Spare the Mayor, Kill the Story

How one disgruntled reader got satisfaction from the Chronicle

If a story in the daily newspaper causes an average Houstonian to choke on his or her morning coffee, the only practical avenue of protest available is a letter to the editor, which may or may not run days later. If you happen to be Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, and the paper is the Houston Chronicle, there are more direct remedies at hand.

When Lanier, as is his custom, perused the early "bulldog" edition of the Sunday Chronicle on the afternoon of Saturday, March 18, a front-page story by City Hall reporter R.A. "Jake" Dyer jumped right out at him. As it turned out, the mayor was one of a small percentage of regular Chronicle readers who had the opportunity to eyeball Dyer's story.

At his annual "State of the City" address two months ago, Lanier -- who probably gets more fawning local press than any big-city mayor in the country -- had groused that the media was ignoring the positive achievements of his two terms, particularly newly released police statistics showing dramatic drops in crime. The grumbling mayor opined that the trend toward negativity, or at least the one he perceived, stemmed from journalists' need to feel "macho."

Dyer took up the mayor's implicit invitation for a closer look at the crime statistics, spent weeks poring over the numbers, and wrote a lengthy story exploring those statistics and what they meant in terms of Lanier's law enforcement policies. The reporter concluded that "a review of federal and local records indicates the trend toward fewer crimes began not under Lanier, but under former mayor Kathy Whitmire, when the police force was losing officers." Dyer's thesis struck at the heart of Lanier's political raison d'etre: that his placement of more cops on the street is primarily responsible for falling crime rates in the city (although, as Dyer's story pointed out, the incidence of assault have risen during Lanier's tenure).

Lanier is a master at beating opponents over the head with selected statistics until they cry "Uncle Bob," and he also knows how to play hardball with upstart reporters. Within minutes after devouring Dyer's front-page blasphemy he was on the phone to the reporter's bosses -- first to the assistant city editor in charge of the paper's City Hall reporters and then upward to Jack Loftis, the Chronicle's editor and executive vice president.

The eagle-eyed Lanier had pinpointed one mistake that got past an editing team the previous evening: the time line on a graphic illustrating Dyer's story was slightly skewered and made it appear that the reported incidence of crime took a steep drop during Whitmire's last year in office. Actually, the crime reports showed a gradual decline that began in 1989 under Whitmire but accelerated sharply during Lanier's first year in office (although it's arguable, if you want to waste time arguing crime statistics, whether Lanier can take credit for the drop, since his policies were not in place until later in that year). The mayor demanded that Loftis correct the graphic and change the story in later editions to note that the major crime reduction happened on his watch.

Loftis could not locate either Dyer or Chronicle city editor Steve Jetton that Saturday afternoon, and decided that because at least part of the graphic accompanying the story was demonstrably wrong, the statistics in Dyer's story might be flawed as well. Since Loftis had already expressed reservations about the story, and has shown increasing sensitivity to Lanier's complaints over the past few months about negative City Hall coverage, he made the decision to spare the mayor and kill the story.

After appearing in the "bulldog" edition, the one that's sold in boxes and outside grocery stores on Saturday afternoon, Dyer's piece vanished from the home delivery editions of the Sunday paper, the ones most of the paper's 600,000-plus Sunday readers see.

As several journalists at the paper have since noted, it's almost unheard of for a story to be killed because of a mistake in an accompanying graphic -- and one that probably nobody besides Lanier would have spotted. On the rank-and-file end of the Chronicle newsroom, the story-slaying is being attributed to a willingness on the part of the paper's management to kowtow to the mayor.

On the following Tuesday, Loftis ordered another unusual step --
a correction for a story only a fraction of his readership had the opportunity to read. According to the text, "A graphic in some editions of Sunday's Chronicle erroneously attributed sharp drops in major crimes and murders to the final year of Mayor Kathy Whitmire's administration." The correction also stated that the accompanying story "failed to acknowledge that the largest annual decline in the major crime rate since 1982 occurred during the first year of the Lanier administration."

Dyer declined comment on the deep-sixing of his story. While a number of Chronicle sources spoke to the Press on background for this article, Loftis did not return a phone inquiry. Lanier mouthpiece Sara Turner said her boss also would not be available to comment on Dyer's crime story or its fate. However, Turner was overheard boasting to another member of the Lanier administration that "we got the story pulled."

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