Trial Story

The Hearst Corporation -- those friendly folks who bring you the Houston Chronicle and a dozen other dailies -- is in the middle of an ugly, ugly court battle in San Francisco.

Hearst publishes the San Francisco Examiner but would rather publish the dominant San Francisco Chronicle; the two papers are linked under a Joint Operating Agreement, but Hearst wants to sell the smaller paper. It's willing not only to pay $660 million for the Chron, not only to give the Examiner away to a locally controversial publisher, but to then subsidize the Examiner to the tune of $66 million a year. (Hearst employees in Texas probably shouldn't be spending any Christmas bonuses yet.)

The proposed sale has been challenged under federal antitrust statutes, and testimony in the trial has been deeply embarrassing to Hearst. Examiner publisher Timothy White testified that he had done some "horse trading" with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, promising they'd treat him nice in print if he supported the sale. (White said later he was "tired and confused" on the witness stand, and didn't mean what he said.)

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker has made clear that the quality of the papers Hearst puts out is not an issue in the trial, but the subject has come up.

The San Francisco-based on-line magazine Salon wrote (as only a San Francisco-based magazine could): "Spectators packed Judge Walker's stifling courtroom every day not just to rubberneck, but to get an answer to one of the oldest questions in American journalism: Why is this literate city, with its high concentration of overeducated book lovers and its new media savants, saddled with the most mediocre daily journalism in the country?"

Here in the hinterlands, we may not have any savants, but we got just as much Hearst as the City by the Bay. And Houston's Leading Information Source has found its way into the trial transcripts.

Hearst Chief Executive Officer Frank Bennack was testifying on the proposed sale when plaintiff's lawyer Joseph Alioto asked him about the Hearst chain's other papers.

"Are any of those newspapers world-class newspapers?" he asked.

"We believe that the Houston Chronicle is perhaps closest to that characterization of our newspapers, and it's getting better, and we're hopefully making it better," Bennack testified. (Under oath, no less.)

"Has it reached that level yet?" Alioto continued.

"I'm not satisfied that it has, no," replied Bennack, thereby probably escaping any perjury prosecution.

Bennack was also asked about the 1995 death of The Houston Post. He said that Hearst bought the Post's assets after the smaller paper was shut down. "They had some very good physical equipment, printing presses, et cetera," he said.

"And one of the reasons you did that was to make sure that no other potential competitor might buy those assets?" Alioto asked.

"No, that's not true," Bennack replied. "We needed them for what we foresaw was the growth of the Houston Chronicle."

So the folks at Hearst are sticking to their story that they had nothing to do with the demise of the Post. Why, first they heard about it was the ad in the Greensheet advertising good used printing presses.

Film at Five and Six

The biggest story in the city June 7 was that City Councilman Bert Keller was nowhere to be found after reportedly leaving the scene of an accident while driving drunk. (Keller later said he would plead guilty to DWI and was not charged with leaving the scene.)

It was the biggest news in town -- unless you were Channel 2. In that case, on the early news the Big Story was a house fire. And the next story was yet another house fire. Not that there was anything unusual about the two house fires, mind you, but there were lots of nice pictures of flames.

KPRC-TV finally got around to the Keller case, and offered with it an entirely new way of reporting the news. Bravely tossing aside the hidebound, dusty rules of journalistic convention, those tired traditions that still cling to the apparently discredited notion of telling as much of the story as possible, KPRC adopted a new tack. It assumed a more literary mantle, one not unlike that of Charles Dickens, who used to publish his stories a few chapters at a time.

KPRC gave a few details and then, inexplicably, told viewers they could wait and tune in later if they wanted to hear the rest of what the channel had found out. At 5 p.m., we were told, KPRC would tell us if Keller had received any special treatment. At 6 p.m., they would deign to give us the reaction of Keller's fellow councilmembers.

News you can use. When we goddamn well decide you can use it, and not a minute before.

Railroad Job

We like Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman as much as the next guy, as long as the next guy isn't a fanatic about pro wrestling, Beanie Babies or Paul McCartney. Hoffman can be funny, a quality that isn't exactly in abundance in the gray pages of the Chron. (Unless you count reporter Steve Brewer quoting D.A. Johnny Holmes's reaction June 9 to the striking down of the state's sodomy law, in which Holmes called it "a backdoor attempt" to make legislation.)

What Hoffman isn't, though, is an expert on light rail. But in the Chron's never-ending campaign to get such a system built here, he has been sent across the nation to file cheery reports on just how great light rail is.

There's been no economic analysis so far, but the series isn't done yet, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

That's not to say the columns have been content-free. Here's what we learned:

June 6, San Diego: "The [light rail] cars are immaculate. Signs warn against loud music, littering, eating, drinking and putting your feet on the seats. I didn't see one scrap of paper on the floor."

June 7, Denver: "The cars are squeaky clean."

June 8, Cleveland: "The cars are so clean you could eat off the floor, except nobody dares drop any crumbs down there."

Now that's a relief. We thought Metro was proposing to use dirty, noisy and smelly rail cars. Now light rail makes sense.


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