Press Briefs

Pop-off as You've Never Heard It...
The best line uttered at last week's City Council meeting never made it to the ten o'clock news or either daily paper. Even cable TV's municipal channel, in its interminable replays of Council gatherings, bleeped over this part of last Tuesday's "pop-off session" (in which any citizen is allowed to address the Council).

Gregory Ford, an aggrieved 18-year-old citizen, was addressing Mayor Bob Lanier and City Council about a problem he had had on a Metro bus. Ford complained that his First Amendment rights had been violated when he was thrown off a bus for something he said.

New councilmember John Kelley asked Ford to explain exactly what he had said to warrant being jettisoned from public transit. Ford initially demurred, but when Kelley pressed, Ford said he was complaining to a friend about the anal-retentive attitudes of a mutual acquaintance.

Ford said that, to loosen him up, the man "needed a big pink dick stuffed up his asshole."

Even for the weekly pop-off session -- known as a forum for the offbeat -- this was a bit much.

"The whole room cracked up," Ford said. "When I said, 'He needed a big pink dick stuffed up his asshole,' they all cracked up, even Bob Lanier. None of them looked shocked. They thought it was humorous, I guess."

Ford said he was thrown off the 82 Westheimer bus and arrested January 20, but charges were dismissed when the Metro police officers failed to show up in court.

After several days' reflection on his questioning, Kelley remained puzzled why Ford thought he had been wronged. "Everybody can say what they want to say, but I was surprised he would say it loud enough for the bus driver to hear him and then wonder why he got thrown off the bus. I don't understand that."

Kelley termed the whole incident "too far out for me."
As for the laughter by Council and hizzoner, Kelley said he understands the response. Sort of. "I don't think it's very funny. It is funny, but it's not funny. You can take it two ways. I wouldn't want people to say that around my family."

The rookie councilman said his persistent questioning was just routine curiosity.

"I don't know. I was just being my normal self. I was just asking him a simple question just like you'd ask any citizen. I was just trying to find out what made the people on the bus so mad to throw him off," Kelley said. "And I found out." -- D.J. Wilson

I'll Take the High Road, You Take the Low Road and I'll Cover Scotland Before You...

As if the recent killing of wandering Scotsman Andrew De Vries wasn't sad and weird enough, media skullduggery and rumor mongering went into overdrive as the slain man's parents arrived in Houston for grand-jury deliberations.

The case of the 29-year-old Scot, who was killed when he knocked on a back door at 4 a.m. in an upscale Houston neighborhood, has drawn international attention, particularly from the United Kingdom. Another foreigner-turned-fatality apparently as a consequence of America's social paranoia and shoot-first-never-mind-the-questions attitude, the arrival of the dead man's parents triggered calls from the BBC to local television stations for video of their arrival.

Media gathered to meet the plane at Intercontinental and elicit a soundbite, but Fiona and Gelt De Vries never emerged. They had arrived, but the Post's Alexandra Hardy was the only reporter who met them as they dodged the main exit gate and left with Hardy and the Post's not-so-candid cameraman, Ira Strickstein.

Those left out of the quotation equation were miffed. By the next day, rumors were rife that the Post had covered the parents' air fare and paid for their hotel room, all in exchange for exclusive interviews. But anybody familiar with the Scrooge-like budgetary habits of the financially strapped Post quickly spiked that rumor as unbelievable for reasons that have nothing to do with ethics.

One reporter on the story said the stuff really hit the fan when Houston media calls to a De Vries relative back in Scotland were met with responses like, "'Oh well, this was all arranged by Alex [Hardy], and Alex arranged for their quarters while they were there... Alex is arranging their press conference.' Everyone was just seething by that time," the reporter said. More than one version of the tale has American reporters saying rude things to the Scottish relations back home.

The Post's first-day story had more quotes and color than the version in its downtown rival, but it was only played on the Hou/Tex section front, while the photo of the weeping couple was above the fold on page one. The next day the media battled to talk to the bereaved parents, who were staying with sympathetic Jacqueline Guy of Houston. One reporter noted Guy's license-plate number when the couple showed up at Channel 11. Running the plate number located Guy's house, so by that time the media, as they say, knew where they lived. By then the playing field was pretty even.

Judgment on how that first night was handled depends on your view of the unwritten guidelines of how reporters get their stories. Getting the news first remains a prime goal, but the do's and don'ts of herd journalism are relative, subjective and hard to decipher.

Those backing Hardy's tactics say the rumor mongers are just bitter because they got "scooped" (though that's a term that should be forever relegated to 1950s B-movies about "newsies").

Those saying Hardy behaved poorly contend that the parents were mostly making the trip to generate media coverage about the case and that their arrival was common knowledge among media -- evidenced by their attendance at the airport. Getting them to duck out a side door -- or going along with them -- was outside the bounds of "professional courtesy" (though one could also contend that those two words have nothing to do with journalism).

Eventually, the slain Scot's parents got plenty of media coverage. But in the meantime they discovered that not only do Americans have an exaggerated fear of crime, but American media have hyperactive adrenal glands when it comes to crime news.

One salty reporter observed that whoever was to blame for whatever, "this almost makes the English press look good, and that's bad."

-- D.J. Wilson


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