Fondle with Care

Channel 2's Ed Laskos, the most melodramatic reporter in town, did himself proud with a piece November 15. With a theatrically furrowed brow, he intoned in his patented Dragnetstyle that a play was about to go on at Jersey Village High School, but without the drama teacher.

The drama teacher, he said, was being investigated for fondling six students.

Laskos was a bit upstaged the next day, though, when colleague Susan Lennon reported that the school district was not, in fact, investigating any fondling accusations.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD had issued a statement that day saying, "The media's use of the word 'fondling' creates inferences of physical contact between the teacher and students [that] go beyond the allegations the District has received at this time."

The teacher was indeed suspended, for "poor judgment in his ... interactions with students," but the district noted pointedly that law enforcement officials had not been contacted, as a fondling charge would require. (No more than two students were involved, not six, one district official later said.)

Lennon's follow-up was not a retraction of Laskos's report, KPRC news director Nancy Shafran says. It was just new information.

"We're not retracting anything," she says.

Here's what happened, she says: Laskos had information that the school district was investigating fondling charges. The district's spokeswoman was unavailable, so Channel 2 was directed to talk (off-camera) with another district official, who refused to comment on any pending investigation.

Both Laskos and an assignments-desk editor, Shafran says, told the official that they were going with a story that night about an investigation, and both specifically used the word "fondling."

"They knew what we were going to say on TV that night, and they did not say that the information we had was incorrect or premature," she says. Instead the official insisted that district policy prevented him from commenting at all.

KPRC took the failure to warn them off the story as a confirmation that what they had was accurate and ready to be broadcast that night. "I don't think the way we reported the story is inconsistent with how any news organization would do it," she says.

She notes that the station did not name the teacher, although one would think the roster of drama teachers at Jersey Village High School is rather small.

Lennon's live report the day after Laskos's piece was slightly disingenuous. Introducing the district's statement, she said that district officials "say the teacher may have used poor judgment, but the charges against him are much less serious than the ones being reported."

Being reported by whom?

Pen Pal Update

Channel 13's Cynthia Hunt, whose gushing, chatty letters to the (alleged) Railcar Killer have already entered local journalism lore, doesn't deign to return phone calls from mere local reporters.

But she did return a call from Washington Postmedia critic Howard Kurtz, who had earlier run a brief item on the correspondence. "I can understand everyone's distaste for how a reporter builds rapport with a killer," she told him in a November 15 story.

"I do want to interview this man, and I do want to ask him the hard questions: Why did you do this? How could you do this? But as a reporter... when you're finding out something from someone, you don't come at them with a bulldozer. You have to find common ground."

Hunt told Kurtz she was trying to press Angel Maturino Resendiz's "hot buttons" when she scribbled things to him like "Do I love kids? Yes, yes, yes!"

Hunt's interview raises more troubling questions. Does she mean that she really wasn't telling the truth when she told Resendiz, "I believe in angels with my entire heart"?

Inquiring minds want to know, but Hunt isn't returning local calls.

The inside-TV-journalism Web site www. newsblues.com, by the way, has posted a second Hunt letter and a photo it says she mailed Resendiz. In the new letter, dated August 23, she talks of the Branch Davidian investigation and writes: "A lot of Republican Congress members are angry that the FBI lied."

Vast Wasteland

When it comes to reporting on the cultural arts in newspapers across the land, the Houston Chronicleis among the best -- in television listings.

That's one of the findings of a major study by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. The project looked at arts reporting at 15 major American newspapers and found that most are understaffed and ignore the fine arts in favor of movie and TV coverage.

It's certainly not shocking that an organization devoted to arts journalism would find that papers need to hire more arts journalists, but the numbers-crunching the group did was impressive. It looked at every edition of the papers throughout October 1998 and found the Chroncoming up short.

"[W]hen it comes to the arts, the Chronicle doesn't live up to its status as a ranking metropolitan daily," the report said. "[I]t devotes a comparatively small share of space to arts and entertainment articles, much less than papers in smaller cities like Portland. A high proportion of the Chronicle's total arts and entertainment space is taken up by listings, particularly the daily television program grid."

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