We experienced a fleeting moment of optimism November 13.
Driving home, we heard a passing mention on the radio that Russian president Vladimir Putin was arriving the next day to deliver a speech at Rice.
Hey, we said -- the Russian president is coming to town. And there's been no goofy "Tips on Being a Texan" story in the Houston Chronicle! Maybe things are looking up!
And then, thudding down on our harebrained call-us-crazy sunshine came the November 14 edition of the Chron. There it was, taking up all the space above the fold in the Houston section: "Howdy, Vlad: If You Get Bored with Crawford, Jet Back to H-town for a Rootin', Tootin' Good Time."
Head shots of Putin were pasted over shots of a cowboy riding a bucking bronc, an astronaut and someone driving a Jaguar convertible.
"If you're fixin' to ride into town again, we can show you a mighty good time and give you a taste of what Texas is really all about," said the story, which was the product of six staffers.
And just what would be involved in showing what Houston is all about? Christ, if you don't know the drill by now, you haven't been reading your Chronicle.
First up, of course, is playing the cowboy card. Houston may look awfully urban, the story said, "but truth be told, it's still the land of the cowboy." A helpful western-clothes store owner is rounded up -- "Tell him to come down here," one said this time -- and a specific, high-end hat is touted. (Percentage of Houston-section readers who regularly wear cowboy hats: four.) Also urged on Putin are boots and a (tee-hee) really, really big belt buckle (can you just imagine?).
Then, show Houston is so cosmopolitan that it has some of the native cuisine of whoever's visiting, whether it's the 1990 Economic Summit back in the first Bush administration or the delegates to the GOP convention in 1992. The Chron story this time urged Putin to visit the Czar Bar downtown, "where they have more than 70 types of vodka."
Next stop on the Stations of the Cliché Cross: the traffic. Then weather (although unlike in 1990 and '92, we didn't get to hear yet again about how workers at the British consulate's office formerly received a tropical-hardship allowance for being posted in Houston).
Don't they have the template for all this stored somewhere on a Chronicle computer? Do they really need six people?
All we know is that if Bush ever brings Tony Blair to town, the guys at the Richmond Arms will be hanging by the phone ready with their best bangers-and-mash quotes.
On Your (Boing!) Side
We tend to hit the channel changer as soon as one of those consumer reports comes on the local stations -- we just can't take the guilt inherent in knowing that as we blithely live our lives, tireless Defenders or Akin's Army members are out there 24/7 watching our back -- so we might have missed something.
But when exactly did these pieces become Tex Avery cartoons?
We saw one a while back with KHOU's Defender Eileen Faxas adding comical barnyard sounds to some report related to geez, fake cows or something, we forget. A momentary lapse of reason, we assumed.
But on November 12 the wackiness was back.
Faxas blew the lid off a company that claimed you could watch its videocassette and learn how to play piano in an hour. (Maybe she should have investigated how anyone who believed such a claim managed to operate in modern society as if they had all their mental faculties.)
The report featured some woman whose daughter was taking piano lessons. Mom wanted to learn too. ("Is it wrong for a mother to dream?" she asked, one assumes -- or hopes desperately -- with tongue in cheek.)
The tape promised she could, Faxas said. "But wait!" our Defender exclaimed, accompanied by a dramatic piano fanfare. Could Mom really learn?
We saw the woman watching the tape. Then we saw her twice going over to the piano to try out what she'd learned.
Fine -- except she was shown walking in cwazy fast-motion, accompanied by wacky footstep sound effects.
We can only assume KHOU couldn't locate a recording of that Benny Hill chase-scene music to go along with the piece.
War Is Raw
Speaking of goofy sound effects, we can't say there's been a helluva lot to recommend about KTRH-AM's war coverage (A Sam Donaldson talk show? Local experts repeating the conventional wisdom?), but the promos for it sure are entertaining.
Sound bites from prominent players are run though the echo chamber to make the recent events sound like some advertisement for the World Wrestling Federation. President Bush declaring "This is war" (war, war, war go the echoes) leads to a clip of Senator John McCain saying "Osama bin Laden will find out God is not on his side" (and neither is KTRH!) to Bush again, "We are fighting EVIL" (evil, evil, evil). Listeners are urged to stay tuned to KTRH for the latest updates, along with traffic and weather every 30 seconds, it seems.
We'll just wait for the pay-per-view, if that's all right.
It Could Be Worse
The newspaper union is in the middle of protracted negotiations with the Chicago Sun-Times as it looks to work out a new contract. Things haven't been going well, so labor has unleashed some propaganda.
The union is complaining that the Sun-Times is woefully understaffed, according to Chicago magazine, with only 78 reporters and columnists despite a circulation of 484,000.
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It can be tricky matching apples to oranges in these type of staffing comparisons, but the union noted the size of other papers' staffs: 180 at The Dallas Morning News (circulation 516,000); 132 at The Arizona Republic (482,000); 160 at The Boston Globe (621,000); and 210 at Newsday (576,000).
Oh, and then there was the Houston Chronicle. With a circulation of 545,000, according the union study, it had a staff of 60. (Meaning one-tenth of the crew at 801 Texas labored on the "Howdy, Vlad" epic.)
That Chronicle figure sounds low, and as an understaffed paper ourselves, we can certainly sympathize.
But those folks in Chicago don't know how good they have it.