News Hostage

You Can Still Trust Me

For 33 years, until he retired in May, avuncular, low-key anchor Steve Smith delivered the news to KHOU television viewers.

Now he's dealing out paid political propaganda.

Smith has shown up in advertisements touting the proposed billion-dollar Bayport project, the Port of Houston's plan to build a massive container facility north of Seabrook, complete with a giant rail yard and up to 7,000 trucks a day rumbling down now-rural roads.

A referendum on whether to issue $387 million worth of bonds to build the first phase of the project is on the ballot November 2, and one of the advertisements produced by the Port on the issue stars the still-avuncular Smith.

The ads show the former anchor fishing in Galveston Bay, chatting about how important the water is to him; the visuals show gentle waves and birds flying peacefully around.

"When I heard about the proposed Port expansion, I took notice," he says in the ad, according to Port spokeswoman Rosie Barrera, who didn't have a tape or transcript of the commercial.

Smith needn't have worried about the expansion, though. The proposed project, which critics say will add significantly to Houston's crisis-stage ozone problem and otherwise will wreak environmental havoc, turns out to be terrific.

It will preserve the environment, create new wetlands and restore animal habitats, Smith claims. "Everybody wins," he says.

Especially Smith. The ad is the first product of a proposed two-year $120,000 public relations contract between him and the Port, says Barrera. Smith contacted Port officials looking for the job, she says.

You might be surprised to know that the Smith advertisement does not advocate a "yes" vote on the referendum, according to the Port. Tax money can't be spent to advocate a political position; such an ad can be produced only by an independent political action committee or individual supporting Bayport. Ads by a pro-Bayport PAC are also currently on the air.

The Smith ad -- which is running on several local stations, not just his former home of KHOU -- is meant only to "inform and educate" the public about Bayport, Barrera says, not to urge a "yes" vote. Apparently there are people who would vote no on a proposal where "everybody wins."

Some viewers have complained to Channel 11 management about the ad, but management has told them that they take ads from both sides of the Bayport controversy and don't censor the content.

A few Channel 11 staffers have grumbled privately that the ads hurt the credibility of the station's news operation; in the long, long list of personal grievances afflicting the ever-plunging morale of 11's newsroom, though, such abstract questions are pretty low priorities.

KHOU general manager Peter Diaz did not return calls; Barrera said she would try to get a message to Smith, but the former anchor did not respond by press time.

Stay Tuned, Dammit

Among the many things you can say about the compelling major-league baseball playoff series that just wrapped up is this: They gave viewers a chance to see how desperate TV stations are to hang on to viewers.

During one of the games on Fox, anchor Anna Davlantes came on to tell us to stay tuned after the game. Among the stories Fox was covering that night: A Secret Service agent had pulled a gun on President Clinton!

Kinda big news, you might think. Although since they waited until a commercial break to mention it, we assumed no shots were fired.

Then again, it was a pretty big game.

A reader insists he stayed up through the entire ensuing news broadcast -- showing commendable stamina -- and saw nosuch story.

Fox ain't talking, but if the reader's claim is true, it must be because a sudden attack of common sense came over the newsroom. According to an Associated Press story that came out that same day, the "agent pulling a gun" promo was, while technically true, hardly worth its billing.

That day Clinton had given a speech in honor of the opening of a new Secret Service facility in Washington; in the course of doing so, he laughingly told an anecdote of how one time, in the early days of his presidency, a false alarm had sent agents into high-alert mode. Clinton was wandering the halls and came upon an agent who did, indeed, pull out a gun. Six years ago.

On another night, KPRC anchor Bill Balleza also offered a cool no-frills assessment of what stories lay ahead on News 2 Houston after the game.

"It can wipe out cities in a single shot, and it's coming to Houston!" he shouted.

We didn't make it to the news -- hey, it was Game 6 of the Mets-Braves series, which ended somewhere around dawn -- but as far as we know, the city is still standing.

We're keeping our eyes peeled, though.

Headline of the Week

Yo, my man, check this out from the front page of the October 22 Houston Chronicle: " 'Your Mother' Wins Key Role in Indonesia."

Hey, man, don't be bringing that shit in here. Yourmother wins a key role in Indonesia, you know what I'm sayin'? And her butt's so big she beeps when she backs up.

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