Michael Berry was wrong before he was right, I was just wrong

One of the things I learned from the whole affair was that I can get as lazy as anyone about paying attention, and I need to watch that.  In this case, not only was I sucked in by the trick and missed the obvious transgression, I got schooled on the thing by the guy I was delighted to believe was going to suffer—not only for his own alleged unlawful behavior but from what I assumed is the bigotry of his fans.

The facts are MBerrythese: late last month a Chevy Tahoe registered to local radio talk show host and former Houston City Council member Michael Berry was implicated in an traffic accident in which witnesses saw the vehicle strike an unoccupied parked car and then leave the scene.  The vehicle was later witnessed driving around the block back to the scene a second and a third time without stopping, and on those subsequent passes the driver was ID’ed as Berry; Berry was also visible in surveillance footage shot inside a nearby business just before the accident happened.  Police investigated, filed no charges; Berry subsequently acknowledged being inside the nearby business at the time in question, but has not admitted or denied being behind the wheel when the accident occurred.  Well, that’s all very, well, (yawn)…

But that wasn’t the story when I heard it.  The Big Story that was broken by a local television station last week (which I didn’t see) and was then followed up by Houston’s Leading Information Source (which I did) was that a local conservative talk show host was implicated in a hit-and-run outside a gay bar.  The “conservative” (like there’s any other kind on a political show these days?) and the “gay bar” are also factually accurate, but entirely beside the point if you were to assume that any actual news here is “prominent Houstonian investigated for hit-and-run” and not “conservative loudmouth attends drag show at gay bar (and sideswipes a parked car without leaving his information).”

I admit: when I read the story in the paper my first thought was to assume that Berry was going to get roasted by his hard-core conservative radio audience for patronizing a gay bar, and I smiled a little smile of satisfaction…and, yes, my second thought was that it was wrong of him to back into a parked car and then leave, although to me the “illegal leaving” made sense if he was trying to keep from being caught up in the “gay bar” part of the situation.  It was just funny that someone who was trying to keep from being caught would drive by the scene again—twice!—and if he was going to be that dumb then he deserved what he was going to get.

Berry said nothing publicly about the matter until he opened up his radio show yesterday, and then he spent an entire hour on it.  It took him 34:42 into the hour before he got to the hit and run allegation at the center of the case and then he said he couldn’t talk about it because it’s a pending legal matter; he reminded listeners that he hasn’t been charged with anything, and stated that he has cooperated with the police fully.  That all makes good sense legally but it’s jarring to the sensibilities: if you’re talking about the incident at all, how can you refuse to address the central issue?

What he did talk about, though, was the attack on him by the TV station, and he was right about that, to a point.  KPRC-TV led its newscast—led the newscast, mind you; ostensibly the most important event of the day—with a story about a two-week-old, injury-less, hit-and-run accident in which a former city council member and prominent local media member was implicated, but had it all dressed up with screams of “gay bar” and “drag show.”  That’s got to be in someone’s textbook as an example of how to unfairly and misleadingly characterize a simple set of facts.  The station’s report included proof that a traffic accident occurred and that Berry’s vehicle was involved, but otherwise served only to raise the titillation quotient and crank up the rumor-mongering machinery.  KPRC-TV should be ashamed of itself, but probably is not; it lost its soul when the local owners sold it to Post-Newsweek in 1994.

So for me, if Berry had left it there he’d be declared the hands-down winner in this little bit of business.  But no.  The man to whom I once wrote a nice letter about his expressed hope that any mosque built near Ground Zero would be bombed couldn’t let it rest.

I listened to Berry’s on-air response posted on the station’s website.  He claimed he was being smeared with reports from “unnamed sources” that he intimated may not actually exist..and then he threatened to respond with reports from his own “unnamed sources” and their (wink, wink) “allegations” about KPRC people.  Berry asserted that the “gay bar” story was “shopped around” to local reporters by political insiders (whom he did not name) and enemies he’s made over the years.

He said he went to the bar in question, where gay patrons were present, because he wanted a beer, thought he wouldn’t be recognized there, and didn’t want to be bothered.  Fine.  He also refuted the assumption that all conservatives hate gay people, and pointed out that he himself has taken on gay-bashers in the past, Pat Robertson in particular.  But I thought he showed an inability to control his own temper: anger at being wrongly accused may be understandable, but Berry’s display of flashes of that anger, and his childish name-calling, showed a lack of self-control.

