News Hostage

Love Is Blind, Part 1
Love is blind, they say, and no one falls in love harder than the Houston Chronicle when it's writing about supposed local business successes.

A month ago it was Landry's Seafood. The restaurant chain's owner, Tilman Fertitta, is a mainstay of the paper's gossip columns, which breathlessly report his every charity event or dinner. No less smitten is the Chron's business section, which put together an impressive string of stories about Fertitta's plans to expand his empire.

The Chronicle trumpeted the news March 3 that Fertitta was going to acquire several other chains, including El Chico and Spaghetti Warehouse. Three days later, under a headline of "Leaving Its Seafood Shell," the paper gushed over the plan: "For Landry's Seafood Restaurants, Tuesday's announcement ... is just the start. Tilman Fertitta, Landry's chairman, is thinking big and thinking acquisitions."

Well, for a couple of days, anyway. A few days later, under the glum headline of "Landry's Is Back in Its Shell, For Now," reality set in as the paper quoted Fertitta announcing that the fabulous deal was, ummmm, called off.

Said Fertitta in the story: "The shareholders didn't like the deal. The employees didn't like the deal. The customers didn't like the deal." The story also noted that Fertitta "said he had a change of heart about giving up daily control" of his company, something he had been looking forward to only days before.

That was last month's love story. This month it was Compaq.
The locally based computer giant has long been able to do no wrong in the Chronicle's eyes. A year ago it was named "Company of the Year," in a profile headed "Compaq Finds Itself Virtually in a Class By Itself -- Computer Maker Nearing Top of the Heap with a Few Growing Pains." Four months ago the company's success was one of the Top 10 business stories of the year, the paper said.

Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer, like Fertitta, was constantly in the society pages, usually on the arm of publicity hound Carolyn Farb. When he wasn't being one of the boldfaced types, he was astutely analyzing for Chron readers how his company was doing so well.

There were some rumblings reported in the paper: The "Company of the Year" story noted that in the first quarter of 1998, earnings were as bad as they'd been in seven years. Not to worry, though, the article reassured: "One Compaq executive recently said internal sales reports were looking good. 'We were high-fiving in the halls,' he said."

Man, an inside source offering information like that to a reporter -- no wonder he wanted to remain anonymous.

In any case, things remained fine in Compaq Land, as far as Chron readers ever knew; the occasional grudging news brief about stock downgrades or company executives' bonuses being cut were far outweighed by glowing reprints of company press releases touting new products or can't-miss strategies.

Then came April 9, when (apparently out of nowhere) Compaq announced its upcoming earnings report wouldn't be as good as expected. Within ten days, Pfeiffer was gone (he "resigned," the Chronicle reported; he was "ousted," according to The Wall Street Journal).

The events might have surprised Chronicle readers, but the paper reported April 19 that they shouldn't have. Compaq board members "have been meeting for the last few months to discuss the situation," the paper confidently reported. "At the last board meeting in March, the regular agenda was scrapped so the group could go into a daylong executive session with Pfeiffer, a source said."

"I just can't be surprised by this," one analyst was quoted as saying.
Not unless you were depending on Houston's Leading Information Source.

Love Is Blind, Part 2
Channel 2 has Susan Lennon, tirelessly prowling refugee camps looking for Kosovars with a Houston connection. Channel 13 has the safari-jacketed Art Rascon, bravely defying some buffoonish Serbian cop in endlessly repeated promos.

Channel 11 has Dr. Ron Hatchett, its self-described military expert who reports from Belgrade by phone as he travels on the dime of some "peace group" reported to have ties to the Yugoslavian government.

Channel 11 scored a coup when Hatchett landed an interview with Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, a coup they trumpeted in a barrage of ads and a prime-time special.

How did Hatchett get the interview? According to the Houston Chronicle, it was "two weeks of nag-nag-nag" that "paid off brilliantly."

Well, maybe. But maybe the Yugoslavs knew who they were dealing with. Hatchett was quoted in the April 1 issue of Investor's Daily taking issue with claims of Serbian genocide. "What we see right now is an attempt by the Clinton administration to create a justification for ground forces by saying that there's genocide going on," he said.

Two days later he was quoted in The Dallas Morning News as saying, "Kosovo is for the Serbs what Jerusalem is for the Jews. They cannot walk away."

Hatchett's journalistic instincts didn't disappoint, according to a transcript of the Milosevic interview. Here's the first exchange:

Hatchett: As you know, in the American press, you're not pictured very well. President Clinton says you're the butcher of the Balkans.... Who are you really? Who are you as a person?

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