Still Stumbling

Houston Chronicle faces the Hispanic community and anchor confustion

The Houston Chronicle has really, really been trying to deal with concerns from Hispanics that the paper ignores their community. Why, just in the few weeks since an April 12 protest by activists, the Chron managed more than two dozen mentions of Cinco de Mayo.

But now another controversy is brewing. To some degree the paper is getting blamed for just doing its job, but the entire episode has left more bruised feelings between the Chronicle and at least some local Hispanics.

The latest incident involves the paper's reporting of the soccer-game incident where a player from a Rio Grande Valley team got into an altercation with a player from a West University Place team. Oscar Peralta and West U's Keith Martin got into a scrap at the December game, which loosened four of Martin's teeth, and eventually Harris County prosecutors went to the Valley town of Mission, arrested Peralta in his high school classroom and put him on trial for misdemeanor assault.

Chronicle reporter Edward Hegstrom was first to report on the case. His April 26 story noted high up, though, that Peralta was an illegal immigrant. The case against Peralta ended in a mistrial, but he was deported by the feds May 5. If the Chronicle hadn't blithely outed him on its front page, critics say, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would never have taken notice of his status.

"Instead of specifically stating that Mr. Peralta was 'an illegal immigrant,' surely you possess sufficient keen writing talents to have simply rephrased it as 'a Mexican immigrant from the Valley,' " wrote Anna Nóñez, who heads the city of Houston's efforts to increase minority p articipation in the census. "Like it or not, your actions -- or lack thereof -- were a direct result of the deportation of this innocent young man and the destruction of his family. Lives have been RUINED."

(Nóñez wouldn't comment on her e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Press, but she confirmed its authenticity.)

The actual situation surrounding the story is a bit more muddled, however. Hegstrom says Peralta's lawyers contacted the Chron about doing a story, and they volunteered the information about his immigration status as a way of showing what dire straits the guy was in.

"They did not ask me to exclude that fact from the story," Hegstrom says. "[W]hen attorneys approach you peddling a story, you assume they are the ones thinking about how the resulting article will affect their client."

Hegstrom says it is "silly and naive" to think Peralta's status could have been excluded from the story, especially since the West U boy's father "repeatedly noted" Peralta was an illegal in an interview. "Could you imagine what would have happened if I had written a story excluding [that fact]? The screaming on talk radio would have lasted weeks. They would have talked about how biased the Chronicle is, and how we cover up important facts even when people tell us about them."

Hegstrom's right, of course: It'd be tough to exclude the immigration status once a reporter learned it, and especially once the other side of the conflict was making a big deal out of it. And there's further confusion about how the INS came to act on Peralta, and whether the print and media coverage played a part.

But Hegstrom didn't help matters when he fired off an e-mail reply to Nóñez that she has told people was "shrill, angry and defensive." It apparently included some harsh language.

Nóñez is a friend, and she had "suggested that maybe I had been unconcerned about the story," Hegstrom says. "This was so far from the truth it made me angry, and I fired off an e-mail. I said that if -- and I emphasize the if -- she really believed I did not care at all about the story, thenŠ well, I used an expletive. If you have never gotten mad and sworn at a friend, you are a better man than I."

Nóñez has said "friends" is going too far, and that their acquaintance was never the kind that included even playful expletives in casual conversation.

It all might seem to be a somewhat minor dispute, but it once again involves at least part of a community that has long claimed to be mistreated at the hands of the Chronicle. Activists are still smarting over what they perceived as patronizing, high-handed treatment when they met with executive editor Tony Pederson to discuss their beefs.

Hegstrom's no hack -- he speaks Spanish, worked in Guatemala and has done some good stories for the Chron. The whole flare-up just shows how tense things have become between the city's largest minority group and its only daily newspaper.

Oops, We Did It Again

In our haste last week to criticize some of the coverage of the small-plane crash at Hobby Airport, we confused two of Houston's perkiest anchors. It wasn't KHOU's Gina Gaston who said it was "miraculous" that people survived the crash (as it turned out, no one did), it was KHOU's Angie Martinez. We're pretty sure.

As one reader pointed out, "Gina saying that on KHOU would be pretty miraculous in itself, considering that she left KTRK (not KHOU) and moved to New Jersey, where she now hosts a program on MSNBC."

Geez, everyone's a critic.

Meanwhile, KPRC-Channel 2, which has bravely pushed the sweeps-month envelope with million-dollar giveaways, went even further into TV News Hell recently with a lame "You Be the Judge" gimmick.

Reporter Brendan Keefe outlined some suit against a hospital and then told viewers to click on the station's Web site to vote on whether the plaintiffs should win -- and if they should, how much they should get. What this had to do with news is beyond us.

And don't ask what the results of the poll were; somehow we didn't stay tuned to find out the opinions of the kind of viewers who would actually go to the Web site to put their two cents in. We're sure the results offered a trenchant, piercing perspective on the controversy.

Next up: a poll on which exercise machines anchor Dominique Sachse should be shown using whenever the next sweeps month rolls around.

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

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