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Spare the Mayor, Kill the Story

If a story in the daily newspaper causes an average Houstonian to choke on his or her morning coffee, the only practical avenue of protest available is a letter to the editor, which may or may not run days later. If you happen to be Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, and the paper is the Houston Chronicle, there are more direct remedies at hand.

When Lanier, as is his custom, perused the early "bulldog" edition of the Sunday Chronicle on the afternoon of Saturday, March 18, a front-page story by City Hall reporter R.A. "Jake" Dyer jumped right out at him. As it turned out, the mayor was one of a small percentage of regular Chronicle readers who had the opportunity to eyeball Dyer's story.

At his annual "State of the City" address two months ago, Lanier -- who probably gets more fawning local press than any big-city mayor in the country -- had groused that the media was ignoring the positive achievements of his two terms, particularly newly released police statistics showing dramatic drops in crime. The grumbling mayor opined that the trend toward negativity, or at least the one he perceived, stemmed from journalists' need to feel "macho."

Dyer took up the mayor's implicit invitation for a closer look at the crime statistics, spent weeks poring over the numbers, and wrote a lengthy story exploring those statistics and what they meant in terms of Lanier's law enforcement policies. The reporter concluded that "a review of federal and local records indicates the trend toward fewer crimes began not under Lanier, but under former mayor Kathy Whitmire, when the police force was losing officers." Dyer's thesis struck at the heart of Lanier's political raison d'etre: that his placement of more cops on the street is primarily responsible for falling crime rates in the city (although, as Dyer's story pointed out, the incidence of assault have risen during Lanier's tenure).

Lanier is a master at beating opponents over the head with selected statistics until they cry "Uncle Bob," and he also knows how to play hardball with upstart reporters. Within minutes after devouring Dyer's front-page blasphemy he was on the phone to the reporter's bosses -- first to the assistant city editor in charge of the paper's City Hall reporters and then upward to Jack Loftis, the Chronicle's editor and executive vice president.

The eagle-eyed Lanier had pinpointed one mistake that got past an editing team the previous evening: the time line on a graphic illustrating Dyer's story was slightly skewered and made it appear that the reported incidence of crime took a steep drop during Whitmire's last year in office. Actually, the crime reports showed a gradual decline that began in 1989 under Whitmire but accelerated sharply during Lanier's first year in office (although it's arguable, if you want to waste time arguing crime statistics, whether Lanier can take credit for the drop, since his policies were not in place until later in that year). The mayor demanded that Loftis correct the graphic and change the story in later editions to note that the major crime reduction happened on his watch.

Loftis could not locate either Dyer or Chronicle city editor Steve Jetton that Saturday afternoon, and decided that because at least part of the graphic accompanying the story was demonstrably wrong, the statistics in Dyer's story might be flawed as well. Since Loftis had already expressed reservations about the story, and has shown increasing sensitivity to Lanier's complaints over the past few months about negative City Hall coverage, he made the decision to spare the mayor and kill the story.

After appearing in the "bulldog" edition, the one that's sold in boxes and outside grocery stores on Saturday afternoon, Dyer's piece vanished from the home delivery editions of the Sunday paper, the ones most of the paper's 600,000-plus Sunday readers see.

As several journalists at the paper have since noted, it's almost unheard of for a story to be killed because of a mistake in an accompanying graphic -- and one that probably nobody besides Lanier would have spotted. On the rank-and-file end of the Chronicle newsroom, the story-slaying is being attributed to a willingness on the part of the paper's management to kowtow to the mayor.

On the following Tuesday, Loftis ordered another unusual step --
a correction for a story only a fraction of his readership had the opportunity to read. According to the text, "A graphic in some editions of Sunday's Chronicle erroneously attributed sharp drops in major crimes and murders to the final year of Mayor Kathy Whitmire's administration." The correction also stated that the accompanying story "failed to acknowledge that the largest annual decline in the major crime rate since 1982 occurred during the first year of the Lanier administration."

 

Dyer declined comment on the deep-sixing of his story. While a number of Chronicle sources spoke to the Press on background for this article, Loftis did not return a phone inquiry. Lanier mouthpiece Sara Turner said her boss also would not be available to comment on Dyer's crime story or its fate. However, Turner was overheard boasting to another member of the Lanier administration that "we got the story pulled."

Lanier, though, was not content to let the matter rest with the mea culpa he drew from the newspaper. He also rang up University of Houston criminologist David Klinger, who was quoted in Dyer's article saying that the crime drop in Houston could not be attributed to Lanier's policies. Unlike the Chronicle, Klinger did not back down. To the mayor's claim that his program reduced crime, Klinger answers, "I would say basically no, simply because throwing more cops at a problem ... is demonstrated not to work." The criminologist says that what does work sometimes is particular law enforcement programs aimed at particular problems. He cites neighborhood barricades to prevent drive-by shootings as an example.

