News Hostage

End of the Road

For a long, long time, Jeff Millar has personified the Houston Chronicle's features section. His entertainment reviews go back to the Beatlemania days. He has long been the lead film critic. He writes a twice-weekly column. He's the co-creator of the comic strips Tank McNamara and Second Chances.

And soon, he'll be gone.

Millar resigned from the Chron January 31; his movie reviews will be published through March 3.

Why the sudden move? Depends on who you ask.

Millar says in an e-mail that he "took early [by eight years] retirement" for two reasons: the comic-strip business is taking up much of his time, and he's tired of the film-critic gig. "I've been reviewing movies for 34 years, thousands and thousands of them, and I don't want to do that anymore," he says.

Millar says he offered to quit as film critic but remain as columnist "for a proportional reduction in pay," but the Chron turned him down. So he quit.

On the other hand, Chron sources talk of how staffers and editors grew increasingly frustrated with Millar, his attitude, his work habits, even his product.

Unlike most newspaper film critics, Millar only reviewed movies -- he didn't do the grunt work of writing features on upcoming films or spinning long pieces out of rushed ten-minute assembly-line interviews with some bored star in a New York hotel suite. Recently he hasn't even bothered to write stories previewing the Academy Awards, or picking his top ten films of the year.

He works out of his house, showing up only rarely at the office. (It couldn't have helped matters recently when the semiautobiographical Second Chances spent a week showing the Millar character, a telecommuting film critic, anguishing over the guilt induced by mid-afternoon workday naps.)

There has also been some internal criticism about Millar's work; the raw copy he hands in to editors at times requires more work to get it print-worthy than those editors would like. In a notable blooper, he got the name of the main female character wrong throughout the lengthy review of what was considered at the time a major release, Kevin Costner's Message in a Bottle.

The feeling among some staffers was that Millar's work was becoming below par "not because he's not highly intelligent, but because he would just be dashing it off," one former colleague says.

Tensions also grew as new editors, brought in to attract younger readers through such efforts as the paper's weekly Preview section, no longer treated Millar as an untouchable veteran.

Millar, who says all his career talks with the paper were "quiet, calm [and] professional," says of editor/writer conflicts: "I wrote opinion pieces, often in an idiosyncratic style. If that did not produce occasional conflict between a writer and his editors, neither were doing an adequate job. From my end, the disputes ... were not a factor in my side of the decisions. For the answer to the next obvious question, you'll have to ask the Chronicle."

Susan Bischoff, who oversees the Chron's features department, did not return a call.

Elsewhere at theChron

You can criticize Jeff Millar all you want, but at least he typically got the name of the movie right when he was reviewing one. That's more than you can say for the Chronicle's apparently unedited columnist Maxine Mesinger, who wrote January 24 of how Patrick Swayze will be co-starring soon with "Charlize Theron, who was so good in Spider House Blues." She corrected the item later that week (the name of The Cider House Rules, that is, not her assessment of Theron's work).

Although that slipup was noted by many sharp-eyed readers, we prefer the item three days earlier, when the Chron was reporting on Governor George W. Bush's latest pandering to the antiabortion crowd. Bush, the story noted, said he would oppose U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the RU-486 abortion pill.

RU-486, the story said, "can end a pregnancy up to seven weeks after contraception."

Gee, you'd hope most abortion pills would work up to seven weeks after contraception. Hell, a Flintstones vitamin would probably do the trick, right up to the ninth month.

There were no copy-editing mistakes in the Chron's February 4 front-page puff piece describing how games at the Astros' new downtown stadium won't cause any traffic problems at all -- "Downtown Houston is incredibly well-endowed when it comes to [street] capacity," one very manly official was quoted as saying -- but there were still some whoppers.

The story said that officials, "using sophisticated computer modeling" (what, no "space-age"?), were brimming with confidence. "There are 59 lanes of traffic into downtown and 60 lanes out of downtown. By comparison, there are only 15 lanes in and out of the Astrodome," the story noted.

Yes, but -- unlike the Dome -- isn't there a whole additional downtown in the downtown area?

Also, an assistant police chief promised the stadium neighborhood would be safe. "There are more police officers in downtown Houston per square mile than any other place in the city," he said.

Having HPD headquarters there probably helps the average.

Radio Sweetheart

The unrest continues at KTRH-AM, the city's main radio source for news. We printed recently how staffers there were unhappy with new station head Mark McCoy, who was urging them to do more stories on traffic mishaps, house fires and cop chases instead of all that boring government stuff.

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