By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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Unlike a lot of media, the Houston Press was never an enthusiastic cheerleader for the so-called Houston Miracle, the unending public relations barrage that landed former HISD superintendent Rod Paige his job as U.S. secretary of education.
And with the return of PR whiz Terry Abbott, the man behind the curtain of the "miracle" (see "Paige Boy Returns," July 24), it's clear what happens to media organizations who aren't part of the district's spin machine.
On August 25, Abbott announced an official policy that he would do his best to ensure that no HISD employee ever speaks with the Houston Press. Questions about any story, in any school, must be submitted in writing to him, he said, and he would respond in writing after checking with the principal, administrator or other employee the Press wanted to talk to.
"We just can't get any kind of fair shake out of the Houston Press," he said. (At first, Abbott's assistant said that the policy was in place because Abbott said the Press "got stories wrong," but in direct conversation Abbott made no claims about errors and instead talked of getting "a fair shake." He cited no specific stories.)
"It is going to be my recommendation to everyone else that works for the school district that they decline to be interviewed by the Houston Press," he said.
Individual principals of schools, according to HISD policy, are allowed "to be a spokesperson for that school," Abbott said, so they could ignore his advice. But in the paranoid bureaucracy of HISD, where teachers and administrators quickly get the message not to make waves, Abbott was likely right when he said he "suspect[s]" employees will decline interviews.
A slip of the lip indicates as much: "My request is going to be -- my recommendation is going to be that they refer the questions back to me," he said in an interview.
In response to a follow-up (written) question, Abbott wouldn't answer whether he thought HISD employees would be intimidated from talking to the Press by his request (oops -- his recommendation) that they do not.
"That question calls for me to reach a conclusion on a hypothetical situation," he wrote. "Of course, I won't do that."
In another follow-up (written) question, Abbott was asked why the Press -- or HISD, for that matter -- couldn't simply tape any interviews it does with HISD personnel, another way to ensure accuracy.
Abbott's (written) response sidestepped the question, saying: "Thanks. We'll stick with the written answers to your questions."
Press editor Margaret Downing said no other area school district had taken such steps. "From time to time, the Press does stories involving school districts in the Houston area. Sometimes we're complimentary, sometimes not. Never has this resulted in a shutdown of access," she said. "In fact, in most of the other districts, personnel in the public relations office are rarely quoted, preferring instead to direct reporters to the actual people doing the work.
"Taxpayers have a right to know what their teachers, administrators and elected officials are doing and thinking in any school system. They've lost that in HISD. Anything said there will be filtered, handled and reshaped by Terry Abbott. Maybe he'll make that quote he passes on just a bit better. Maybe he'll leave out that information that might be just a bit damaging to HISD. We won't ever know what exactly came from the source and what was Terry Abbottized," she said.
Abbott's policy also would effectively bar the Press from visiting any HISD campus.
"Exchanging e-mails is a very ineffective way of interviewing anyone, being both clumsy and time-consuming," Downing said. "In person, if someone doesn't answer a question or brings up something unexpected, you can immediately follow that up with another question. That's not possible with a follow-up e-mail question that isn't answered for hours or days."
Abbott did not get approval from the school board for his policy: "Generally, board members do not approve office operating procedures," he wrote.
Board members do -- at least in Houston -- tend to slavishly support the administration. Calls to board president Kevin Hoffman and first vice president Karla Cisneros were not returned. Neither were e-mail requests for interviews sent to board members through Abbott's press office.
"What is scary in a sort of sickly humorous way is that Terry Abbott has appointed himself grand pooh-bah for the Houston Independent School District. And he may get away with it because Superintendent Kaye Stripling and HISD trustees are apparently so terrified of bad publicity that they'd rather give him free rein to intimidate employees and speak for the entire district," Downing said. "The idea that HISD chooses to give out its information only to the media outlets who do what it wants is outrageous and unjustifiable."
Abbott writes that his policy is nothing new. "I began doing this toward the end of my first tenure here after many hours spent trying to get the Houston Press to report fairly about the district," he wrote.
"I'm sorry, but that's not my recollection," Downing said. "The occasional exchange of e-mail for primarily statistical information is fine. But e-mail cannot replace the benefits of a face-to-face interview. That's how we do our jobs."