Television viewers these days are absolutely flummoxed when it comes to the local news. How do they possibly tell what's real and what's a satire?
Take November 2. Channel 26 breathlessly broke into its regular programming to hyperventilate for its viewers while giving them the earthshaking news that a Houston boy had been rescued, unharmed, after being trapped for a brief period down a well.
The station then returned to its regular programming, which consisted of the Simpsons episode where Bart is trapped down a well, creating a media frenzy overseen by Channel 6 anchorman Kent Brockman.
At least the real anchors at Channel 26 didn't repeat Brockman's incisive reporting of a celebrity effort to help the trapped Bart: "Channel 6's own Krusty the clown has gathered members of the entertainment community, who normally steer clear of fashionable causes."
But it was probably only because the Houston rescue happened too quickly.
Of course, that day it was pretty easy to tell the difference: One show looked slightly more like a cartoon than the other.
Things got a little trickier November 4. It was a sweeps week, when every station scrambles even more desperately than usual for ratings. As if drawn by a metaphysical force, this inevitably leads reporters to do undercover reports on topless bars.
Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino took the honors this year. He reported that HPD vice cops had spent more than $700 on drinks at one club. We believe it was spent over a period of a couple of weeks, but the pounding rock music and the MTV-type editing of gyrating dancers made it hard to keep up.
We think Wayne should adopt a new rule: It's not a scandal until the dollar figure involved gets into at least four digits. Even if it does mean passing up a chance to show string bikini bottoms.
The "Is it real or is it satire?" question was equally difficult at Channel 13 a few days earlier, when the lead story in the wake of the EgyptAir crash was, believe it or not, whether the waters around Nantucket Island were becoming a new Bermuda Triangle.
Reporter Bob Boudreaux solemnly noted that three planes, including JFK Jr.'s, had crashed there in the past few years. "Different planes, different areas, different weather conditions," he said, but that didn't stop him from talking with an expert to get to the bottom of the story.
The expert: a travel agent here in Houston. She said that some people ask her if the cruise ship they're booking will go through the Bermuda Triangle, and she expects some people, someday, to ask her about flying over Nantucket.
Kent Brockman couldn't have done it better.
We're Almost No. 42!
Once again the Houston Chronicle is being unbecomingly modest. Normally it takes every chance it gets to trumpet itself for winning some obscure journalism contest or receiving some recognition by its peers.
But somehow we didn't see any mention of the latest ranking of the nation's top newspapers by the Columbia Journalism Review. CJR polled more than 150 editors across the country about which papers they believe are doing the best job these days.
The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal finished 1-2-3, not surprisingly. In fifth place was The Dallas Morning News. Smallish papers such as the Sacramento Bee (21st place) and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (26th) made the list. The Austin American-Statesman came in 24th.
In all, 42 papers were cited, receiving anywhere from 101 votes to four. And then, just as in the college football Top 25 list, there was the sad little parade of "Others Receiving Votes."
Among the papers receiving three or fewer votes in the survey were the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald, the Brazosport Facts and our very own Leading Information Source, the one and only Chron.
Splice, Splice Baby
Weightless Channel 11 anchorman Greg Hurst apparently is very eager to show that he's not a mannequin, dammit.
Inside Houston's Gary Michaels wrote a one-sentence review recently of Hurst: "The toughest thing about reading the news for a living is pretending you didn't get the job based on your looks."
Hurst responded with a bizarre two-page rant that showed that, while he may not have gotten his job because of good looks, he definitely didn't get it for his grammar. Or his modesty.
"You are stating that my position, and perhaps even my success over the past 20 years, is related to my appearance and not my hard work, experience; my intellect or my sagacity," he wrote. (Sagacity?)
He then reeled off an impressive array of comma splices: "But then people of true character, can see beyond their own short comings."
"Perhaps I had come to take journalistic acumen, and professional probity for granted." (Probity?)
"Furthermore, after reading James Fallow's [sic] book Breaking the News: Undermining Democracy in America. I can now clearly see, to whom he was referring." (Reading?)
"Where is it written that a journalist must have survived a flesh consuming chemical fire to be considered thoughtful and credible," he asked, or at least he would have if he had used a question mark.
Hurst thundered that he was chock-full of credentials: "I frequently speak to audiences about journalist responsibility; about principles grounded in not only objectivity, fairness, and accuracy, but also in perspective, analysis, and historical background," he wrote, again burning up the comma key.
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Thinks about that, Mr. Smarty Pants, the next time you see a report on a kid not trapped for very long down a well. That report is backed with not only perspective and analysis, but historical background. Or, as Hurst might put it, with "historical, background."
Hurst says he sent the letter "just to set the record straight." He adds, "I knew no one else would hold [Michaels] accountable."
As for the rebellious, rule-breaking writing style, he says he didn't remember making any mistakes: "I'll stand up for any of the grammar," he says.
You know what he wants. Reach the News Hostage via e-mail at email@example.com.