Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Avy Meyers signs off

This weekend it became a little more difficult for Cook County voters to make informed choices in judicial elections.

Avy Meyers, 66, passed away on Memorial Day.

The long-time host of North Town News Magazine, Meyers was perhaps best known to FWIW readers as the interviewer of Cook County judicial candidates. Election law attorney and frequent NTNM guest James P. Nally called the program a source of "consistent coverage of judicial candidates to the general public." Both longtime collaborator (and entire technical crew) Sonny Hersh and frequent guest (and "lifelong friend, although we didn’t realize that until we were over 50") Michael A. Strom stressed Meyers' comfortable, relaxed, "non-confrontational" interviewing style.

This was certainly true: Meyers was not Mike Wallace. Sometimes his questions morphed into soliloquies, a la Chet Coppock, but judicial wannabes and candidates for all manner of local and countywide offices came in pilgrimage to Meyers' West Rogers Park home because, as Hersh put it, Avy gave "both sides on an argument equal unbiased access, though he had his own strong opinions." Nally agreed that Avy "was a man of strong opinions, but to his credit was interested in listening to the viewpoints of other people as well, and providing them, via his show, a chance to share those opinions." Strom also recalled that "Avy was unfailingly polite and generous on air, even to any candidates he intensely disliked due to prior experience or conduct he deemed unacceptable."

While Avy occasionally served up a controversial opinion in the course of asking a question or making an aside, Meyers usually saved up his own unvarnished views for exposition in the pages of Jewish Chicago. There, Strom noted, Meyers was as passionately judgmental as a movie reviewer.

I think Avy would like to be remembered at least as much for his writing as for his cable and You Tube presence. As Strom noted, Meyers studied journalism, and became the Chicago Defender's first white reporter. Assigned to criminal trials, it was while working the Defender's courthouse beat that Meyers developed, as Strom put it, his deep appreciation of the "power of judges to decide child custody, division of community property, and criminal trials where jury rights were waived."

In addition to providing the editorial content for Jewish Chicago, Meyers sold ad space for his publication. He was immensely proud of the fact that his endorsements were not influenced by the size of an ad purchased by a candidate, or whether a candidate bought an ad at all. When pressed, Avy could cite many examples of candidates who bought large ads, only to have him endorse an opponent. While, as Hersh noted, many of the candidates and their consultants in time became Meyers' true friends, Avy reserved an uncharacteristicly harsh assessment for those few who thought his endorsement (and good will) could be bought.

For his judicial endorsements, Meyers would rely on a panel of experts. The exact composition of that panel will now be lost to history. I was not a member; Michael Strom was. "There were other experts," Strom said, "and he did not always listen to me. To my surprise, sometimes he was right about candidates I tried to talk him out of endorsing."

Sonny Hersh recalled that Avy was very proud of the many awards that their cable access show won, though Meyers never boasted of it, Hersh said. Among these awards were an Award of Excellence in Community Outreach from the Illinois State Crime Commission, and three National Awards for Best News Show and Making a Difference in the Community conferred by the Alliance for Community Media.

Avy Meyers "put in long hours taping and editing each show," Strom recalled, "and certainly was not getting wealthy doing it." Hersh added, "All interviews were uncut and complete, except for an occasional expletive or mention of fundraising, which is not allowed by our outlets, so those were bleeped." Hersh had worked with Meyers almost from the beginning of NTNM: The show started in 1991, and Hersh came aboard as "all things technical" in 1993 when he became a certified producer at CAN-TV. Hersh saw the show evolve from one which was entirely community-based into something more politically-centered. "I think last cycle there were 50 interviews of judicial candidates," Hersh said.

Hersh said the judicial candidate interviews allowed people to see that judicial candidates are real people, and what sort of people they are. Strom added, Avy "saw his duty as allowing the candidates to present themselves as actual people, and allowing actual voters to see who the candidates were selected make up their own minds." Strom cited an old Yogi Berra-ism in describing how Avy's interviews allowed voters to make meaningful evaluations of judicial candidates: "You can observe a lot by just watching."

For my part, I will be ever-grateful for Avy giving me my first television exposure since I got picked for a tug-of-war on the old Bozo's Circus. Ringmaster Ned misheard me when I gave my name---I must have mumbled---because he called me 'Jeff.' And my team lost the tug-of-war.

I think my appearances on NTNM went a little better. Strom recalled that "Avy was hilarious"---and while something Avy said cracked me up more than once on camera, I must agree with Strom that some of Avy's best material was saved for when the camera was off. More than once, I hung around Avy's living room (the show was taped in the dining room) watching other tapings and bantering with Avy, Sonny, and other guests.

As a practical matter, with Avy Meyers' passing, I've lost a partner: Once we stumbled onto each other, Avy and I engaged in regular cross-promotion. I re-posted his candidate interviews; he would plug my blog with guests, on and off camera. We both benefited -- although I'm sure I benefited more from Avy's promotion than ever he did from mine.

Sonny Hersh said he frequently took flak for things Avy would say on the show or write in Jewish Chicago. "A lot of people thought that if Avy said it he was talking for me, too, but it wasn't true. We did not agree on a lot of political issues, but did on some." Their disagreements certainly did not harm their relationship. I didn't agree with everything Avy said or wrote either; I know I cringed more than once on camera and tried to quickly disassociate myself from some comment or other that Avy had just made. But he never took offense. For a man with such pronounced and strongly-held opinions, Avy Meyers was remarkably tolerant of those with whom he did not agree. "This quality is sadly lacking in political discourse today," Jim Nally said.

And this quality---this civility---is in even shorter supply after Monday.

Rest in peace, Avy Meyers.


Mark V. Ferrante said...

Avy, in three words: A True Mensch! RIP my media friend!

James Crawley said...

Thank you Jack, Mike Strom, Jim Nally and Sonny for this very interesting retrospective and deserving tribute to Avy Meyers.

Avy was always kind to the judicial candidates he interviewed on his program, never ambushed anyone and he took a genuine interest in getting to know you. When Sonny stopped the camera, Avy continued talking and asking questions for another 30 minutes. He was a true, one-of-a-kind Chicago character. Everyone that I know smiles when they tell their Avy stories.

Thank you, Avy, for your generosity and kindness. You will be missed.