Jailhouse Shock

Did a Channel 13 reporter sneak her way into an exclusive?

People have been upset before with Channel 2's Cindy Garza -- it all comes with being a reporter. So it wasn't unusual when she got a phone call May 19 from a source who was peeved.

The source, a friend of Parking Lot Killer Clara Harris, wasn't happy. "We promised you the first interview when she was ready, but why did you go behind our backs and do it today?" the caller asked.

Now it was Garza's turn to be pissed. "I'm sorry -- what the hell is going on?" she said. "I didn't interview Clara today."

It was another television Cindy -- Channel 13's Cynthia Cisneros -- who had visited Harris in her Brazoria County cell that Monday. And there's some dispute as to how she did it.

Garza says she has been in contact just about every day with friends of Harris, and had gotten reassurance that when the time came to do jailhouse interviews, she'd be the first TV reporter. (Neither the friends nor Harris's attorney could be reached.)

Cisneros says she, too, has been asking constantly for an interview. "I was told she was not doing jailhouse interviews, but I'm not a reporter who's going to take no for an answer…That's not how we do things at 13," she says.

She tried to sign in as a visitor for Harris the week of May 12, but the celebrated Mercedes-Benz driver had already seen her allotted two weekly visitors by that point. So early on Monday, May 19, Cisneros went back.

As a visitor, she could not bring in a camera or recorder -- those are allowed only for interviews approved by an inmate's lawyer. "She couldn't have gotten in as a press reporter" without Harris's attorney's okay, Garza says.

Cisneros says she signed in as Cynthia Cisneros but was also required to hand over her driver's license, which lists her married name. That has led to allegations she used a fake name to confuse Harris into thinking she was Garza.

Cisneros insists Harris knew who she was. "She recognized me immediately as Cynthia Cisneros, and because I'm not one to misrepresent myself, I said my name and the station I was with," she says.

Garza hustled over to the jail after getting the phone call and arranging for Harris's lawyer to approve an on-camera interview (the Houston Chronicle's Ruth Rendon, who'd been promised the first print interview, also went to the jail that afternoon).

"Clara told me, 'I thought it was you who came,' " Garza says. "She kept saying, 'I thought the other girl was you.' "

Garza says she isn't sure if Cisneros misrepresented herself. "If it's true, I would be disappointed on a number of different levels, because I worked hard on this story and kept up with the contacts," she says.

Cisneros ended up with the first interview story -- she got on the air that afternoon with a heavily promoted piece that featured her talking over stock video of Harris. "I was able to sit down for an emotional, face-to-face interview with Clara Harris, just her and me," Cisneros's report said. She noted that she "walked in as a visitor" at the jail to talk to the inmate.

Garza was on the air not long afterward with what was labeled "an exclusive on-camera interview." (Also heavily promoted.)

"At the end of the day I didn't care what happened, because I got her on camera anyway," Garza says.

Bad Press

The Houston school district was the piñata of TV's recent sweeps month -- Channel 13 said HISD spent too much on food and entertainment, Channel 11 said it wasted money on extravagant overseas exchange programs, Channel 2 said the district squandered taxpayer dollars by holding on to valuable vacant land.

The district decided to take decisive action to address these problems: It fired the head of its media relations office.

Heather Browne, 31, had been the district's spokesperson for two years -- and says she hadn't heard any complaints -- until she was told to clean out her desk immediately May 21.

"There were some clear philosophical differences in the way I handled the media, specifically as it pertained to the latest round of stories," she says.

That's about all she'll say, but reports are that administrators were not upset so much at Browne's district-defending performances in those stories (which always seemed a little robotically defensive to us); instead they thought she somehow could have prevented them from getting on the air in the first place. (HISD officials wouldn't comment on Browne's firing beyond saying she "was relieved of her duties.")

Browne's dismissal came a few days after a visit to Houston by her predecessor, former HISD spokesman Terry Abbott, the ever-vigilant protector and promoter of the reputation of current U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Abbott went to Washington with the former HISD superintendent in January 2001, but didn't last very long as chief of staff at DOE. He got shifted to a lower-ranking position in the Social Security Administration after nine months.

Sources in HISD and Houston's public relations community say Abbott was flown in for a May 19 "media strategy" session. He told people at the meeting he was working as a "consultant for Dr. Paige."

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