Running on Empty

Local political campaigns struggle to get news coverage

Say you're running for the office of mayor of the fourth-largest city in the country. It's a hot race, with a possibly vulnerable incumbent being challenged by two photogenic city councilmen.

You set up a perfect photo-op press conference, maybe in front of some pothole that seems to be setting records both for size and how long it's been allowed to sit unrepaired.

You wait for the TV reporters to show up. And wait. And wait.

If you're lucky, the local stations will send a cameraperson who will ask the questions in lieu of a reporter. You end up holding the station's mike for them as they interview your guy, you weigh them down with printed background information, and you watch as they head back to their station. With footage that never sees airtime.

Such has been life on the campaign trail this year for Mayor Lee Brown and City Councilmembers Chris Bell and Orlando Sanchez. The aftermath of September 11 has only intensified the growing trend for Houston TV to do less and less local political coverage.

"It's been difficult to get coverage in the past, and it's been getting more and more so," says Nancy Sims, who runs Bell's campaign. "This year it's just been impossible."

"It's frustrating," says Chris Begala, spokesman for Sanchez.

The campaigns don't expect to preempt terror coverage, but hope for at least some scraps in the minutes left to local news. But unless a station is sponsoring a debate -- or a firefighter's dramatic death highlights public safety issues -- coverage has been minimal. Those local minutes are still devoted to the "if it bleeds, it leads" stuff.

"The only way to get media coverage for a press conference is to have it at a motorcycle accident," Sims says.

Making things worse is the recent takeover of the city's main AM news stations by industry giant Clear Channel Communications. NewsRadio KTRH-AM has been doing far fewer local political stories, once a staple of the station.

(Adding to the campaigns' frustrations is the fact that, as first reported in The Dallas Morning News, Clear Channel refuses to air political advertisements for local races, which must be sold at the lowest rate available.)

The stations, it's not surprising, say they're doing what they can. "We are trying our best to cover the races, and you will see more of that coverage in the days leading to the election," says Dave Strickland, Channel 13's news director. "Obviously, the war has made us rethink how we do all of our coverage."

KTRH-AM has seen ratings spike with war coverage that now includes a national call-in show hosted by ABC's Sam Donaldson. A recent top-of-the-hour newsbreak at 10 a.m. -- on October 19, the morning after the second major mayoral debate -- had three local stories: a Texas A&M professor speculating that U.S. ground troops would be looking for Al Qaeda leaders; a local congressman saying the war would include American casualties; and an item that the new electronic voting machines would be demonstrated starting tomorrow. Then it was off to Donaldson, talking about how September 11 would affect Halloween.

"I think we're covering the issues that are important to people," says Ken Charles, Clear Channel's director of AM programming in Houston. "It's not been normal because September 11 has preoccupied the news cycle and the psyches of people. But as we get closer to the election, we will do more…No offense to the mayor or the race, because that is incredibly important, but we are at war, we're bombing a country, and there is anthrax being spread around."

Getting anything into the Houston Chronicle has been more difficult too this year, the campaigns say.

Coverage of the race will no doubt increase in the few days remaining before the vote, although for the most part the campaign has been all but forgotten.

But for those people working on a mayoral campaign who are frustrated at the lack of airtime, it could be worse: They could be working for one of the council races. Those campaigns apparently don't exist, despite rumors to the contrary.

Erasing the Past

The Chronicle has been busy issuing its endorsements in the city elections. On October 19 it endorsed Anthony Osso, who's running against incumbent Bert Keller.

Keller, of course, has had a somewhat rocky tenure on the council, highlighted by his plowing into a car after a night of carousing at a topless club. He pleaded guilty to DWI charges for that episode. There's also been a Peyton Place quality to him -- his wife was dating fellow Councilmember Rob Todd for a while. (The Kellers are now, as the election approaches, once again exulting in marital bliss.)

His tawdry experiences contrast mightily with that paradigm of goodness known as Anthony Osso, according to the Chron's endorsement. Keller "has not acquitted himself well," the editorial read. "By contrast, Osso has shown himself over many years to be an upstanding citizen with an active interest in civic life and willingness to serve the community."

It went on from there. What wasn't mentioned was just some of what Osso has done "to be an upstanding citizen with an active interest in civic life."

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