News Hostage

The Difference a Day Makes
It was easily one of the more bizarre stand-ups in Houston television history -- Channel 11's Terrence Jackson standing in front of a group of looters, calmly expressing concern for their safety.

The scene was the charred remains of the strip mall that included the Del Sol Food Mart and other stores. The four-alarm fire April 14 got plenty of attention, given TV news's junkielike addiction to showing burning buildings, especially abandoned warehouses.

So Jackson does his recap for the 10 p.m. news, showing clips of stunned shop owners and saddened neighbors. Then they cut live to the inevitable stand-up of the reporter at the scene, and that's where the strangeness starts.

Behind Jackson, dozens of gleeful residents are climbing over the wreckage, picking up boots, strolling off with clothes, scrambling for anything valuable.

To an untrained eye they sure looked like looters, but Jackson took a more benign view, never using the L word or anything close to it. "These people are digging through this rubble looking for all sorts of things," he explained.

Over his shoulder, people were laughing, proudly holding up some prize they'd found in the wreckage of the burned store. Jackson was concerned about what was happening -- not about the looting, but about the safety of the looters.

"These people are doing something that is obviously dangerous," he said. "There are burned pieces of metal, there's concrete debris, it's very dark. Earlier the police had this place cordoned off, but that plastic caution tape is now down."

Yeah, we guess so.
Unfazed at the looting -- excuse us, the "digging through rubble" -- Jackson continued to fret over the idea that some of these people might get injured in the course of brazenly robbing what little goods were left to the store owners.

"These folks are now walking through an area where flames re-erupted just a couple of hours ago," he worried.

He threw it back to anchor Jerome Gray, who added his own Bizarro World touch. "A lot of heartbreak out there," Gray said sympathetically.

A light bulb must have gone on for Channel 11 overnight, because by the noon news the next day the focus was on the outrageous action of what were now called looters. Reporter Dan Garcia offered the requisite venom in his voice-over of footage of the previous night's action, and anchorwoman Tonia Bendickson could only shake her head after the report. "It's just unbelievable," she said, in man's-inhumanity-to-man awe.

It certainly was.

Beating Off the Competition
While Channel 11 was leading that night's 10 p.m. news with the helpful neighbors assisting in the fire cleanup, and while Channel 13 was leading with a Kosovo update, Channel 2 led with the real news or, as they always label it, "The Big Story."

"It's one of the most shocking stories to come out of Houston schools ever," anchor Bill Balleza intoned darkly as he introduced the piece.

What it was, though, was an incredibly lame story about "some parents" (only one was shown) who were upset about a substitute teacher who allegedly masturbated in front of a class. Maybe.

"For the sixth-graders, it might have been a first-hand lesson in sex education," reporter Ed Laskos said, incredibly enough. "Some parents," he noted, were saying that the teacher "was not an educator, but a masturbator."

The only parent interviewed on air, a man unfortunately enough named Randy Dickey, said the teacher "was touching himself" through his pants and "apparently masturbating" in front of the class one day.

Helpfully identified with a graphic labeling him "Angry Parent," the alleged Randy Dickey also said the teacher would drop papers on the floor "and instruct the girls to pick them up," apparently with nefarious intent.

"If this person did this, this person has some mental trouble," Dickey said.
"Is this guy sick?" reporter Laskos gruffly asked.
"Uhhhh... yeah," Dickey answered, in a Didn't-I-just-say-that? tone.

Saying "this English teacher might be history," the hyperventilating Laskos noted that the accused has been removed from the classroom pending an HISD investigation. "Parents say, though, that they don't want this guy anywhere near their kids, investigation or not," he added.

Balleza then told viewers to "stay tuned to Channel 2 for continuing coverage of A Substitute Teacher Accused."

We'll certainly try. But we wonder who's really guilty of jerking off.

This Is Not a Rerun
As long as we're on a TV news theme, let's give credit where credit is due. We thought that this year's April 15 stories on people dropping their tax returns off were a whole lot better than last year's stories.

Somehow these intrepid reporters just keep coming up with new and imaginative ways to show cars pulling up and giving envelopes to postal employees. Somehow they keep getting fresh and incisive quotes from taxpayers doing a verbal shrug of the shoulders.

Somehow it never seems tiresome when the reporter throws it back to the anchor by joshingly inquiring if the anchor has filed yet.

Somehow, with all the graphics about which post offices are open until midnight, the stories we saw didn't mention that you could have mailed your return at any Houston post office before midnight and it would have been okay.

In the midst of this annual TV ritual, we always wind up asking ourselves: Has there ever been a taxpayer prosecuted because his return was postmarked April 16 instead of the fifteenth?

Are you an avid media watcher? Troubled by your news choices in Houston? Unload with us. E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@, or write him at Houston Press, 1621 Milam, Houston, Texas 77002.


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