The Insider

Blood on the Presses
The referendum on abolishing the city's affirmative action program may not have strained relations between blacks and whites as severely as some observers predicted. But it sure did put the city's most prominent African-American newspapers at each other's throats.

In the weeks leading up to the November 4 election (which was concluded after we went to press), the Forward Times and the Houston Defender waged an old-fashioned newspaper war, the likes of which hadn't been seen around town since ... well, since we can't remember when. The weekly papers, both of which are run by female publishers, traded allegations of lying, political cronyism and journalistic prostitution and accused each other of being the tool of white interests.

The war of words got under way with a series of articles by Forward Times news editor Ed Wendt naming supposed African-American insiders who have profited from affirmative action under Mayor Bob Lanier. Among those fingered by Wendt were Defender publisher Sonceria "Sonny" Messiah-Jiles and her husband, Jodie Jiles, an investment banker whose employer, Bear, Stearns & Co., performs work for the city. A county appointee to the Sports Authority, Jodie Jiles is at least on the margins of Lanier's inner circle and for a time even had his own desk and phone in the mayor's office.

The Forward Times characterized Messiah-Jiles's newspaper as a mouthpiece for privileged blacks who had used their political clout and connections to the Lanier administration to benefit from the city's Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, while deserving minority businesses were cut out of the action.

Messiah-Jiles and the Defender responded by claiming that the Forward Times was serving conservative whites who wanted to deprive women and minorities of a fair share of city business by killing the MWDBE program.

The Defender went all-out on behalf of opponents of Proposition A, the ballot initiative to abolish the program, devoting the entire front page of one of its pre-election editions to defending affirmative action. "Black contracts, jobs in jeopardy" warned the lead story, nestled next to an editorial counseling "Vote No -- Proposition A" and a feature headlined "Contracting system helps minorities." Another story reported that Edward Blum, the leader of the anti-affirmative action campaign, was employing "a strategy of confusion." (Forward Times, by contrast, ran a relatively even-handed profile of Blum headlined "Edward Blum's brand of freedom fighting.")

Adding an element of racial rancor to the dispute is the fact that Wendt is white -- a point raised by Messiah-Jiles in a Defender editorial in which she accused Wendt of spreading "inaccurate information" and of "malicious intent to discredit African-American business people."

"The color of a person's skin has nothing to do with being a good reporter," Messiah-Jiles wrote. "However, in this instance, the color of the reporter raises an added suspicion of what his motives are.... Is he seeking truth or trying to deceive?"

The editorial carried the headline "White reporter prostitutes black press and misinforms the black community."

Wendt is a longtime fixture on the Houston journalism scene who's spent most of his career working for the African-American media. His resume includes stints for Messiah-Jiles at the Defender, and there is no shortage of hard feelings between him and the publisher. Some of that dates back to Lanier's first run for office in 1991, when Messiah-Jiles served as a panelist for a televised debate between Lanier and runoff opponent Sylvester Turner. In one of the more memorable recent moments in Houston politics, Messiah-Jiles asked Turner why he was "living with a man," a reference to the Turner associate who stayed in the house Turner was renting to meet the residency requirement to run for mayor. The then-married Turner called the question insulting and not worthy of a reply.

Lanier went on to defeat Turner, and Messiah-Jiles started a public relations firm, the Olivia Agency, which received MWDBE certification from the city and a contract from Metro. Wendt now says he quit the Defender because Messiah-Jiles had become a shill for the Lanier administration.

Both the Defender and the Forward Times mustered a range of backers in their dispute, with some of Forward Times's support definitely coming from the "strange bedfellows" column.

Conservative radio talker Jon Mathews, for instance, frequently praised Wendt's stories and urged his listeners to read the Forward Times, raising the unlikely specter of hundreds of middle-aged and elderly white men foraging out in the city's black neighborhoods for a copy of the usually reliably liberal newspaper. Blum himself embraced Forward Times and displayed the paper at pre-election news conferences, while Lanier criticized Wendt's reporting at an anti-Proposition A event attended by female entrepreneurs who praised the MWDBE program.

Then there was the Wall Street Journal's antediluvian editorial page, which jumped to Forward Times's defense on the Friday before the referendum. In a lengthy editorial that appeared in the paper's national edition, the Journal lauded Wendt, reporting that he "courageously exposed example after example of favoritism in the city's preference program" and had even frightened Lanier's minions into ordering their affirmative action files closed to journalists. (In a somewhat unfortunate slip, the Journal editorialists demonstrated their grasp of local nuance by misidentifying affirmative action critic Elizabeth Spates, who is black, as "Elizabeth Spades.")

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