"Crime is down all over," observes Klinger, referring to trends in most major U.S. cities, and Houston is one of the cities where the drop is most noticeable. He admits scholars do not have firm answers as to why crime rates go up and down. One currently prevailing notion is that the percentage of the population consisting of males under 25 years of age is dropping. Since that demographic group is responsible for a disproportionate share of the crime, the theory is that a shortage of punks leads to fewer incidents of lawbreaking.

"This doesn't mean that the mayor shouldn't say, 'Gee, under my administration good things have happened,'" says Klinger. "However, what the cops can do to affect crime is on the margins."

Whatever the case, Klinger suggests that Lanier may be simply a lucky politician who's in the right place at the right time to take credit for a phenomenon that would have taken place whether Kathy Whitmire or Sylvester Turner had been elected in 1991.

It wasn't the first time that one of Dyer's stories had provoked the Wrath of Bob. Lanier had confronted Dyer at a news conference several months ago over a story in which City Controller George Greanias accused the mayor of a lack of sincerity in keeping his initial campaign promises.

With jowls aflap, an angry Lanier demanded of the reporter, "Did George tell you that or did you just make that up?" He later referred to Greanias as "Jake's friend George" and fumed, "I object to this front page stuff that's not true. I think there ought to be a modicum of truth." (Oddly, Lanierologists have noticed that he gets most exercised when an offending story is in the larger and more influential Chronicle, which did not endorse him in his first mayoral run in 1991. The few negative pieces on Lanier that the Houston Post has offered up have been largely ignored by the mayor.)

Lanier wasn't the only Texas politician with some pull in the Chronicle hierarchy to get favorable treatment in the paper's March 19 editions. Another front-page Sunday story by reporter T.J. Milling on a critical federal audit of a state agency whose collection rate on overdue student college loans is less than half the national average was subjected to a bit of upper-level massaging.

In his original version, Milling reported near the top of the piece that the audit had raised questions about campaign contributions to Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and Comptroller John Sharp by the politically wired Austin law firm hired by the agency to collect those overdue loans. Sharp and Bullock, his predecessor as comptroller, have both served as ex officio trustees of the agency that administers the loan program.

After Milling's superiors finished editing the piece, the references to Bullock and Sharp were buried inside the paper near the end of a very long and dense story.

According to Chronicle sources, editor Loftis had a hand in the rearrangement. Loftis is close to Bullock, a fellow Hillsboro native, and was a "honorary chair" of the lieutenant governor's end of January's inaugural gala -- a role some on the staff thought inappropriate for the person in ultimate charge of the paper's coverage of Bullock. But go figure: the following Sunday's front page included a story in which Democratic legislators raked Bullock for his heavy-handed rule of the state Senate.

On the same day that Dyer's story made its brief appearance on the city's streets, the Houston Post treated its readership to a poignant announcement explaining why subscribers wouldn't be getting their copies of Houston Life on time.

 

Houston Life is the glossy home-and-garden magazine crafted from the carcass of Houston City Magazine by publisher Mark Inabnit. Since its debut last year, the magazine, an operation independent of the Post, had been distributed every third Sunday of the month inside the newspaper. But henceforth, according to the Post's front-page blurb on March 18, the magazine will be boosting the Post's throw-weight on the last Sunday of the month.

"It's really a move to help the readers," Inabnit explained in the Post announcement. "The last Sunday of every month is just easier to remember."

What Inabnit apparently had trouble remembering, or at least recounting, was that his associate publisher, Roger Tremblay, had just jumped ship, the magazine was late in making a recent payroll for its staff and Brown Printing was refusing to send the current issue to its presses because overdue bills had not been paid.

In other words, the magazine's pub-lishing date was not delayed to help Post readers' memories, but because the Post had no magazine to insert that weekend.

Inabnit, reached by phone, rejected the suggestion that the front-page blurb in the Post might have been a wee bit deceptive.

"It's like a TV show moving from Thursday to Sunday," he explained. "This is a better time for the readers of the Post. They're elated ... I don't know why anyone would use the word 'deceptive.' We're very straightforward."

Inabnit did acknowledge the magazine had trouble meeting its financial obligation to its printer and that a temporary "cash flow" problem had temporarily kept it from making its payroll.

"But we're fine now," he added. "Everything came through, [in] grand style."
The publisher say he's nearing completion on his final phase of financing to secure the magazine's future and some other projects locally which will be announced in the next few weeks. He also plans to expand the Houston Life concept, which he defines as a "megamag," to Chicago and other markets. Brown is once again printing the magazine in a slightly smaller format, Inabnit says, and Houston Life is far from dead.

"This is probably the most successful response to any magazine I've ever had in my history," says Inabnit, who founded the now-defunct Houston Home and Garden and the Houston Business Journal. "We'll have to make other adjustments probably like any other company ... but we know we have a real winner and we're excited about it."

As, no doubt, are all those elated Houston Post readers.


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