Couples Therapy

The news that Enron "whistle-blower" Sherron Watkins had quit her job at the disgraced firm was front-page news for the Houston Chronicle November 16. Unfortunately enough for them, it had first been reported the day before, in The New York Times.

The Chron didn't see fit to mention the fact that it was following the Times, but it did manage to mention -- in both the fifth paragraph of the story and in the caption accompanying the large front-page picture -- that Watkins was collaborating on a book with Texas Monthly writer Mimi Swartz.

That's Mimi Swartz, who's married to Chronicle assistant managing editor John Wilburn.

We're not suggesting Wilburn was plugging his wife's book, but the relationship does raise a different question: Couldn't the Chron have gotten this news first?

Both Swartz and Philip Hilder, the attorney for Watkins who deals with the media for the former energy executive, say they had known for a while that Watkins had been planning to leave Enron sometime before the end of the year. Neither can pinpoint a date because the decision was not a sudden "I quit!" move; instead it was a procedural matter of naming a date to formalize what had been a long-planned exit.

Hilder says he got a call from Times reporter David Barboza the evening of Thursday, November 14, asking if Watkins was quitting. He confirmed it, and the story appeared the next day.

Which is where Wilburn got the news. "I read about it in The New York Times like everybody else," he says. "I said to Mimi, 'Hey, Sherron's leaving' and she said 'Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you.'…It had kind of flown off her radar."

Swartz takes full blame. "I was not thinking maybe as clearly as I should," she says. "The process of her departure has been pretty protracted. It just didn't occur to me [to tell Wilburn]. Maybe they're all mad at me."

Wilburn, an old friend of new Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen's, has been at the paper for less than two months, overseeing the Sunday edition. He says he has to walk something of a fine line because of his wife's involvement with Watkins.

"There may be some things that I'm privy to through her reporting" that he has to keep confidential, he says. "But if it's something that's about to become public knowledge, like this [resignation] was, had I known I would've passed it along…I need to be thoughtful about it -- I don't want to be seen as promoting my wife's project in the pages of the Houston Chronicle."

Doubleday is publishing Swartz's book, Power Failure, which is scheduled to be released in March. If it contains any meaty scoops, it remains to be seen whether they show up first in the Chron or in whatever media outlets Doubleday's publicists decide to favor.

"We'll deal with it on an issue-by-issue basis," Wilburn says.

Clash of the Titans

The world of sports provides few thrills more absorbing than watching two giants go at it toe-to-toe. And Houstonians these days are experiencing the glories of such a desperate duel, as two of the best in the business try to top each other.

In this case, the "business" is hackneyed references to Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' new center. The two combatants are Chronicle sports columnists Fran Blinebury and Dale Robertson.

There were many who were quick to award the trophy to Robertson -- after all, three "Ming vase" references in four months is pretty impressive. Robertson has also worked in "the mysteries of the East," "the mighty mandarin," "Chairman Yao" and asked the burning question "Is 7-5 Yao Ming really China's 21st-century great wall, a dynasty builder as his name suggests?"

Blinebury, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling. Sure, Ming was "a 7-5 bundle of mystery and intrigue"; yes, Fran predicted that after playing against Shaquille O'Neal Yao would have "more bruises than if he had fallen off the Great Wall"; not to mention that when he's hot Yao "makes more noise and sparks than a string of firecrackers." Still, the columnist was falling behind.

He was lagging even with this quintessentially Blinebury-esque dazzler about the team's complicated negotiations with Yao's homeland: "[B]y the time they're over, the Rockets front office will have done more twists, turns and tumbles than the Chinese acrobats who used to appear on the Ed Sullivan show."

All those who counted Blinebury out may have spoken too soon. For on November 18, Fran somehow was able to compare Yao to…wait for it…Erin Brockovich.

The Rockets were playing in L.A. "Alas," Blinebury wrote, "no Julia [Roberts] in the house. Just Yao showing us the rough-edged, aggressive, no-nonsense Erin Brockovich side of his personality."

Robertson, the ball's in your court. We're sure you'll treat it like a priceless Ming vase.


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