News Hostage

Dead Man Walking

For years Houston Chronicle reporter Bob Sablatura, the paper's best investigative reporter, has been The Man Who Wasn't There.

The running joke in local journalistic circles was that Sablatura was the human equivalent of the federal government's program that paid farmers not to grow certain crops. The Chronicle kept Sablatura on staff, working comfortably out of his home, but never published any pieces by him.

Sablatura would complain to other reporters about pitching story ideas looking at various powerful people and institutions. The ideas were sucked into the black hole of the Chron, never seeing the light of day. The paper seemed content to pay its investigative reporter for not investigating.

As of January, The Man Who Wasn't There really won't be there. Sablatura, whose work led to county judge Jon Lindsay's downfall, is resigning.

To help in his daughter's floral business, of all things.

Although the 47-year-old Sablatura has grumbled in the past about life at the Chron, he's all sweetness and light now. "I'm not leaving because I'm disgruntled or unhappy about the Chronicle or how they treated my stories," he says. "The Chronicle in the 12 years I've been there has treated me better than any employer I've ever had."

He says he simly believed it was time to change careers. "I just decided to go do something else for a while," he says.

Sablatura was the epitome of the rumpled reporter who's willing to plow through piles of tedious public records in order to pull out a plum. Besides uncovering Lindsay's shady dealings in 1993, he produced a massive series of reports in 1995 on local toxic waste sites and in 1992 on the war against drugs.

In recent years, though, his major pieces have been pretty much limited to comprehensive, but far from earthshaking, reports on the grand jury system and the ins and outs of county government.

His last major story was an investigation that took the side of Maxxam Corp., that tree-killing bane of environmentalists everywhere, in its fight against the feds.

(Coming soon is a series on court-appointed criminal-defense attorneys in Harris County.)

Any frustration he might have voiced in the past is gone now, apparently. "Whatever internal problems I might have had I'll keep internal," he says. "I do consider the people at the Chronicle to be a family."

Sablatura's boss, assistant managing editor Steve Jetton, also won't comment on any disputes that might have come up. "I'll miss him, and I'm sorry to see him go -- he's a great reporter," he says.

Jetton says the paper has not yet decided how to fill Sablatura's spot. "It will be filled, but I don't know if we'll hire another investigative reporter per se," he says. "The projects desk does investigative work, or is supposed toŠ.I don't know if we'll fill it with a [general assignment reporter] or with another investigative reporter. Good ones are hard to find."

And one just left -- and not because his paper was asking too much of him.

Brought to You ByŠ

There's nothing like a good Internet porn story if you're a television news station. There are only so many topless-bar stories you can run before people get suspicious, after all, but the need for titillating promos never ceases.

So it's no surprise that Channel 13 jumped all over the recent news about "page-jacking," where Web surfers land on an innocent page but get automatically redirected to smut.

The piece included an example of the procedure happening, of course, but the cameras cut away before the porn page's graphics could be loaded. All that was seen was the blank boxes where the pictures would eventually be.

That wasn't all that was seen, though. The text of the porn page was visible, including the name of the sponsoring publication.

We're sure Fuckfest magazine enjoyed the on-air plug.

Ouch

When Astro outfielder Daryle Ward hit a two-run homer September 29, it was "a dagger into the hearts" of the Cincinnati Reds, the Chron's Carlton Thompson reported.

As such, it joined a long, long list of heart-piercing daggers that have graced the paper's sports pages.

Just since January of last year, according to Chron sportswriters, the following have been daggers to various hearts: a chip-in by Australian Craig Perry in the President's Cup golf tournament; a 40-foot putt by New Zealander Frank Nobilo in the President's Cup; a game-winning John Elway drive; a three-pointer by Mario Elie against the Rockets; Vancouver Grizzlies Blue Edwards's three-pointers against the Rockets; Comets forward Tina Thompson's season-long three-pointers; a three-pointer that beat Louisiana Tech for the women's NCAA basketball title; and, on two successive days, a four-minute scoreless stretch by the Rockets.

And that doesn't even include columnist Fran Blinebury's output. Blinebury is a veritable Jedi master of the dagger. Sure, some of his daggers are aimed at the heart -- Michael Jordan's final shot, for instance, or the John Stockton jumper that eliminated the Rockets.

But that's not all. A Karl Malone jumper was "a dagger across the throats" of the Rockets in one playoff game; a Michael Jordan jumper in another playoff match was "a dagger into the teeth" of the Jazz.

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