Internal Distress

To: Jeff Cohen, CC: The entire World Wide Web

Memo to the Houston Chronicle: Internal memos are not supposed to be posted on your Web site.

You'd think that'd be obvious, but in an embarrassing incident that has revived memories of the Chron's bad old days of slanted journalism, just such a memo was posted publicly for a few hours November 20.

Written by an unnamed member of the paper's editorial board (reportedly David Langworthy), the memo outlines suggested plans for the Chron leading up to the proposed referendum next November on expanding the light-rail system.

"I propose a series of editorials, editorial cartoons and Sounding Board columns…with this specific objective: Continuing our long-standing efforts to make rail a permanent part of the transit mix here," the memo says.

So far, so good. But then it goes on: "The timing, language and approach of the paper's editorials would, of course, be the decision of the Editorial Board. But I suggest that they could be built upon and informed by a news-feature package with an equally specific focus." That focus, the memo says, would be looking into how U.S. Representative Tom DeLay and former mayor Bob Lanier have "operated to back, fund and promote an anti-rail agenda for the past two decades."

The memo then outlines "the broad elements of the news/feature package," including stories on how Lanier manages to buy land near future highway projects and who's funding DeLay. "Sidebar topics," the memo says, include "Elyse Lanier: From jewelry salesperson to Houston political insider." (To its credit, the memo also mentions looking at the Chron's role in helping local big business stymie federal clean-air deadlines a decade ago.)

Local conservatives have been howling on talk radio and in print about the memo. (Read the memo in its entirety here.) "Expect the Chronicle's radical pro-rail editorial opinions to seep over into their news coverage," the right-wing Houston Review wrote.

Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen says the memo was a "story pitch" outlining one person's view of topics that should be explored as the rail debate heats up.

"It's no different than what the Houston Press would do as it was contemplating a series," he says. "I make no apologies for having a thorough discussion of the issue. We have nothing to apologize for…There was an inadvertent posting of it to the Web site, and I'm sorry about that, but I make no apologies for the contents of it."

Cohen gets some support from Bob Steele, a senior faculty member and "ethics group leader" at the Poynter Institute, a leading journalism think tank.

"I don't believe there should be a 40-foot-high wall between the editorial board and members of the news side," he says. "There should be great respect for their separate and unique roles, but that should not preclude an honest, legitimate, respectful sharing of thoughts, including bouncing around ideas for coverage."

Houston voters, the memo concluded, "need to know who has wielded the power to pour concrete, who still wields it and to what lengths the concrete pourers will go in order to stop rail."

And how far will rail supporters go to stop the "concrete pourers"?

Stay tuned to the Chron's Web site.

Defender Muy Caliente

KHOU's Eileen Faxas has been a stalwart Defender, Channel 11's consumer-rights champion; lately she's also been co-anchoring the morning news.

Not to mention laying down some hot Latin beats in the recording studio. Faxas, a 32-year-old Miami native, has been busy recording a four-song EP at Sugar Hill studios in Houston. She hopes to shop it around to major labels.

"This is not a project I take lightly," says Faxas, who writes her own material on piano and guitar. "You have to reach a point where it's now or never. Music has truly been my first love all my life. I never stopped loving music or writing songs. Finally I just couldn't figure what other excuse I had for it not to happen."

EP producer Dan Workman calls the effort "Bette Midler goes cubano," but that description makes Faxas cringe. She prefers "a Latin-disco-soul fusion that you can almost always dance to, with a big emphasis on meaningful lyrics." Two of the songs are in English, two in Spanish.

She hasn't cleared her project with news director Mike Devlin (who might have a coronary when he learns Faxas talked with us; he's made clear to others that he's no fan of our weekly efforts). "I believe in freedom of speech, including the freedom to be me," she says.

The EP has no title yet but is scheduled to be released early next year.

Faxas is following a proud KHOU tradition. About 20 years ago, then-anchor Amanda Arnold -- who used to end each newscast with a cheery wave good-bye to viewers -- recorded a country album.

Why stop now? We're guessing weightless anchor Greg Hurst has an inspiring Wyndham Hill collection in him.

 
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