Too Close to Call

Have Linda Lorrelle and Nancy Holland come down from that roof in Austin yet?

When last we checked, which was in the predawn hours of November 8, the two intrepid reporters were still freezing their whatevers off, doggedly informing us for the umpteenth time that the crowds in front of the Capitol were anxious but confident, or cautiously optimistic, or not letting rain dampen their spirits. By the time 2 a.m. rolled around, you could all but see the wheels turning furiously as they tried yet again to describe the same situation.

The bizarre election results -- a final tally is expected sometime this fall -- threw the national and local media for a loop. It was relatively easy for television: Filling hours of time without saying anything meaningful is easy, if the screamfest talking-head shows on cable are any indication.

But newspapers had to decide just when to go to print, with nightmarish visions of "Dewey Defeats Truman" dancing in their heads. When the networks gave Florida to Bush in the wee, wee hours, the presses rolled in a lot of cities.

Oh, the embarrassment for papers like the Chicago Sun-Times or the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which printed "Bush Wins" headlines.

Reveling in others' embarrassment was our very own Houston Chronicle, which printed a story on the front page of its special election section November 9. "Collectors' Editions: Papers Scrambled As News Broke, But Some Unwittingly Made Headlines Themselves," the head read.

"Readers across the country woke up to an avalanche of screaming type announcing the election of George W. Bush," said the story.

How lucky we are to live in Houston, where responsible journalism reigns! Right there, in the middle of the story, was a box referring readers to a second story in the Chron's haplessly unhip teen section. Since that section is called Yo!, the reefer box had a nice in-your-face feel to it, placed as it was in a story outlining how everyone else in the country had fucked up.

"How the Chronicle averted publishing stories of a Bush victory: Yo!" it read.

Geez. Maybe it was the hangover from the election-night roller coaster, but we could have sworn we saw on TV copies of the Chronicle with the huge (and not half-bad) headline "It's Bush with a W." Were we dreaming?

Apparently not. Deep, deep in the "Collectors' Editions" story, after we read about how bad all the other papers were, after we saw mentioned by name such papers as the Startlegram, The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Post, The Hartford Courant, the Boston Globe, after we read how "Even the august New York Times was swept along with the tide," we heard about the Chron.

The Chron, which printed 37,000 copies with a "Bush Wins" headline.

"The Chronicle stopped the presses at 37,000, with no copies of the front page topped by "It's Bush with a W' making it into distribution," the story read.

Well, some copies of that edition have been distributed around town. But that's apparently an anomaly, because the Chronicle doesn't make mistakes like all those other laughable papers.

Blowout Fallout

You may or may not have heard of the magazine Brill's Content. It's a magazine about journalism that's aimed at the general public rather than the profession, a self-styled watchdog that's made a few waves under bombastic iconoclast Steve Brill.

The upcoming issue has a story on the efforts by Houston television stations to break the Firestone recall story, and it provides some ammo for the folks at KPRC who've grumbled every time they see KHOU with another gloating advertisement crowing about how they got the scoop.

We've gotten an advance look at the story in Brill's. Writer Jim Edwards highlights the effort by former KPRC reporter Brette Lea, now an anchor in Nashville, to break the story about SUVs and tire blowouts four years ago. "The report was remarkably prescient, stating the Firestone-Explorer connection explicitly," Edwards writes.

Lea's report didn't make waves, he concludes, because she didn't list a number for viewers to call if they had experienced similar problems. KHOU did so when it conducted its own investigation and aired a story in February. The station was overwhelmed by calls. (Edwards gives full props to KHOU's work.)

Even then, the story basically died, Edwards writes, until USA Today ran an article in August.

Brill's Content gives a whack to the Chron for not following up on KHOU's report. It said the managing editor of the paper -- "which," it said dubiously, "claims to be the sixth-largest daily in the U.S." -- put the blame on the night staff.

"The city desk normally is the desk that monitors the local stations each night," M.E. Tommy Miller told Edwards. "We didn't follow up on that one. In retrospect obviously we should have."

Breaking Non-News

It was Wednesday, November 8, and the fate of a nation hung in the balance. The presidential race was still too close to call; rumors were flying; reports of voting irregularities that could tip the balance were everywhere.

Naturally the local affiliates were going all-out following the story of Texas's own favorite son, George W., and his nail-biting White House run.

So it was no surprise when Channels 2 and 13 cut into regularly scheduled programming for breaking news. What was surprising, though, was the reason they broke into programming: to show live shots of some guy up to his thighs in a bayou, waiting for the cops to pull him out.

Helicopters documented every move of the putative drama, which consisted almost entirely of the man standing in the doorway of his SUV with a rope around his waist, waiting for instructions from the cops on the bayou bank. How he got his SUV in the bayou we weren't told, although we were assured that nonairborne reporters were on the way.

Eventually the guy miraculously moseyed on over to safety, as all of Houston let out a huge sigh of relief.

Only then could they turn back again to the other news of the day, none of which was delivered by pointless helicopter shots.


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