The Hunt for the Railcar Killer (Ratings) took to the skies July 13, and the results weren't pretty. Again.
Rafael Resendez-Ramirez (Not His Real Name, as they say in journalism) surrendered in El Paso that morning and was brought to Houston, as you might have heard. The local TV stations went wall-to-wall with live reportage, with Channel 11 keeping its crown for providing the coverage we could most live without.
(Channel 11 did two pointless Death Row interviews with unrelated killers as the Resendez search went on; our brains apparently unable to process such absurdity, we had 11's Shern-Min Chow still working for Channel 2 in a recent column.)
As Resendez' s plane landed at Hobby Airport that afternoon, it had to weave its way through a flotilla of news helicopters waiting to document the alleged killer's transfer to jail.
Authorities loaded him into an unmarked car, and then began driving downtown. There were no sirens, no high speeds, no nothing. The car even stopped at red lights.
Channels 2 and 13 soon wearied of the utterly boring visuals of an unremarkable car moving unremarkably through traffic, but Channel 11 was persistent.
While other stations switched to press conferences or other reports, KHOU's Air 11 helicopter provided second-by-second coverage of the 20-minute cruise downtown.
It was just like O.J. Simpson in the Bronco, except there was absolutely no suspense, there was no one with a gun to his head, there was not even, as far as the casual viewer tuning in could tell, a cop car anywhere in sight. Just a blue car tooling down the freeway, for 20 looooong minutes.
"It's just like any other car on the road, with any other driver, just driving into downtown," Air 11 reporter Doug Miller accurately recounted, in what can only be described as a cry for help.
Channel 11 cut away twice once to show a replay of the (utterly innocuous-looking) plane landing at Hobby, the other to talk to reporter Charles Hadlock waiting at the Harris County Jail.
Hadlock referred to the crowds waiting for "this celebrity fugitive," earning a sharp rebuke from weightless anchor Greg Hurst.
"We don't want to give him celebrity status these are very serious charges," said Hurst, who apparently did not have a dictionary handy.
(In a later stand-up, Hadlock lamely explained himself: "Of course he's not a celebrity; I didn't mean to imply that. But there's a lot of interest in him." Meaning, we guess, that Resendez is one of those rare well-known and famous non-celebrities.)
As the car continued to drift in leisurely, anchor Marlene McClinton reminded everyone that "This is America, and [Resendez] is innocent until proven guilty." Then, just as the car hit downtown, Channel 11 the station that thought this commute was so earth-shaking lost track of the car.
Channel 2 viewers saw the car pull into the new police headquarters at 1200 Travis; Channel 11 viewers saw....Hadlock, at the county jail, peering endlessly down the road and saying that Resendez should, ummmm, be there any minute.
"I see our Air 11 helicopter, so he should be here momentarily," Hadlock reported, demonstrating a charmingly innocent belief in Air 11's prowess.
Miller, in the chopper, finally admitted that they couldn't find the car.
Anchorman Hurst, taking time out from lecturing reporters on the seriousness of the charges, made light of the mishap to viewers. "Doug shouldn't feel so bad, because [Resendez] has been eluding authorities for months, so it's no surprise if we lost him for a few minutes," he chirped.
Take a Left, Right?
Channel 11 wasn't the only news station having helicopter problems. Channel 13 lost track of the killer's car, too.
But at least both those choppers were in the right city. Fox, which advertises that with its SkyFox helicopter, it's "right on top of it!", wasn't quite on top of the Amtrak derailment July 8.
No one was seriously injured in the accident, of course, but that didn't stop every station from sending a helicopter to broadcast live we-interrupt-this-broadcast pictures of no one getting seriously hurt. The skies over Eagle Lake, 65 miles west of Houston, were lousy with news choppers.
Except for SkyFox, which was flying toward Sour Lake, 75 miles east of Houston. While it could be argued that the number of seriously injured people in Sour Lake at the time was the same as the number in Eagle Lake, the Fox chopper was unable to provide pictures of a train on its side.
Fox's chopper is based on the far west side of Houston, which should have given the station a head start on the scramble to provide non-news. But someone on the ground told the crew to head to Sour Lake instead of Eagle Lake; by the time they got the situation straightened out they also needed to refuel, a source says. (Station officials refused to comment.)
Finally, an hour or so later, Fox was able to get its airborne pictures. Of no one getting seriously hurt.
Gimme a "B"!
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Governor George W. Bush announced July 15 that, because every GOP fat cat and special-interest group is panting to write him large checks, he will refuse to participate in the federal-funding system that tries to even out the electoral money field.
Bush will not accept federal matching funds, meaning he does not have to abide by the system's spending limits, meaning he will be free to raise and spend unprecedented amounts of cash even as Republicans piously call for campaign-finance reform.
Or it could mean something else, according to the cheerleaders at Channel 2. As a clip showed a triumphant Bush, anchor Linda Lorelle promoted the news item with this breezy interpretation: "Coming up at 6 He's not president, but he's already saving the country millions of dollars!!"
You know you want to. E-mail Richard Connelly at firstname.lastname@example.org and share some of the great moments in Houston journalism you've seen lately.