Holier Than Thou

Channel 13 and the Chronicle squabble over a pothole story

Channel 13's intrepid Wayne Dolcefino is having a fine time these days exposing the city's hapless pothole-filling program, where public works department crews have been claiming to fill thousands more of the holes than they actually have.

But all is not sunshine at KTRK. Dolcefino and his boss are mightily ticked at the Houston Chronicle's coverage of the scandal.

KTRK news director Dave Strickland says Dolcefino has been working on the report for months, and hadn't planned to air any pieces until the week of April 23. But as he finished up his investigation -- getting city officials on camera to sputter that they weren't aware of what was going on but would absolutely look into it -- word leaked to the Chronicle, which put together a story for its April 19 edition. When news of the story began to spread, KTRK rushed an initial piece on the air at 10 p.m. April 18.

As part of the Chronicle's investigation, the paper's City Hall reporter, Matt Schwartz, fired off a letter to city officials. He sought, under the Texas Public Information Act, all documents that the city handed over to KTRK under the same act, along with "copies of any written responses or correspondence between the Department of Public Works and KTRK…."

Such a move can happen when someone breaks a governmental story, but it still ticks off the media outlet that first did the lengthy grunt work. Making matters worse, as far as Strickland was concerned, was the Chronicle's traditional cheesy reluctance to give credit to any other media outlet. (A Chron editorial on the scandal, in fact, cited Schwartz's reporting by name.)

Strickland e-mailed the Chron to complain, sending copies to various members of his staff. In the e-mail, a copy of which was anonymously sent to the Houston Press, he attached a story from the Chronicle Web site that said only that "a local television station" had discovered the pothole overcounting.

"I guess you want us to refer to your investigative pieces that we report on as [coming from] 'a Houston newspaper,' " he wrote. "I'm glad the editors at the Chronicle understand who really is Houston's Leading Information Source."

"It just kind of torques you off," Strickland said when asked about the e-mail.

Schwartz admits that the pothole story came from 13; public works officials, he says, called him to head off the oncoming bad publicity.

A vague reference to 13 was edited from his original story for space reasons, he says, but he's not that bothered by the omission. "Are they going to credit us for everything they rip and read? Give me a fucking break," he says, echoing a longstanding complaint of print reporters everywhere.

Sniping like this between media outlets isn't all that unusual. More interesting was what happened to the Chronicle story Strickland cited as it made its way from the Web site, where it's posted the night before, to the next morning's hard copy delivered to subscribers.

The Web site version, by City Hall reporter Rachel Graves, said, "Last week's pothole debacle came to the mayor and director of public work's [sic] attention when a local television station discovered that city crews were counting potholes based on size. In other words, if a pothole was five times as big as an average pothole, the crews would count it as five potholes."

The version that went out to readers was somewhat different. The relevant paragraph read this way: "In the course of responding to media inquiries last week, the city discovered that Public Works employees were taking credit for thousands of pothole repairs that were never made."

So not only can you not name a specific television station in a Chronicle story, you can't even imply one.

Everybody Hurts

It's been brutal for print media ever since the dot-com bubble burst. Newspapers all over the country are laying off people and cutting back on expenses.

In the single most important example, the New Times chain, publisher of this very paper, has instituted a wage freeze. Nothing that has happened so far in the nation's media bloodbath has been more significant. To us, anyway.

Up to now, the Houston Chronicle has been keeping quiet. But let the belt-tightening begin!

Among the things decided or discussed by the Chron: no layoffs so far, but some contract workers have been let go. Positions that are vacant now -- like state editor, suburban editor, assistant entertainment editor -- are likely going to stay that way. The weekly Technology section reportedly is not long for this world. Travel expenses are significantly slashed, even for travel writers. And stop taking all those goddamn sources to lunch, you freeloading reporters.

Best of all for the rest of us Houstonians, the paper's radio and television ad campaigns won't be bothering us for the foreseeable future. How will we live without being able to "Touch the News that Touches You" or whatever their latest slogan is?

We're going to have to find out. No one said this dot-com crash was going to be easy.

Hope Springs Eternal

Many newspapers across the country took note on April 19 of the death nine days earlier of reporter Eugene Goltz. The New York Times, for instance, ran an Associated Press story that noted a highlight of his career: "As a reporter for The Houston Post in 1965," it said, Goltz decided to investigate what happened to $6 million worth of municipal bonds in Pasadena. "His curiosity ended up exposing a web of kickbacks. The reporting resulted in the paper's only Pulitzer [Prize] thus far."

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