Unlike a lot of media, the Houston Press was never an enthusiastic cheerleader for the so-called Houston Miracle, the unending public relations barrage that landed former HISD superintendent Rod Paige his job as U.S. secretary of education.
And with the return of PR whiz Terry Abbott, the man behind the curtain of the "miracle" (see "Paige Boy Returns," July 24), it's clear what happens to media organizations who aren't part of the district's spin machine.
On August 25, Abbott announced an official policy that he would do his best to ensure that no HISD employee ever speaks with the Houston Press. Questions about any story, in any school, must be submitted in writing to him, he said, and he would respond in writing after checking with the principal, administrator or other employee the Press wanted to talk to.
"We just can't get any kind of fair shake out of the Houston Press," he said. (At first, Abbott's assistant said that the policy was in place because Abbott said the Press "got stories wrong," but in direct conversation Abbott made no claims about errors and instead talked of getting "a fair shake." He cited no specific stories.)
"It is going to be my recommendation to everyone else that works for the school district that they decline to be interviewed by the Houston Press," he said.
Individual principals of schools, according to HISD policy, are allowed "to be a spokesperson for that school," Abbott said, so they could ignore his advice. But in the paranoid bureaucracy of HISD, where teachers and administrators quickly get the message not to make waves, Abbott was likely right when he said he "suspect[s]" employees will decline interviews.
A slip of the lip indicates as much: "My request is going to be -- my recommendation is going to be that they refer the questions back to me," he said in an interview.
In response to a follow-up (written) question, Abbott wouldn't answer whether he thought HISD employees would be intimidated from talking to the Press by his request (oops -- his recommendation) that they do not.
"That question calls for me to reach a conclusion on a hypothetical situation," he wrote. "Of course, I won't do that."
In another follow-up (written) question, Abbott was asked why the Press -- or HISD, for that matter -- couldn't simply tape any interviews it does with HISD personnel, another way to ensure accuracy.
Abbott's (written) response sidestepped the question, saying: "Thanks. We'll stick with the written answers to your questions."
Press editor Margaret Downing said no other area school district had taken such steps. "From time to time, the Press does stories involving school districts in the Houston area. Sometimes we're complimentary, sometimes not. Never has this resulted in a shutdown of access," she said. "In fact, in most of the other districts, personnel in the public relations office are rarely quoted, preferring instead to direct reporters to the actual people doing the work.
"Taxpayers have a right to know what their teachers, administrators and elected officials are doing and thinking in any school system. They've lost that in HISD. Anything said there will be filtered, handled and reshaped by Terry Abbott. Maybe he'll make that quote he passes on just a bit better. Maybe he'll leave out that information that might be just a bit damaging to HISD. We won't ever know what exactly came from the source and what was Terry Abbottized," she said.
Abbott's policy also would effectively bar the Press from visiting any HISD campus.
"Exchanging e-mails is a very ineffective way of interviewing anyone, being both clumsy and time-consuming," Downing said. "In person, if someone doesn't answer a question or brings up something unexpected, you can immediately follow that up with another question. That's not possible with a follow-up e-mail question that isn't answered for hours or days."
Abbott did not get approval from the school board for his policy: "Generally, board members do not approve office operating procedures," he wrote.
Board members do -- at least in Houston -- tend to slavishly support the administration. Calls to board president Kevin Hoffman and first vice president Karla Cisneros were not returned. Neither were e-mail requests for interviews sent to board members through Abbott's press office.
"What is scary in a sort of sickly humorous way is that Terry Abbott has appointed himself grand pooh-bah for the Houston Independent School District. And he may get away with it because Superintendent Kaye Stripling and HISD trustees are apparently so terrified of bad publicity that they'd rather give him free rein to intimidate employees and speak for the entire district," Downing said. "The idea that HISD chooses to give out its information only to the media outlets who do what it wants is outrageous and unjustifiable."
Abbott writes that his policy is nothing new. "I began doing this toward the end of my first tenure here after many hours spent trying to get the Houston Press to report fairly about the district," he wrote.
"I'm sorry, but that's not my recollection," Downing said. "The occasional exchange of e-mail for primarily statistical information is fine. But e-mail cannot replace the benefits of a face-to-face interview. That's how we do our jobs."
Abbott said his policy applies to "a few reporters at other organizations and then the Houston Press in general." In response to another written question, he wouldn't name the other reporters.
One of those, however, is KTRK's intrepid Wayne Dolcefino. He said Abbott "is full of half-truths, omissions and total BS News directors and editors around town now quite honestly view Terry Abbott as a guy who you know will spew nonsense. Forget Terry Abbott personally, this is not what taxpayers have a public information officer for. You have one so we can get information quickly and easily without bothering every employee in the district, not to spin or fight with the press all day long."
KTRK's news director asked for a meeting with Superintendent Stripling to discuss the station's relationship with Abbott, Dolcefino said; he was told to go through Abbott. (Downing also asked Abbott for a meeting with the superintendent and has yet to hear a response.)
The New York Times is also apparently on Abbott's Shit List (or not on his Shiny Apple Polishers List, if you look at it the other way). A Times story August 28 on some of HISD's bogus PR claims noted that requests for interviews with Stripling and district principals were rejected, and that Abbott "refused to explain" discrepancies between some HISD claims and reality.
A statewide expert on school district public relations wouldn't comment directly on Abbott's policy but noted that it's not common. Kirk Lewis is president of the board of the Texas School Public Relations Association and spokesman for the Pasadena school district.
"Our district always tries to be open -- the schools don't belong to us, they belong to the taxpayers who pay for all this," he said.
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Lewis said that in the 18 years he has worked at PISD, there may have been two reporters "who I felt might not have been objective, and I worked a little differently with them. But I talked with the reporter and editor first, and I never did it for a whole paper at once. You know you're going to take some lumps in coverage sometime, but you're not going to blackball someone because of it."
In case you're wondering what Abbott might consider a "fair shake" in coverage for HISD, you might check out the front page of the August 23 Houston Chronicle. The biggest story on the page that day -- one that featured two photos, including one of happy students cheering wildly -- was about an HISD administrator and Yates High School alumnus who was returning to the school as principal. (New principal George August was going "to bring the school's academic freefall to a halt," a sub-headline said.)
That page-one layout also featured a bannered, highlighted quote from an expert, one who analyzed thusly: "We expect Mr. August will dramatically improve Yates."
The expert? None other than Terry Abbott. Now that's one helluva fair shake.