Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I Call Shenanigans (Local Media Edition)

For those of you interested in the inside baseball of Harris County politics today's story by Mike Morris on the Chron's paysite discussing the lack of cooperation two County incumbents are providing to their future successors is an amusing look at the proclivities of a pair of local politicians with anger management issues over being unelected last November

For ChronBlog this is low-hanging fruit. One right-leaning District Attorney and a Tax Assessor-Collector who ran on the slogan "I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool" are easy targets upon whom to heap scorn with little to no danger of political ramifications (read: future lack of access to the office).

My issue here is not with out-going DA Lykos or T-AC Sumner. The election is over, they lost and will soon be back where they belong, out of the public eye. And while I'm happy to see our local media shining some light on these types of actions I'm more than a little concerned with whatever it is we don't see, and why we possibly don't see it.

Probably the worst-kept secret in Houston media/politics has been the Wednesday evening Houston Media Roundtable. There's no official date when this tradition was started but best guesses place it Somewhere around 1995, when Tim Fleck (the founder) returned to the Houston Press. For years, the roundtable was akin to fight club, and rule number one is that you don't mention roundtable. Recently, however with the rise of blogging, that rule has softened and you hear about this little politico/scribe chat sessions with more and more frequency. With declining budgets in the media and increasingly desk-bound reporters, the rumor is that many of the "best" stories are pitched and framed by politicians over drinks shared with a willing audience. Sadly, this little blog's readership has always been too low to garner an invitation. As a note of full disclosure I have attended several publicly announced blog/media meet-ups organized by BlogHouston and Texas Watchdog. I've found those to be fun and enlightening, as I've had the chance to discuss local, state and federal politics with fellow bloggers, members of the media, and (yes) elected officials from both parties. To continue to hammer in this nail: These meetings can be very beneficial if carried out under the right circumstances. (public, open to everyone, and fully disclosed).

However, it gets to a point where the media and the officials they cover start to get a little too chummy, a little too friendly and I think this causes a problem.

Last night, on Twitter, two members of Houston media, both who cover City Hall, sent out tweets about how much fun it was to attend Mayor Parker's holiday party, about how nice the tree was, and how stimulating conversations were had. I'm not suggesting that the two reporters in question are bad people for attending, but I do question their professional judgement in the matter. Miya Shay used to write KTRK's political blog when it was active and is still posting reports on City Hall happenings in Houston for channel 13. While Mary Benton is not assigned to the "City Hall" beat for KPRC Channel 2, she is a "general assignments" reporter and her coverage is sometimes focused on the goings on there. In several cases these two reporters coverage could be focused on an elected official whom they spent time celebrating the Holiday season and partaking in Parker's dairy-free, soy-based, sustainable, vegan, alcohol-free eggnog.

I'm not suggesting that neither of these ladies should not have a social life, far from it. Shay is married to District 137 State Representative Elect Gene Wu and I think that is grand. Her employer also did the right thing by promising to keep her off of any stories related to Wu which is also appropriate. By all accounts both reporters are professional and do good work. But you have to question just how willing they would be to do the same quality of work on a negative story involving people with whom they share yuletide cheer?

The journalism mantra is "trust us, we're professionals". It's used to deflect any criticism, no matter how valid, of potential conflicts of interest and, in reality, to make them go away. We've been led to believe from the crib that all journalists are dedicated professionals capable of putting aside human nature and reporting a story as-is, without the possible hint of bias. As the Internet has opened up internal communication and shed the light on faulty reporting we know now that they are humans just as the rest of us. Personal biases matter. They have to or we wouldn't be human.

Believe it or not, I do understand the tight-rope journalists walk in a city where the media tradition is friendly. In my day job, as an oil and gas regulatory accountant, I spend most of my time dealing with State auditors and, in many cases, some of them have been working with people in the department (and myself) for years now. We're on a first name basis with some. There are many with whom I know that I share the same likes, interest in travel etc. But we're always sure that we keep it civil and friendly without actually being friends. We may go to lunch during on-site visits, but the payment plan is Dutch. We may discuss other issues, but it's in that superficial way that co-workers do. You will not find me out with them sharing drinks and we don't exchange Christmas gifts, although I might receive a Holiday card from one or two as a matter of course. So I get the fact that it's hard to cover someone and not be friends with them, but as a journalist you have to try.

Let me put it another way:  Since she was first elected to office, we have been inundated with a slew of negative stories surrounding the actions of Houston Councilwoman Helena Brown. In most cases these stories have been of some merit, in many cases however they've been silly exercises in minutia.

Do you think the City Hall reporters attended her Christmas party? I'm saying the safe guess is no, and there's the potential problem.

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