News Hostage

We're Great, Say Judges
Professional groups representing schoolteachers, lawyers and doctors all sponsor journalism contests, some with hefty cash awards. Either indirectly or not, the contests tend to generate stories describing the nobility of, not suprisingly, schoolteachers, lawyers or doctors.

The judges in Harris County's criminal courts-at-law don't sponsor such a contest, but if they did, the trophy could be retired right now. The Houston Chronicle's John Makeig, who has been a fixture at the courthouse longer than most of the people currently on the bench, would take the prize for his story last month headlined "System in Harris County Is Model for State Courts."

At some length, the story went on to describe how amazingly efficient the local misdemeanor courts are, talking to judges here and in Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth about how terrifically they do things here in Houston.

"I'd like ... to see what they know that we don't," one San Antonio judge was quoted as saying.

Wrote Makeig: "In addition to Texas adulation, Harris County's system has attracted attention way beyond the state line." Why, folks from Washington, D.C., and even Moscow, Russia, have dropped by to learn at the feet of the masters, he wrote.

Amid all the congratulatory talk from judges, not one defense lawyer was quoted in the story. And many of them are still shaking their heads in amazement about the Chronicle's take on the matter.

The county courts-at-law are brutally efficient, defense lawyers say, not necessarily because of the computer gimmickry and staffing policies cited by the Chron, but because judges and the DA's office have set up a system that values speed more than defendants' rights.

Judges set sky-high bonds and recently have even refused to set any bond at all for some misdemeanor offenders, says longtime defense attorney David Mitcham. Rather than sit in jail awaiting trial, misdemeanor defendants unable to bond out will usually agree to a plea bargain.

"It makes dockets more efficient," Mitcham says, "but at some point efficiency erodes justice."

And although Mitcham won't say it, other attorneys say privately that the way Harris County judges appoint lawyers to represent indigent defendants also compromises rights.

Lawyers who are eager for court appointments understand that the judges who make those appointments are obsessed with moving their dockets. Getting clients to plead rather than seek a time-consuming trial can keep a lawyer on the appointments list.

Of course, that's just the defense lawyers' view on matters, and the judges and perhaps even more neutral observers might disagree. But it's a view that never made its way into the glowing report on just how wonderful things are down at the courthouse.

Triple-Coupon Days at KPRC!
The sweeps-month contests are getting a little chintzy at Channel 2.
Its daily Star Wars hype now includes the amazing, utterly astounding chance to win... two tickets to see the movie. Manufacturer's suggested retail price: about $15.

And then there's the "Drive Your Dream Car" contest. Viewers are urged to describe the car of their dreams in the hopes of winning... a test drive. Manufacturer's suggested retail price: zero.

We just hope that if the winning entry describes wanting to drive, say, a Rolls-Royce or a Jaguar, that Channel 2 is somehow able to line up a local dealer who will give away a test drive for free. And to endure the publicity that will come when the station does a long report on the contest winner, a report that will insightfully demonstrate how their oh-so-desirable product is the stuff of dreams.

Good Riddance
In case you haven't noticed: The Chronicle has been commemorating the Astros' last season in the Dome by running a daily box called "Dome Moments," a this-day-in-history look at the building.

It lists a game played that day, includes a quote from the key player, and -- for no compelling reason -- it includes a sentence or two from the Chron's story covering the event way back when, a category titled "The Writer's Eye."

It's all pretty innocuous, a chance to see long-lost Chronicle bylines such as John Wilson and Dick Peebles. What's interesting is that while we're sure the paper could include lots (and lots) of embarrassing observations from the old stories -- hyping phenoms who never made it, for instance -- so far they've only done it once.

The May 10 Dome Moment was devoted to the 1979 announcement that John McMullen, now forever enshrined in Houston history as The Man Who Drove Nolan Ryan Away, had purchased the team.

Said the quote in The Writer's Eye: "Stocky and silver-haired, the articulate McMullen comes across as the kind of guy you can trust with your secret dreams of a pennant in Houston."

Now that's a line that would cause any Astros fan to question the baseball smarts, if not the sanity, of the author.

And who was the now-exposed-as-hapless writer who was so humiliatingly quoted? None other than Ed Fowler, who went on to become the paper's star sports columnist. Until he left, of course, 18 months ago after a heated and public feud with Dan Cunningham, the Chron assistant managing editor who's king of the sports section.

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