Hitting the Charts

Better read the fine print when the Chronicle does a chart

The Houston Chronicle put together a lengthy package of stories July 8 on the city's troubled Public Works Department, a thorough if not exactly groundbreaking look at what's been happening there lately.

Massive stories on public works departments, no matter what city they involve, tend to have trouble catching the eye of the casual reader on a Sunday morning, so the Chron helpfully offered a chart to illustrate part of its thesis.

The bar graph showed roadwork performed by the department under the city's past two mayors annually since 1993, with the really high bars of what was labeled "The Lanier Years" towering over the more recent numbers of "The Brown Years."

And then came the fine print, a disclaimer the likes of which we have to admit we've never seen in a newspaper: "The recent discovery," it read, "that workers have been inflating repairs for the past 10 years makes these numbers suspect."

Gee -- "makes these numbers suspect"? The fact that workers have been grossly inflating how many repairs have been done in a given year might make suspect just how high the bar graph would go for that given year? Do tell.

Coming next from the Chronicle's graphics department: a chart showing a huge decrease in the number of crop circles created each year by aliens. "The recent discovery that hoaxers (who are actually earthlings) have been creating crop circles for the past 10 years makes these numbers suspect," the fine print will say.

The news that public works employees have been juicing their numbers was first broken by KTRK's Wayne Dolcefino, of course. It was, that is, unless you read the Chronicle.

Just as it did two months ago, when it piggy-backed on Dolcefino's television report without giving him any credit, the Chronicle in its latest story refused to acknowledge Wayne-O's existence. While all Houstonians have, at one time or another, wished fervently that they didn't have to acknowledge Dolcefino's existence, it's a bit disingenuous for the Chron to do so.

"City leaders discovered this past spring that Public Works employees were inflating reports of how much work they were doing," the paper reported, "exaggerating by thousands the number of potholes they had filled, dumping asphalt so they could bring trucks back empty as expected and reporting that work had been completed after it was awarded to contractors, even though sometimes it had not even been started."

Just how city leaders discovered the matter -- by being quizzed about it by Dolcefino -- wasn't mentioned.

"I'm proud the Chronicle is exposing the public works department," Dolcefino said in an e-mail, which, in true Dolcefino style, was written in all capital letters. "Even if they can't bring themselves to credit Channel 13 for discovering the cities [sic] exaggerations. I guess their fingers freeze up because my name is so long."

For rebuttal purposes, we'll repeat what Chron reporter Matt Schwartz said in his paper's defense back in May, because it summed up so eloquently the warm feelings between print and television reporters: "Are they going to credit us for everything they rip and read? Give me a fucking break," said he.

Ms. Bad Example

It was just weeks ago when squadrons of TV reporters were standing hip-deep in floodwaters in order to tell us that under no circumstances should anyone ever stand hip-deep in floodwaters.

Apparently "Do as I Say, Not as I Do" journalism is a burgeoning trend.

On July 9 KPRC joined the ranks of local stations who took the time to inform us that this year, summer in Houston will be hot. Not hotter than previous years, mind you, just hotter than, say, April was.

This momentous news can never be passed on, of course, without authoritative tips on How to Battle the Heat. On Channel 2, it was reporter Suzanne Boase doing the duties. Avoid the midday sun, she said, as shots showed the midday sun. Drink plenty of water, she said, as shots showed plenty of water being drunk. Wear light-colored clothing, she added.

And then the camera cut to her doing her live stand-up in the blasting sun. Where she was wearing a chic, and very black, dress.

Apparently there were no hip-deep pools of water left in the city for her to stand in.

Where Local News Comes Last

The "Rant & Rave" letters section of the Chronicle's weekend Preview magazine is usually devoted to fans asking if the critic who slagged their favorite band could possibly have attended the same concert that they themselves saw, because all the fans there were greatly entertained, and why would a paper send a critic who doesn't like a performer to begin with to cover a concert by that performer and -- just so you know -- That Performer Rules!

However, July 12 brought a more interesting complaint. A local musician wrote to ask why there wasn't more local music coverage in the Chron in lieu of yet another 'N Sync review.

Such grumbling is nothing new to papers, of course, but what was interesting was the reply by entertainment editor Melissa Ward Aguilar.

"We DO cover local music," she wrote. "But we can't cover every record-release party. If it's your band we didn't cover, it might feel like we ignore local music altogether."

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