Debate Club

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Chris Baker is the leading local talk-show host in town; since the town in question is Houston, he is of course hard-core right-wing.

A former stand-up comic, Baker employs all the tools used by any Rush or Hannity wannabe: a heavily controlled forum and a tendency to out-shout the rare dissenting voice.

It's all apparently fair and balanced, unless you're on the receiving end.


hairballs, KTRH, FEMA, Fertitta

Baker was invited on MSNBC June 26 to debate with liberal talk-show host Bernie Ward the question of The New York Times's disclosure of a Bush administration plan to trace terrorist funding by checking international bank records.

Baker said we should trust the government if they say it's a national-security issue that shouldn't be exposed; Ward asked if Baker thought the government should have approval over what papers print.

Baker didn't really answer, so Ward went all talk-show host on him, repeating the question loudly and often.

"Excuse me, toots, calm down," Baker said before ridiculing Ward's double chin, then comparing him to Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels and calling him a clown. Baker then noted he was being thwarted in his desire to "have a conversation of dialogue."

"I'm through with this jackass," he said, and stormed off the set.

The lefty blogosphere was giddy. "Fan-freaking-tastic! Right-wing talk-show host can't take his own medicine," one wrote at the Crooks & Liars Web site. "Chrissy is now exposed as a wimp when he's not in control of the debate and studio equipment," posted another.

Baker apologized on his own blog, although he coupled it with a rant about how "some people are so obsessed with their hatred of the President they are willing to get us all killed," which, as apologies go, is slightly half-assed.

On the phone with Hair Balls, though, Baker was entirely subdued and contrite. "It's unprofessional...It's embarrassing, and it's my fault," he said, adding, "I am in the midst of sending my apologies" to MSNBC and Ward.

As to whether it was "a taste of his own medicine," he just said, "I don't know, I guess that's what people would say to me. It just boils down to 'I'm better than that' and I shouldn't have let it happen."

Baker should at least stay away from chin jokes -- he publicly had plastic surgery two years ago for what KPRC-TV said was "his expanding waistline and sagging chin."

Silent Owner

Stories about people ripping off FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have been getting a lot of play recently. One of the highlights -- once you get past the people using FEMA money to buy porn or New Orleans Saints tickets -- is the $230,000 in fraudulent billings from a Galveston hotel.

A Galveston hotel owned by local media darling Tilman Fertitta.

But where have you seen any local stories about Fertitta and FEMA? Nowhere. No one dares antagonize the man with the huge advertising budget; they instead cower helplessly and look the other way.

Well, not exactly.

Fertitta owns the facility in question -- the Flagship Hotel, that semi-decrepit building on a seawall pier -- but he doesn't yet run it. He bought the hotel from the city of Galveston in 2003, but it came with a tenant who had a long-term lease, Daniel Yeh of Sugar Land.

Fertitta filed an eviction notice against Yeh, but Yeh declared bankruptcy and efforts to remove him have been stymied. (Man, we thought Fertitta had more juice in Galveston than that.)

It's Yeh who was indicted over the FEMA fraud. Fertitta "is not in any way involved in the current charges," says Marion Gammill, a spokeswoman for the restaurateur.

Yeh's attorney, Robert Bennett, agrees that Fertitta is not involved but says the real story is how the government is going after his client.

Yeh has already repaid the money, Bennett says. More important, Yeh is mentally impaired, having had three brain surgeries to remove tumors in the last 12 years.

"He can function," Bennett says. "I mean, he's not like...a raving lunatic. He's not Anthony Hopkins. But he doesn't have the ability to discern things [and] can't make executive decisions."

Better put him in charge of a hotel, then.

Bennett says FEMA pursued the indictment and is hyping it as a way of fighting bad publicity over Katrina.

If the agency really wanted publicity, it would have found some way to indict Tilman.

And the Winner Is...

As we've noted before, newspapers love to brag when staffers win journalism awards. The Houston Chronicle has taken it further.

The paper's features section had a story June 29 about Texas Monthly writer Mimi Swartz winning the John Bartlow Martin award. "Imagine being the victim of medical malpractice -- and never finding a lawyer to represent your case. Journalist Mimi Swartz unveiled this disturbing problem," the story began.

It went on to note that Swartz "had worked as a staff writer for Talk magazine and the New Yorker. Her articles also have appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Vanity Fair and National Geographic."

One thing the story didn't get around to mentioning: Swartz is married to Chron managing editor John Wilburn.

So is that why the Chron decided to help Texas Monthly's already aggressive PR machine? "Conspiracy? Favoritism? No. Seek if you like, but this is not it," features editor Kyrie O'Connor says. "Mimi Swartz is a local writer of long standing with a national name, and it was a very big-deal award. That was the consideration. It sure didn't come down from John."

Funny, when Houston Press writer Bob Burtman won the award in 1998, the Chron didn't do a story.

O'Connor wasn't around then, to be fair. (Also, Burtman wasn't married to anyone at the Chronicle.)

And just for the record, one of the finalists for this year's Very Big-Deal award was the Press's Josh Harkinson, who is "a local writer" but who was not mentioned in the story. He also is not married to anyone at the Chron.

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