As soon as word got out that an alleged spring break gang rape at Crystal Beach might have been recorded by an amateur video cameraman, every station in town tried desperately to get its hands on the tape.
One station did -- KHOU -- but ever since, it's been on the defensive about the scoop.
Channel 11 purchased the broadcast rights for the tape, reportedly for less than $1,000, from a witness who claims the alleged victim was a willing participant in any sexual activity.
The 50-second tape itself does little to settle that question, but ever since airing an interview with the witness March 31, the station has been hit with outraged criticism from viewers accusing it of blaming the victim. The Galveston County Sheriff's Department weighed in by saying the station had hampered its investigation by airing the tape without first letting law enforcement officials see it.
Rival station KPRC implied that Channel 11 was all but in league with any rapists: "Deputies planned to ask the district attorney for an order forcing the station to hand over the tape," it reported. Channel 13 gave airtime to critics who thought the decision to air the interview with the witness was an endorsement of the reprehensible "she was asking for it" defense long used by rapists.
KHOU scrambled to defend itself. When a Galveston County law enforcement officer showed up with a subpoena April 2, the station aired a report showing -- in great detail -- the official serving the subpoena to station employees who all but fell over themselves handing the tape over. In that report, the guy was also grilled on how the county had never formally called the station asking to see the thing. "I don't know, I've been out of town" was all the hapless investigator could answer.
KHOU general manager Peter Diaz doesn't deign to talk to the Houston Press, but he issued a statement April 4 on the station's Web site: "11 News acted both responsibly and in the interest of the public in our reporting of this important story."
The station's actions are not, perhaps, as noble as Diaz claims -- we are talking about exploiting the alleged rape of an 18-year-old woman, after all, even if that seems to be standard procedure for TV news these days. However, it's difficult to see what the station should have done differently.
Any station would have aired the tape, which included no sex scenes but instead blurry views of someone holding her bikini top out of a car window.
In the same report in which it interviewed the witness who said the sex was consensual, KHOU talked to the alleged victim's mother, who disputed that claim strongly. She watched the tape and said that while she was disappointed in her daughter's actions, they didn't constitute an invitation to sex.
And for all the talk of "forcing" KHOU to hand over the tape to authorities, it's not uncommon for media outlets across the country to wait for a subpoena before handing over such materials. But it's a pro forma thing, so the station will not be perceived as an arm of law enforcement; it's not like KHOU was fighting the subpoena.
Assuming there's no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to airing rape stories, Channel 11 has surely gotten its money's worth.
There's a lot to grumble about when it comes to the Houston media -- thank Christ -- but there's one news area where the city is actually pretty well served. In many places around the country, local gay-and-lesbian papers are little more than bar rags; here in Houston the gay press is generally strong and impressive.
There's the weekly Houston Voice, with a sharp news sense, and the glossy monthly OutSmart, with an improving ability to put together well-done features. Add the statewide monthly Texas Triangle, and you could do a whole lot worse.
And now things might get even better. Window Media, the company that owns the Voice, is buying the Washington Blade, long one of the most respected news-oriented gay weeklies.
Financial details were not made public, but Window, which also publishes weeklies in New York, New Orleans and its base city of Atlanta, says the deal means the chain will have a circulation of 400,000.
There's been some grumbling since the March 23 announcement; as with the mainstream media, there's a fear that independent voices will be lost as chains gobble up papers. A year ago the publishers of the nationwide monthly the Advocate purchased rival Out magazine.
Since you're reading a column in a paper owned by a chain that's been accused of stifling competition by buying up weeklies, maybe we're prejudiced. But the addition of the Washington Blade's coverage of national political issues seems like a plus to us.
Assuming, of course, it doesn't come at the expense of local coverage. Luckily, when it comes to the local gay press, there's a vibrant bunch of competitors who will be keeping an eye on things.
Dead Horse Beaten. Again.
April 3, 2001, the day's trivia question from Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman: "If the Astros lose their first game today at Enron Field, they won't be able to sell beer the rest of the season. How come?" The answer: "They will have lost the 'opener.' "
The first time Hoffman told this joke in print was in 1987, with the Oilers as the subject. He did it again in 1991 and 1992; the latter time he noted he "gets to ask it once a year."
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He proved that claim wrong by not using it for four years; he made up for it somewhat by telling it two times within two weeks in 1996. In 1999 and last year we all allegedly chuckled over it too.
Seven times in 14 years is not often enough to constitute a tradition, but enough to wonder about recycling lame material.
"Are you asking me about the years I do run that sophisticated bit of humor, or the years I don't?" Hoffman responded by e-mail to our investigation. "That joke is an American classic, like Frosty the Snowman or Gone with the Wind. Those movies are almost as beloved as my Astros joke, but the TV networks still don't show them every year. This way, I keep 4.3 percent of Chronicle subscribers (my readership) wishing and hoping to hear the joke again."
Well, maybe. We're just glad his defense didn't work in a reference to Wrestlemania or Paul McCartney's latest album.