That Is Not a Traffic Jam

Who says that the news media runs only badnews? Who says that newspapers always look for the negative?

Not Houstonians. We have the Houston Chronicle, stalwart defender of the proposition that Houston is a terrific place to live.

A few months ago the paper was trumpeting the fact that Los Angeles was still smoggier than we were. A temporary victory, as it turned out, but it's important to get these things on the record while there's still time.

More recently, there was the report from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. The study looked at traffic conditions in 68 cities across the United States and estimated the number of hours the typical commuter in each spent stuck behind the wheel.

The report got a ton of coverage, with local TV reporters standing next to clogged freeways, thrusting microphones into cars to get the stunning insight that people don't like being mired in traffic.

Houston was ranked as the seventh-worst city in terms of time wasted on the road.

The Chronbannered the story across its front page November 17. Kind of. What it actually bannered across the front page November 17 was a long happy-face assessment that Houston is really, really doing a good job managing its traffic.

The entire story consisted of 31 paragraphs. There were four introductory paragraphs that seemed to say a new national study reported Houston's traffic was bad; this intro was immediately followed by 13 paragraphs saying it wasn't.

"But overall," the feel-good section began, "the researchers gave Houston high marks."

According to the article, officials at Metro hadn't had a chance to study the report, but that was no obstacle to letting them praise themselves. A Metro VP "said it appears that Metro's projects are paying off," the story reported.

Finally, in the deeply buried 28th graf, came a dissenting voice. Someone from a consumer advocacy group questioned the need for more highway construction.

"Houston, one of the cities that has most aggressively built roads, now has the worst congestion in Texas and the worst air quality in the nation," the Texas Citizens Action representative said.

Hey, how did that guy get in here? That's not the peppy Houston Proud spirit we've come to expect from Houston's Leading Information Source.

On the other hand, you had to be a spelunker to get down far enough to find the quote.

Facing the Music

Last week we chided Channel 13's Cynthia Hunt -- the Railcar Killer pen pal -- for returning phone calls to big-shot media types like the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, but not to local folk. We pretty much lumped her in with all those other journalists and media outfits who spend their lives asking pointed questions of others but hide behind "no comment" or become strangely unavailable when someone wants to ask them something.

Let the record reflect that after we went to press -- but before last week's issue hit the streets -- Hunt did indeed return our call. She answered all of our questions. Unfortunately she would only do so off the record, but that's her choice. At least she returned the call.

Obvious Wisdom of the Week

As the holidays approach, television and newspapers are full of all sorts of advice, from how to shop at crowded malls to how to not get ripped off when buying stuff on-line.

Often, though, the advice gets a little too basic. Take this nugget from Kathy Huber, the Chronicle's gardening expert, in a November 26 piece on displaying a freshly cut Christmas tree.

"Do not place a Christmas tree where it blocks a doorway or is too near a working fireplace, heating vent or television," she wrote. "Real trees don't start fires, but they can be ignited by an external source."

Hmmm. Real trees don't start fires, but they can be ignited by an external source. Never knew that.

Maybe Huber was making a more subtle point, like a public-service announcement along the lines of "Realmen know when to say when." Maybe Huber wasn't talking to the reader, but to the trees -- those bad-apple punk trees who might be tempted to play with matches.

Do real trees read?

Brought to You By...

The Chronicle did its best to pass the basketball arena referendum, to no avail. But if you thought that little setback was enough to stop it from getting in bed with this city's stadium-builders, you were wrong.

The advertising push to get people to spend thousands of dollars on the right to spend even more on season tickets has begun, and the Chron is in the forefront.

The banner story November 24: "41,000 Licenses for NFL Stadium Seats to Go On Sale." The story was one long ad for the so-called Personal Seat Licenses being offered by the new franchise.

"In other cities, PSLs are so coveted, they provide contention in divorcesŠ.As a result of the relative scarcity in Houston -- 60 percent [of stadium capacity] -- they should have greater value in future years as owners consider selling themŠ.Buyers can pay for PSLs in three equal, annual payments, interest-freeŠ.PSL applications will be available in Chronicle ads starting Thursday, at www.2002stadiumfund.com on the Internet and in brochures at participating banks."

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