Banjo Blues

A Chronicle writer gets canned for running a Web site

Since 1995, when his 15 years at The Houston Post ended with that paper's demise, Steve Olafson has been the Houston Chronicle's man in Brazoria County.

For a little more than a year, he has also been Banjo Jones, the nom de plume of the guy who published the Brazosport News Web site that had fun musing on family life, baseball and other things.

Now Olafson no longer works at the Chron.

Why? Well, those "other things" that Banjo Jones wrote about included the local politicians that Olafson covered as a Chron reporter.

Buster Brown was, in the May 30, 2001, edition of Jones's Web site, "the state senator with the Hair Club For Men wig." When a local city council had problems complying with the Open Meetings Act, the headline was "Angleton Council: Shining Beacon of Open Govt. or Taliban-like Nest of Lawbreakers?" Last April, Jones endorsed a candidate in a local judicial race, and when his man defeated former D.A. Jerome Aldrich the headline was a Howard Cosell-inspired "Down Goes Aldrich! Down Goes Aldrich!!"

The Web site also mocked the local paper, the Brazosport Facts, and even got digs in at the Chronicle. It chided the Chron for running the Playboy-Enron story on the front page and noted that its Washington columnist, Cragg Hines, had made news by purchasing a fur lap robe at an auction ("It's good to know the Chronicle's man in Washington is sniffing out the important stories we buy his paper for," Jones/Olafson wrote.)

"I started doing it just as a creative outlet," says Olafson, who adds that no more than 20 percent of the site dealt with political matters.

He never informed his editors, who remained unaware until they were contacted the week of July 22 by a reporter from the Facts. (Olafson believes a Facts editor, upset at being criticized on the site, fingered him by comparing a Banjo Jones column on his father's death with a paid obit on Olafson's father. The Facts says a local "newsmaker," whom it won't identify, called there with the news.)

Olafson got a call from Chron editor Jeff Cohen, who he says told him, "I'm running a mainstream American newspaper. There's no place here for gonzo journalism…Take the fucking site down!"

At first Olafson was "indefinitely suspended," he says, and he figured he might be reassigned; on the Monday after the Facts' July 26 article appeared, he was called downtown and fired.

"I just think they overreacted," says Olafson, 48, who has no immediate employment plans. "I didn't seriously compromise my ability to be a Chronicle reporter in Houston or in Brazoria County." He says the "gonzo journalism" claim was "absurd."

Kelly Hawes, the managing editor of the Factswhose columns Olafson had ridiculed, said the paper outed the Web columnist because Olafson had gathered information as a journalist and then used it "to take anonymous potshots."

In a column headlined "Banjo Has Strummed His Last Tune," Hawes wrote that he would not have printed a story if Jones had turned out to be "some average Joe."

"If he had been a reporter taking shots at his competitor, I might have called his boss, but I still don't think I'd have published a story," he wrote. "We ran this story for one reason. Steve Olafson had a public trust as a journalist, and he violated that trust."

Olafson said he thinks Hawes's ire was raised because he "took offense at some criticism I wrote about his dreary columns about his seven-year-old son."

One memento Olafson may or may not cherish is a letter from Cohen dated July 22, coincidentally the day Olafson found out he would be outed in the Facts. It was a reply to a note welcoming Cohen to Houston.

"Editing the Chronicle promises to be challenging," Cohen wrote Olafson, "so don't be surprised if I call on you for advice -- or just to cry on your shoulder -- in the future."

Food Fight

Another Chronicle byline that has disappeared is that of food editor John DeMers.

The New Orleans native was hired 18 months ago to replace the legendary Ann Criswell, who had been the paper's food editor for 34 years.

Her section had gotten as tired as her recipes for Jell-O salads, so local foodies were pleased with the new energy DeMers brought with him.

Not so pleased were some Chronicle brass. Rumors began circulating that DeMers was in hot water for putting pressure on restaurant owners to help him promote his cookbooks and radio show; he was also accused of lifting verbatim from press releases (and printing recipes) without sufficient attribution.

Sources say he recently was given two weeks' punishment in July (a "suspension" or a "probation," depending on who you talk to); his column was also missing for a time because his father died.

He was back in the paper July 17, but apparently further angered his bosses. In a brief item on a cookbook by TV host Jim Coleman, he had this quote from the author: "Whatever our show's theme, we invariably ended up focusing on the men and women working behind the scenes to bring the food to our tables -- the fishermen, farmers, growers, suppliers and chefs. I could spend all day talking to them and learning, and in many cases I did."

Coleman's publicist says the chef never talked to DeMers.

A spokeswoman for publisher Clarkson Potter couldn't track down any press release with that quote included. But the quote shows up verbatim on a food Web site called www.globalgourmet.com. Site editor Kate Heyhoe says the page has been up since December, and consists of a Clarkson Potter press release. (The page notes that information was "provided by the publisher.")

DeMers didn't return our calls, but he did e-mail a statement to Cleverley Stone, the editor of a local food-industry Web site, www.cleverleysnewsletter.com. "The Houston Chronicle and I have amicably decided to go in separate directions, leaving each free to pursue what each is most passionate about," DeMers wrote.

One thing DeMers is apparently passionate about is cookbooks: Chronicle folks say that when he cleaned out his office, he really cleaned out his office. Along with review copies he received during his tenure, classic books left by Criswell were gone, too.

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