A few weeks ago an Esquire magazine food critic bestowed his "Hick Journalism of the Year" award on a Houston Chronicle writer. We believe he acted too soon.
Houston's Leading Information Source burst forth with a front-page story December 10 that had all the elements of yeee-ha reporting, starting with the lede: "Houston continues to emulate the big boys. First it was smog. Now it is gridlock."
Downtown Houston, you see, is undergoing so many street repairs that at rush hour traffic can get bad. Sometimes cars even block intersections because they can't make it through before the light changes.
This, the Chronicle patiently and exactingly explained, is a phenomenon known by the apparently foreign and bizarre name of "gridlock." In a front-page paragraph in the only paper in the nation's fourth-largest city, the concept was laid out for us rubes:
"Gridlock is a reference to the way city planners designed streets in a grid system. When traffic reaches critical mass during peak travel periods, motorists sometimes get caught in an intersection after the light changes. When that happens, the grid becomes locked. Motorists in the cross street, even though they have a green light, are unable to move forward."
Whoa, whoa, slow down there, Chron: a "green light"? What does that mean? And what's a "motorist"? Does that have something to do with them thar electric horses we done heard about on the wireless?
The story jumped inside to surprising length (we're guessing some Chron higher-up has been getting mightily annoyed at the time it's taking to get home to his first martini). We learned that the Metropolitan Transit Authority "does acknowledge that there are times when a driver might find himself trapped in an intersection and blocking traffic."
We also learned that "Metro and Houston officials are eyeing measures that fellow big city New York has taken to curb gridlock." So we are a big city! Take that, Galveston!
The story went on (and on) to note that Houston officials "say New York has a lot of good ideas" and that one, using cameras to monitor intersections and catch motorists who run red lights, is in "the 'conceptual stage' in Houston."
Now gridlock, we can understand. But what the hell is a "conceptual stage," as far as it involves the not-complicated idea of putting cameras in intersections?
We don't know, but we're pretty sure it involves hiring teams of consultants to study the problem.
Cutting the Cheese
Chronicle columnist Thom Marshall, who seems to get many of his column ideas from press releases, was at it again December 10.
He basically transformed his column into an ad for something called the Flatulence Filter, which used to be known as the Toot Trapper and is marketed by a Houstonian. It's a charcoal chair pad that absorbs fart smells.
As you can well imagine, that mischievous imp Marshall could barely keep himself from cracking wise about the subject, but he played it relatively straight. "Time to Mention the Unmentionable," was the headline.
We don't know why right now is the time to mention it, except that Marshall was probably hard up for a column idea. He wrote in passing that the filter's marketer has "gotten calls from radio, TV and print reporters from all across the United States and as far away as Australia."
In other words, this is one tired subject. Syndicated columnist Dave Barry wrote about it in 1995, and in just the past few years there have been stories in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, The Arizona Republic, The Dallas Morning News and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Well, so what, you say, as long as it was new to Houston. Trouble is, it wasn't.
The Chron has written about the product four times in the last five years, usually including the company's phone number. "A New Product Toots Its Horn," was the headline on columnist Jim Barlow's effort. "Toot Trapper Proves a Real Gas as an Office Gift," read the headline on Ken Hoffman's piece.
And then there was the other columnist who wrote about it, back in 1995. In a column deceptively headlined "Not All Ideas End Up In Print," a certain Thom Marshall waxed eloquently about the Toot Trapper.
He wrote how he wouldn't be writing about it, what with the subject matter and all. "It would require too much restraint," he said. Just to give a sample of the cutting-edge humor that might result if he delved into the subject at length, Marshall wrote -- tee-hee -- that the item could become a popular gift, "but as a topic of discussion here, I wouldn't put a farthing on it."
What a difference a few years and a pressing deadline make, we guess.
A Few Credits Short
The front-page story on the December 5 Chronicle was an important one: Two of the students killed in the Texas A&M bonfire collapse were legally drunk at the time of their deaths.
Reporter Deborah Tedford quoted an Associated Press story that said eight of the other victims had no alcohol in their system, another had a small amount, and results were unavailable on the 12th one.
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One thing the story somehow didn't mention: The news had been first reported in the previous day's Bryan-College Station Eagle and The Dallas Morning News. (The two papers are owned by the Belo Corporation.)
Eagle reporter Kelly Brown's scoop ran in both papers December 4, said her boss, assistant city editor Dawn Galloway. The Associated Press picked up the story and credited both papers; versions of the AP story that included the credit ran in such national papers as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Not in the Chronicle, though. There the story just appeared out of thin air, and most casual readers probably thought their paper was reliably on the case.
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