as an anchor were medical ones. I believe that you come from a medical family?
My father is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist, and my late mother was a registered nurse. Both of my sisters are physicians, one, an anesthesiologist with a specialty in pediatrics, the other, a psychiatrist.
What books have you been reading lately?
I am an avid reader. I loved A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaleid Hosseini, which is a very poignant book about resilient women, and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I enjoy fiction so much—mysteries by Elizabeth George and books by Margaret George, the American historical novelist. A very intriguing book I enjoyed was Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. For a little roughage in my literary diet, I enjoy the Jack Reacher mysteries by Lee Child.
I know I speak for everyone in attendance at the St. Luke’s Fashion Show—the Go Red event focusing on women’s heart issues—and other charitable events, that we were and are always delighted to see you at the microphone. Recently, you interviewed The Lake Forest Shop’s Ellen Stirling for the Lake Forest Lake Bluff Historical Society, and the commentary couldn’t have been livelier or more interesting. Do you continue to work with non-profits?
It was definitely a great honor to work with many charities when I was an anchor. I am doing a little less now, by choice. But Jay and I continue to be involved with several organizations that are dear to our family and close friends.
Mary Ann, from your tenure at CBS to your hard work at Res Publica, you continue to impact this city’s dialogue in the most positive and impactful ways.