Calling All Scabs

The friendly folks at the Hearst Corporation, who publish the Houston Chronicle and 11 other daily newspapers, have a labor problem on their hands. Reporters, photographers and other employees are striking against the chain's Seattle paper.

Hearst owns the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which publishes under a joint operating agreement with the Seattle Times, a paper co-owned by a local family and the Knight Ridder chain. (Under JOAs, competing newspapers combine some business operations, but the newsrooms still compete against each other.)

Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild members voted to walk off their jobs Tuesday, November 21, after negotiations -- mostly over wage issues -- failed.

But the dailies are still publishing. Management-level editors are filling in, and so far the truncated editions have featured plenty of wire-service copy. As often happens when a newspaper chain is struck, however, the bosses have sent out the call to their other publications looking for "volunteers" to cross the picket line.

Somehow the memo circulated to Chronicle staffers doesn't mention the word "scab," but then again, Our Town is so union-phobic that perhaps it's a foreign term here. As this is being written, guild spokeswoman Sharon Chan says she's not aware of any Houston reporter showing up yet in Seattle, but if the strike drags on as expected, the pressure on writers and copy editors no doubt will build.

Those in Chronicle management are apparently pitching in, though. Among the executives rumored to be heading to Seattle are deputy managing editor Susan Bischoff and assistant managing editor Dan Cunningham.

Cunningham heads the Chronicle's sports department and has been in some hot water lately. A few months ago the paper paid a six-figure sum to settle an overtime lawsuit filed by former Astros beat writer Alan Truex. It's not known if Cunningham is being sent to Seattle as punishment or as a way to get back in Hearst's good graces.

Hearst papers in Beaumont and San Antonio have also been "asked" to send employees to the Pacific Northwest. It all makes for some painful decisions by reporters and other staffers who might have to choose between offending their employer or making their name mud among their colleagues.

The Seattle strike isn't the only labor situation the Chronicle has had to deal with lately. Channel 13 consumer reporter Nydia Han did a good job recently showing how the kids who sell the Sunday Chron at grocery stores and elsewhere work under conditions that violate child labor laws.

The report showed kids working 13-hour days, being driven around unsafely in trucks and forced to fend for themselves when it comes to lunch or dinner. Some of the charges were similar to those trumpeted by the Chronicle earlier this year against the company that operates food concessions at Enron Field.

The paper waxed indignant over the Enron Field situation, noting that the concessionaire, Aramark, feebly hid behind the claim that the kids were hired by a subcontractor.

So it was interesting, to say the least, when the Chronicle responded to 13's report by hiding behind the claim that the kids were hired by a subcontractor.

Chron executives wouldn't even appear on camera, instead issuing a written statement to Han.

We're sure the two situations are very, very different.

This Means War

Bicyclists were grumbling November 15 about Channel 13's coverage the previous night of a dispute over bike lanes in the city. The station must have something against bikes, they said.

But even the hard-core gripers never expected 13 to start using news vehicles to mow down bikers.

That day, as bicyclists still complained about the station, a KTRK news employee in a company SUV ran over a biker at the corner of Kirby and Holcombe.

Mark Jones, a photographer, editor and associate producer in the newsroom, said he was making a right turn on red and was looking at traffic coming from the left. He never saw Daniel Martinez Ramos coming across from his right side. Ramos was soon flying, and his bike was crushed. He suffered bruises but no major injuries.

Ramos works for Cyclone Cycles, owned by Matt Wurth, one of the people who was complaining about 13's coverage. So conspiracy theories -- or at least dark jokes -- quickly began flying.

But Jones says he wasn't aiming for anyone. "It was strictly an accident. I was pretty frightened at the time, but luckily he wasn't hurt too bad."

A Second Non-First

The Chronicle continues to get itself in trouble by blindly accepting grandiose claims of groundbreaking medical firsts allegedly accomplished by local doctors.

In April it had the front-page headline "Tiny Pump Makes Medical History," about doctors who implanted a heart pump in a patient. It was "the first device of its kind to be used on a human in the United States," the story said.

Well, it wasn't. As The Wall Street Journal later reported, a medical journal article had just described how the pump had been used on a Houston patient four months previously.

On the front of the Chron's November 17 Metro section there was another supposed medical breakthrough: "Houston doctors today plan to transplant into an infant nerves surgically removed from his mother, the first-ever living-donor nerve transplant," science writer Todd Ackerman wrote.

The head of the Memorial Hermann Children's Hospital transplant team was quoted as saying, "This living-donor transplant is an historic first."

Well, it wasn't. (Again.) The folks at Texas Children's Hospital, no slouches when it comes to getting publicity for themselves, soon were crying foul.

The next day, under the headline "Infant Doing "Very Well' After Transplant," medical writer Leigh Hopper said that although "doctors on Thursday claimed the surgery was the first of its kind," Texas Children's said that it had done the same thing 18 months ago.

And to rub it in, Texas Children's told the Chronicle it doesn't do the procedure anymore because it finds the required anti-rejection drugs "too risky."

Somewhat snippily, the Chron noted that an account of the Texas Children's operation "had not yet been published in scientific journals, one of the primary modes of communicating advances in medicine."

Actually, one of the primary modes these days seems to be hyperaggressive hospital public-relations departments. And the papers who believe them.


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