The Columbia space shuttle tragedy should be a time for the Houston Chronicle to shine -- it's one of the few papers in the country with a full-time NASA reporter; much of the story is happening here and in East Texas; there's a new editor eager to make a mark.
So far, though, the one thing you can say about the coverage is that there's been a lot of it (four stories in two days on schoolkids?). Some of it has been good, but a lot of it has gone to show that there's a fine line between "solid" and "stolid."
And then there was the front-page story February 4, just the third day after the incident. The Chron, like every TV station in town, had been busily interviewing folks who said the space program must go on; on the February 4 cover, the paper broke the news that Houston itself would go on.
"Houston Will Always Bounce Back" was the headline on the two-reporter piece, which was presented not as an analysis piece or a personal essay but as a sources-quoted, statistics-cited news story. Its findings: "Houston has an almost prideful streak of resilience in the face of calamity Houston has prospered only by a relentless desire to look forward and take chances it thrived through grit."
And those were just the reporters' conclusions. Sources were quoted saying, "We're a young city," "This is the perfect home of the space program," and "We have a courage and a willingness to embrace new ideas with an eye toward progress."
Hey, we're also a city built on semi-delusional self-hyping, from the days of the Allen brothers selling swampland to Yankees. Glad to see the Chron using the front page to keep up the tradition of telling us how great we are.
Winners and Losers
If it's a sweeps month (and it is), there's money to be made if you're a viewer, and there's dignity to be lost if you're a television reporter.
KPRC has always led the way on this, with "million-dollar" contest prizes and other giveaways. One sweeps period, when they didn't want to feel the scorn that comes with running glorified bingo games, they had their anchors prowling through a set that resembled a telethon phone bank, "reporting" as viewers called in to see if they were owed money by the IRS or some bank.
That easy-to-get "Are You Owed Money" list has become a sweeps month staple, but KRIV is taking it to new heights. The Fox station's "Problem Solver," Tom Zizka, is now toting balloons and knocking on the doors of unsuspecting Houstonians to give them the joyous news that they have $300 they forgot about in a bank account somewhere.
"We're giving you this information free, courtesy of your friends at Fox!" he told one viewer.
We didn't see whether she got to keep the balloons, or whether the Fox budget requires them to be used for the next night's "winner."
The Ongoing Crisis
It is, indeed, a dirty job, but you know the rest. Someone out there has to keep Houston aware of just what the Chronicle thinks is too depraved for you people to read about.
Our newest entry: lipstick lesbians. And sound effects.
On February 6, the Chron reprinted a New York Times piece about how network television shows are getting dirtier and dirtier. They had to use a Times story because this is a subject that their own TV critic, Ann Hodges, resolutely refuses to address. (More than three times a week for the past 20 years.)
The Times' lead: "What Evan and Sarah were doing deep in the French woods that balmy, moonlit night was not audible, so on last week's episode of 'Joe Millionaire,' Fox added subtitles ('aaah,' 'slurp' and 'gulp') that suggested that the couple were engaged in more than conversation."
The Chron took out the sound effects, apparently horrified over what thoughts they might induce in their gentle readers. Or maybe they believed it was a sly product placement for 7-Eleven, advertising its delicious Slurpees and Big Gulps, and the paper wanted no part of such defiling of ad/edit separation.
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The next paragraph in the Times story detailed the plot of a recent Fox show: The "luscious detective played by Tiffani Thiessen went undercover to investigate two lipstick lesbians," we were told.
The Chron used the entire graf, including how Thiessen "passionately kissed the blond suspect while all three women frolicked topless in a hot tub."
The only thing they deleted: the "lipstick" in "lipstick lesbians." Maybe we're just not hip enough here in Houston.
It's not like the Chron is completely shy about sexuality. In the paper's February 6 Yo! section, the insert dedicated to allegedly hip preteens and young teens, editors included an interview with the female rock group the Donnas. "We're a gang," one Donna told her middle-school audience, via the Chron. "We wanted to have songs where the man is the sex object."