The June 7 column on the front of the Houston Chronicle's Metropolitan section might easily have been mistaken for yet another snoozefest by the resolutely uninteresting Thom Marshall. It sparked, however, a rather interesting story behind the story.
"Cars Put Homeless on a Road to Jobs" was the perky headline on the piece. It detailed a ceremony donating a used car to an indigent man. "The fellow who got it said the ignition key is also the key to turning his life around," Marshall wrote.
The woman who organized the ceremony, and pitched Marshall on covering it, was Whitney Broach. She, Marshall wrote, was "president of the Valentine Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps people in ways that make it easier for them to get jobs She said that people interested in donating their time, money or vehicles" should contact the foundation, whose address he helpfully printed.
Marshall apparently wasn't at the ceremony; his column has only Broach's descriptions of how "folks who had gathered around -- many of them homeless -- applauded 'and we all blessed the car.' " The quotes from the recipient all seemed to come from a thank-you letter Marshall somehow got his hands on.
It was all very heartwarming. But shortly after the paper hit the streets, the Chron began receiving angry, not to mention astonished, phone calls and e-mails.
Some of them referred the Chron to an article printed a week earlier in the Houston Press. In "Beyond the Womb" (May 30), the Press noted that Broach had been convicted of fraud and had first gained fame as the "womb for rent" woman who put up a billboard on the Southwest Freeway in 1993 advertising her availability as a surrogate mother for a fee.
Dan Parsons of the Better Business Bureau told the Press that he was stunned to see Broach's name associated with the charity.
It's pretty clear Marshall, and his editors, don't read the Press. We're not offended. But it's also clear they don't read their own archives. A sampling of Chron headlines about Broach: " 'Womb-Rent' Figure Found Guilty of Fraud," "Surrogate Is No Stranger to State, Federal Authorities," "Womb Lessor Called Sweet and Friendly: Residents Say Woman Cheats with Kindness."
Of course, beyond Marshall's column, there was also the March 2001 article on Broach's charity removing gang tattoos. That one also didn't mention her past.
Marshall's column engendered high-level discussions at the Chron on how best to deal with the fuckup. Reporter Lisa Teachey was dispatched to gather information on Broach and the Valentine Foundation, but no story appeared. For days -- days when perhaps some readers knew nothing more about Broach than what Marshall had said -- nothing further appeared.
Marshall normally would have had a column in the paper the next day, but a note told readers that it "does not appear today."
Finally, five days later, a "clarification" appeared on page A2. Under an item correcting something from a story on the Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Chron noted that a recent column by Marshall "urged readers to donate money to the Valentine Foundation."
"However," it continued, the BBB's Parsons "said potential contributors should consider the background" of Broach, whose background was then fleetingly outlined.
"The Chronicle regrets creating the impression of a full endorsement of the Valentine Foundation," the clarification read. It quoted Marshall as saying, "I was not aware, but should have been, that questions had been raised I apologize to readers of the Chronicle and my column."
The brief correction hardly compared, in size or in prominence of display, to the Metro-front column that originated the controversy.
As it happens, Marshall had a column running the same day as the correction, but he didn't refer to it. Instead he wrote about his daughter's high school graduation, and how sad it was that there were metal detectors at the event, and then offered the standard JFK-MLK-Vietnam-rock-music rehash of his generation. Readers who slogged through it saw a one-sentence editor's note at the bottom directing them to the clarification.
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Apparently the Chron isn't going to do any more: A woman interviewed by Teachey said the reporter told her the paper would not be doing a larger story anytime soon.
The woman, who has an ongoing dispute with Broach, said she almost fell to the floor when she saw Marshall's column. "I called them as soon as I read the story, and the man who answered the phone told me, 'Ma'am, believe me, you're not the only person that's called about it,' " said the woman, who did not want her name used.
Marshall didn't return a phone call, and new editor Jeff Cohen wasn't much more forthcoming. "I think the clarification has to speak for itself," he said.
For those who could find it.