Rubber Fetish

Glory days for KHOU and Anna Werner

If you've ever had any interest in how car tires are put together, tune in to Channel 11.

Hardly a news broadcast goes by without KHOU trotting out that film clip of a Bridgestone/Firestone assembly line manufacturing tires. Straight out of a high school "Industry Works for You!" film, the clip has been aired more times than that shot of Monica hugging Bill Clinton on the rope line.

It doesn't take much for KHOU to air an update on the Firestone Recall Crisis and to include in that update yet another self-serving plug for how their Anna Werner broke the story, right here on 11: "Motorists traveling on the Katy Freeway this morning might have noticed a car pulled to the side with a flat tire, but Channel 11 news has learned that the tire in question was in fact not manufactured by Firestone," an anchor might very well intone.

Then, as we see that godforsaken chunk of assembly-line rubber get inflated and worked on for the thousandth time, we'll be told yet again that Channel 11 and the intrepid Werner first brought this news to light, forever engendering the thanks of a grateful nation, and stay tuned right here to KHOU unless you want to end up in a roadside ditch somewhere with a blown tire.

Actually, these are very heady days for Werner and KHOU. Their reports have been cited in high-profile congressional hearings, with officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration saying the station's February reports on problems with Firestone tires played a key part in triggering the largest tire recall in the nation's history.

Local TV reporters dream of picking up The New York Times and reading a story that opens like the one the paper printed September 11: "Local television news programs rarely break news of national consequence. In fact, they are often accused of being superficial and sensationalistic and of relying on "scare tactic' consumer reports.But it was just such a consumer report, shown on a local news program, that in large part resulted in Bridgestone/Firestone's recall of 6.5 million tires last month and the corresponding public relations crisis now engulfing it and Ford Motor. KHOU-TV Channel 11, the Houston CBS affiliate owned by A.H. Belo, first reported in February" The story then detailed Werner's work.

The Dallas Morning News, also owned by Belo, did a similar story two days before the Times, saying the recall "grew from the efforts of a three-person news team at a Houston TV station."

And the CBS network, of course, has been busily touting the work of its local affiliate.

All the attention has gone to Werner's head, apparently -- neither she nor her producer, David Raziq, wanted to talk to the Houston Press about their efforts. (And after we named her Best Investigative Reporter in our 1999 Best of Houston issue! The ingratitude!)

There is still some grumbling here in Houston about how much credit KHOU deserves. KPRC ran some Firestone reports in 1996, saying a blowout caused the death of Channel 13's Steven Gauvain, but they didn't catch fire like Channel 11's did.

The former KPRC reporter who led their investigation, Brette Lea, is now an anchor at an ABC affiliate in Nashville. She has appeared on NBC nightly network news to talk about breaking the story.

There's even a Los Angeles station claiming a piece of the action. While covering the Democratic convention in L.A., KHOU staffers were surprised to see ads where local affiliate KCBS was taking credit for triggering the recall. KCBS officials told them they were only claiming to have been the first with the story in Los Angeles, according to Broadcasting and Cable magazine.

Family Feud

The relatively small world of Texas liberals -- "relatively small" meaning about like Luxembourg is relatively small compared to Russia -- always needs a good family fight, and apparently it's got one.

Letters have been posted to the widely read journalism-industry Web site www.medianews.org about the goings-on at the Texas Observer, the well-respected liberal Austin biweekly.

The Observer has always operated on the edge of financial ruin, and is now run by a nonprofit foundation whose board members include Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower.

Lou Dubose, for years a key player at the Observer, left this summer to cover politics for the weekly Austin Chronicle.

As a replacement the board hired Angela Ards, who has written for The Nation. According to Austin gossip, they've also decided to get rid of associate editor Mimi Bardagjy. This was news to Observer editor Michael King, who's married to Bardagjy.

King's allies have written www.medianews.org to urge "friends of the Texas Observer" to write the board protesting the move or to add their names to a letter written by Jeff Mandell, the legislative director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

King has quietly encouraged the campaign, according to some people familiar with the situation. Mandell's long letter speaks of Bardagjy's cheerfulness, skill and work habits, but it doesn't mention her personal connection to King.

There haven't been any discernible results yet from the letter-writing campaign. But given the participants' love of a good fight, there's no doubt much more to come.

Family Feud, Part Two

You just don't see front-page headlines like this very often: "Donkey Attempts to Mate Cow, Dies of Gunshot."

The crime of passion was reported in the September 14 edition of the Fort Bend Sun, which bills itself as "Fort Bend County's Most Informative Newspaper." That's an assessment we won't disagree with after reading the story by reporter Seshadri Kumar.

Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey will not charge anyone in connection with the crime, Kumar reported, because the person who fired the shot "felt the cow's life was in danger." (Thus also dismissing the theory that the shooter was a bull who had found his mate in flagrante delicto with the donkey.)

The cow's owner saw her animal on the ground, being kicked and bitten by two miniature donkeys (whose names, it turns out, are Jeb and Indy).

She fired several shots in the air with no results, Kumar reported. "She then," Kumar wrote, "fired in the donkey's direction and the cow was relieved."

We bet she was. As are we all. Except maybe Jeb, who paid the ultimate price for his lustful ways.

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