Favored One

Gee, was it very difficult to tell who the Chronicle wanted to win the April 11 GOP runoff for the District 7 congressional seat?

It endorsed businessman Peter Wareing in the hard-core Republican district despite his seeming handicap of having regularly donated campaign money to such liberal Democrats as Sheila Jackson Lee.

Wareing was facing state Representative John Culberson, the sort of committed conservative the Chron usually goes for. But Wareing had an advantage: He's married to the daughter of local oilman Jack Blanton, the longtime chairman of the Houston Endowment.

If you don't know -- and you certainly wouldn't have known from reading the Chronicle -- the Endowment for years and years owned the Chron, until tax-law changes forced it to sell the paper to Hearst in 1987. The Endowment is still very much thought of as family in the upper reaches of the Chron.

We're not saying that the relationship colored coverage -- well, hell, maybe we are -- but two stories really caught our eye in the days leading up to the runoff vote.

Wareing had been taking much heat for his Democratic past -- as recently as two years ago, he had given $5,000 to Democrat Paul Hobby for his unsuccessful race for state comptroller -- but he trumped all the charges with a jolting, shocking discovery about Culberson.

Or at least you might have thought it was a jolting, shocking discovery, given the Chron's treatment of it April 7. There, on the front of the Metro section, came the breathless report that Wareing was "revealing" the news that Culberson had voted in a Democratic primary!

Once. Twenty-four years ago.

When Culberson was 19 years old.

Two days later the Chron's helping hand for Wareing was splattered across the front page, in the lead story of the Sunday paper.

The race between Wareing and Culberson, the large headline said, was a "dead heat."

Well, only by stretching the definition of "dead heat." Among GOP voters who said they were certain to vote, Culberson led by 46 to 36.6 percent, which was indeed within the poll's margin of error of 5 percent for each candidate. A poll of "likely" voters had it 36 to 32 percent Culberson, and the Chron apparently wanted to make sure to get as many of Wareing's people to the polls as they could.

The story's first quote: "If it's a heavy, heavy turnout then Wareing is in pretty good shape," pollster Bob Stein said. "If it rains on Tuesday and something keeps them home, then Culberson's really got the advantage."

It didn't really rain on Tuesday, but Culberson managed to eke out a win. He got 60 percent of the vote.

That's quite a dead heat.

Prizes! Prizes!

Yet another sweeps month is looming large over us, and that means that the local TV stations are hard at work on groundbreaking investigations of governmental malfeasance -- unless you're Channel 2, which means you are hard at work preparing yet another lame contest to attract viewers.

Ads are already showing for the station's "Million-Dollar Giveaway," urging viewers to register now for their crack at a million.

A million dollars? From a local TV station? That's a claim Akin's Army should investigate.

KPRC news director Nancy Shafran couldn't change the subject fast enough when we called to ask about the sweepstakes. "You'll have to call [station manager] Steve Wasserman. I don't have anything to do with the contest," she said, although we could have sworn it was her anchors brightly urging viewers to Enter Now!

Wasserman, it's not surprising, didn't return a phone call.

Channel 2 has long led the local descent into infotainment hell that is exemplified by sweeps-month contests, although in the past prizes were limited to four figures. Wasserman has also brought to us such brainstorms as the sweeps-month series of light-and-bright features on specific Houston-area zip codes, zip codes that critics say were chosen on the basis of how many Nielsen-ratings meter boxes each contained.

Channel 13 joined the contest parade last year, saying it was simply trying to "level the playing field" and offset the ratings spike KPRC was enjoying.

No word on whether 13 is in the contest business again, but if it is, Channel 2 has significantly upped the stakes.

Budget Envy

Times are tough in the Chronicle newsroom these days, as staffers look on helplessly while its owner, the Hearst Corporation, spends money everywhere but here.

Most notably, there's Hearst's effort to buy the San Francisco Chronicle. Not only has it offered to pay $660 million for the paper (court testimony shows the chain at one time offered $800 million to buy the city's dominant daily), but -- in order to head off antitrust conflicts -- Hearst has offered to subsidize its competition to the tune of $66 million over three years.

That's gotta hurt, but what's sure to induce even more jealousy is what's going on in San Antonio. Hearst's paper there, the Express-News, has never blown anyone's socks off when it comes to journalism, but things are changing thanks to a decision by the chain to pump significant resources into the city.

Express-News editor Bob Rivard had an offer to move to The Miami Herald; he used that offer to get Hearst to improve the San Antonio paper in order to keep him. Published reports say Hearst put in $1.5 million for a 10 percent raise across the board in the newsroom, $3 million for new editors and reporters, and millions more for other improvements.

Meanwhile, all the locals have here is another executive shuffle, one that saw assistant managing editor Susan Bischoff, longtime head of the features department, get promoted to deputy managing editor. Her responsibilities now include the newsroom.

Seeing as Bischoff is heavily involved in the local charity and social scene -- she regularly shows up in the Chron's society columns -- there's a feeling in some parts of the newsroom that the paper's herd of sacred cows has just added quite a few head.

E-mail the News Hostage at rich.connelly@houstonpress.com.

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