By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
The most traumatic change of the last ten years in the world of Houston journalism is easy enough to pinpoint: the 1995 death of The Houston Post.
With the Houston Chronicle comically denying any role in the event -- beyond admitting to just putting out the best darn paper ever, which consumers couldn't help but prefer -- the Post's demise made Houston the nation's largest one-newspaper city.
The Chronicle has used the increased resources that come with its monopoly to add quality and quantity to its editorial output; the fact that it's the only game in town has erased any fear of offending advertisers or the powers-that-be, and the feisty daily has consistently scored knockout blows against local icons, racking up an impressive series of Pulitzers along the way.
Ummmm... not yet, anyway. But then again it's still getting used to this no-competition thing, and we're hopeful it'll get the hang of it soon. To give credit where it's due, the paper's business side showed impressive aggressiveness in raising ad rates right after the Post bit the dust.
Other changes in Houston journalism have been more gradual (if equally depressing), such as the continuing slide toward mediocrity exhibited by local TV, or the radio stations all but ceding serious local news coverage to KTRH. (On the bright side, paradigm-shifting breakthroughs in Doppler radar technology have been an absolute godsend for those tens of people demanding ever more gimmicky graphics in never-ending weather reports.)
Ten years ago Houston was a town with two dailies, three semirespectable local TV operations and a bunch of competing radio reporters. Things have changed, but perhaps it's better to focus on what hasn't.
There are still some verities in Houston journalism that stand the same as ever, untouched by time, unbowing to the whims or caprices -- or common sense -- of the greater public.
Pick up a paper in 1989 or 1999, and you'd be hard-pressed to see much difference: TV critic Ann Hodges is still turning up her nose at "gutter humor"; sports columnist Dale Robertson is still hyping up a local franchise as a can't-miss champ, only to analyze months later that anyone could have seen the team was doomed from the start. And the Chronicle is still goofily in love with a Bush.
In 1989 it was the newly presidential George Bush the Chron was gaga over. Flying in the face of facts, the paper presented Bush as a man shaped and molded by his hometown of Houston.
As the majesty that was the Bush Inaugural loomed, the Chronicle offered its readers a map of the grocery stores, laundries and restaurants that George actually visited during his sojourns in the city. "For no charge at all you can spot some of the everyday sites that were most meaningful to George Bush and his close-knit family -- sites that nevertheless are destined to attract national, even international interest in the years to come," enthused the story, which noted that George and Bar "liked to do their own shopping. Church was a must. Dining out was a treat, just as it is for any large family."
We learned that their favorite Rice Epicurean checker was "so proud for them," that the owner of the Post Oak Pharmacy counted Barbara as "a princess among ladies," and that the owner of the hardware store near their tony Tanglewood home found them both "very friendly, very pleasant."
The story also included one of the Chronicle's approximately countless mentions of Bush's fondness for Otto's barbecue.
The paper's honeymoon with the hapless president never really ended, and it reached something of a zenith in January 1992. By that point, Bush The Desert Storm Warrior was plunging in the polls, the victim of a stagnant economy and, some would say, his inability to do much about it. This was the Dark Time, when Bush was eloquently telling out-of-work New Hampshirites, "Message: I care."
Then came his State of the Union speech, one of what would turn out to be a lengthy series of events that were supposed to stop the free fall in Bush's re-election campaign.
Not quite accurately forecasting the debacle that was to come, the Chronicle's Cragg Hines was beside himself about a speech that underwhelmed most other observers. "The major issue in the presidential election -- George Bush -- came into sharp focus Tuesday night, and Democrats' worst fears were confirmed. They do not have an easy road to the White House," he wrote.
"Bush's State of the Union address was typical of the broad appeal to a voter's head, heart and checkbook that has kept Republicans in the presidency for 20 of the last 24 years. And in what even his aides had come to view as a trial by ordeal, Bush again taught opponents a lesson they forget at their peril: He can make the big move, the big speech, at the right time."
Somehow the shaken Democrats managed to hold off the 1992 Bush juggernaut, but the Chronicle has been busily warning us that the 2000 version will be even more formidable.
This time it's Governor George W. who's the Bush who can do no wrong. Apparently convinced the city has an insatiable need to read about heavily hyped, cynically manufactured, incredibly incremental changes in the governor's potential-candidate status, the Chron offered a huge bannered headline screaming, "Bush Dips His Toe into Campaign Currents." That story offered the information that, as had been predicted in stories all the previous week, the governor had formally announced the formation of an exploratory committee.
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