It's Only Business

The Houston Chronicle was moved to righteous indignation by reports of price gouging in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Blood and Gutless," read the headline on a September 14 editorial, which said events had brought out the best and the worst in Americans.

"At the low end of the character spectrum, some money-grubbing gas station managers around the nation jacked up fuel prices outrageously…It is a shameful thing to attempt to profit off the human misery caused by this terroristic attack on American soil," the editorial thundered.

Besides gas station managers, the paper cited hotels and car rental agencies as examples. It somehow didn't mention daily newspapers with a monopoly in their city.

For months now, the Sunday Chronicle has been deeply discounted all across the city. A semi-official price of $1.75 was set after The Houston Post shut down, but feverish attempts to jack up newsstand sales have led to cuts. Sometimes there's a bold red stamp marking a $1 price.

Looking back at the Sunday papers we get here at the Houston Press, the $1 price has been officially printed on the front-page flag going back at least a month. Until the Sunday after the terrorist attack. That Sunday's paper had a $1.75 price on the flag, and that's what it was selling for across the city.

(Retailers can sell the paper for whatever they want; a Kroger spokesman says the chain generally just sells it for whatever price the Chron puts on the flag.)

Making matters worse, the only way to get a souvenir edition of the Chron's September 11 extra on the attack was to buy it at a newsstand. The paper hyped the opportunity to obtain a copy of the extra but couldn't bring itself to send it to loyal subscribers.

"I'm sure the Chronicle has made extra income from this event," said one of the several readers who contacted us to complain. "I don't begrudge them that, but raising the price above what they know from long experience is the limit the normal market will bear is taking advantage of this temporary situation. That is the very definition of price gouging."

It turns out the price hike was announced beforehand, in ads that ran in the paper September 6-9. And in a public service to readers desperately wanting news on the earthshaking events, the Chron decided to go ahead with the 75 percent price increase instead of putting it off for a week.

The terrorists' attacks failed to bring out the best in the Chronicle in other ways. There was a mini-revolt among reporters as the brass dithered for days about whether to send anyone from Houston to New York.

Reporters from the Washington bureau drove up, but the newsroom here grew angry -- and dispirited -- when the bosses' first move wasn't to work immediately on getting troops up to the scene.

Finally, on September 13 the paper chartered a Learjet to take six staffers to Manhattan. Emblematic of the paper's halfhearted response, however, the plane made it only to Mississippi before being ordered to land because of improper paperwork in its flight plan.

Also the subject of staff grumbling was photographer Buster Dean. Dean happened to be in Manhattan on the 11th, doing what he usually does -- a fashion shoot -- but apparently was thrown by the concept of breaking news. It wasn't until the intrepid Smiley Pool made it to New York that the Chron had decent photos from its staff.

By September 20, though, it seems the paper was back on its feet. On that day the front-page story was about the proposed $17 billion aid package to airlines -- the airlines whose first move in the wake of the tragedy was to lay off as many employees as possible.

When some of those employees (through their unions) expressed some concern that maybe, just possibly, if the federal government was going to hand over billions and billions of dollars to the airlines, those airlines should perhaps be required to promise they won't screw their workers, the Chron wailed.

"Airlines Face New Bailout Hurdle," the headline read. Yeah, those damn workers -- what a burden.

That'll Show Us

Whenever we hear someone going on about Houston being a World-Class City, the speaker always seems to mention Houston Ballet. It appears, though, that the ballet is more a podunk operation than it is ready for the big time.

Houston Press staff writer Lauren Kern has been reviewing Houston Ballet productions for three years. Whether she praised or panned, ballet staffers were eager to have her pieces published. After all, when it comes to major media outlets in town, ballet coverage is pretty much limited to us and the Chron.

But last month Kern wrote a feature on the ballet company's uncertain future ("Forever On His Toes," August 2). The feature exposed the apparently unthinkable news that a) there's political maneuvering in the organization, and b) longtime leader Ben Stevenson can be a somewhat insecure guy.

The feature was by no means a hatchet piece -- close followers of the ballet, as well as insiders, praised it for its accurate rendition of current conditions -- and the organization itself seemed to have no problem with it. No angry letters or calls, no claims that the piece was misleading or unbalanced were received from the group.

But suddenly the press releases and heads-ups about future events stopped coming to the Press. When Kern e-mailed the ballet's PR department, she got this from PR manager Kay Massman-Lobb: "Ben was not pleased with the last article printed by the Press, so he asked that I remove the Houston Press from our press mailing list. Things may change in the future and I will certainly keep you updated when they do."

The ballet hadn't complained to the Press about the article, she said in a later conversation, because it didn't want to dignify the piece with a response.

Since the Press would no longer be receiving reviewer's tickets, Massman-Lobb helpfully provided the phone number for the Wortham Center box office. The ballet also pulled its ads from the Press.

Now that's how a world-class fine arts outfit responds when an article isn't exactly what they want. As long as that world-class fine arts outfit is run by people with little to no concept of how media works.

Ballet staffers insist the edict came from Stevenson, who did not return phone calls; there is some speculation that Stevenson's apparent pique is being too zealously enforced by other ballet officials, as part of the byzantine politics of the place.

A phone call to Stevenson brought this faxed response from the PR department: "Houston Ballet has no interest in working with Houston Press in an editorial capacity. The decision was made by the artistic and administrative staffs, as well as the board of trustees of Houston Ballet Foundation."

Whatever the cause, it does nothing but make the organization look small and petty. But maybe acting like a touchy prima donna is what makes a ballet World Class.


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