So anyways, thanks Michael Berry, for reminding me that if I am ever being tortured by being made to watch the news on KPRC-TV that I make damn sure to have the BS filter cleaned and installed ahead of time.  And thanks to you, too, Patti Kilday Hart, for invoking the memory of the late, great Bob Bullock to teach a lesson to people like me:

The recovering alcoholic, chain-smoking, serial husband would remind us that life’s darkest moments offer opportunity for profound change.  He’d tell Berry to listen to his lawyer and shut up.

Then he’d give the rest of us a dark scowl and suggest what we should give up for Lent: Schadenfreude, the personal enjoyment of another’s suffering.  Bullock knew something about personal foibles.  We all have them.

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Star Wars analogies, girls in bikinis, and the spirit of journalism

I’m not the most cynical person around when it comes to the practice of journalism today…really, I’m not. If I was completely cynical about what passes for a lot of the journalism being published these days—if I believed it was a lost cause, a total sellout to the evil forces of what David Shaw called “the four horsemen of the journalistic apocalypse: superficiality, sensationalism, preoccupation with celebrity, and obsession with the bottom line”—then I wouldn’t bother talking about it at all; there’d be no point. I feel there’s still some good in there, or can be, perhaps in the way that Luke Skywalker could feel the Anakin Skywalker that still remained within Darth Vader. I must still try to turn it back to the good side of the Force.

Many of my contemporaries in the post-Watergate generation went into journalism with an idealized and inflated vision of what journalists could do, and we really did (and do) believe in the vital importance of the role of journalism as a watchdog over government power, a role that was understood and respected by the Founding Fathers to a far greater extent than it is by today’s civic and government leaders and a growing percentage of the general public. But without doubt, the excitement of being a reporter was part of the attraction, too.

Jim Romenesko linked to a recent Brain Pickings post highlighting a 1940 Encyclopedia Britannica film from the Your Life Work series, which called the film an “idealistic manifesto for the deeper ethos of journalism as a calling.” Yea…and it’s funny to see how they were selling it to the pre-World War II student body; enjoy…

While you’re at it, take a look at this video that fights against itself trying to disprove the idea that a pretty girl in a bikini is not necessarily a distraction to effective instruction.

And when you’re done, nose around Brain Pickings…some interesting stuff there on the notion of creativity.

I’ve got some great news, and I’ve got some less than great news

The great news is that the sale of the Houston Astros was approved by the Major League Baseball owners at their quarterly meeting today.  The Dreaded Drayton McLane Era in Houston Astros history is expected to finally be smothered with a pillow by the middle of next week; this will do nothing to immediately get us any better players, but it will make a lot of people feel better.

This past May when the sale agreement with an investment group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane was announced, I unburdened myself on the subject of McLane’s star-crossed stewardship of my hometown team.  In retrospect, the only thing I’d change would be to include better examples of how splurging on big name free agents made McLane feel like he was building a champion but really only reinforced his legacy of misguided priorities:

Kaz Matsui.  Woody Williams.  Vinny Castilla.  Sid Fernandez.  Dwight Gooden.  Mike Hampton.  Jason Jennings.  Pat Listach.  Brett Myers.  Russ Ortiz.

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid and been lucky enough to always live in cities with big league teams, except for a few years as a small boy and then in college, so going to games regularly and seeing all the best players in person has been a big part of my life.  I’ve seen a few really good Houston teams, and I’ve seen quite a few really terrible ones since I first walked into the Astrodome in 1966, but since then the Astros have been my team.  Baseball fans are, among many things, loyal to their team.

But, I got so tired of sitting through season after season of McLane and his minions oh-so-earnestly soldiering on, unable to stop meddling in the baseball stuff they didn’t know about, from scouting to farm system to broadcasting and more, while conniving to get taxpayers to pick up most of the tab for a (beautiful) new playpen and then raising prices on everything we buy when we’re there.  And now to top it all off, the team on the field has turned from a prince into a frog.

So, I’ve got nothing but positive feelings about the old ownership hitting the bricks (not the ones they’re selling for $100).  The new guys could be worse, but I’m willing to take the chance that they’re not.  I’m not so positive about the upcoming opponents.

The less than great news is that this sale turned out, as suspected, to be contingent on moving the Astros out of the National League and into the American League’s West Division.  Probably starting in 2013—the season after next—after more than 50 years with a National League team and before that minor league teams that were associated with National League clubs dating back to the 1920s—Houston will become an American League city.  This bites.

Since the expansions and realignments leading up to the 1998 season, there have been three divisions in each league with five teams in most of those divisions, but the NL Central has had six teams and the AL West only four (I can’t remember why).  In the past few years it seems to have become important to even that out.  The rules won’t let any team owner be forced to change leagues, but the commissioner’s office took advantage of this opportunity and made the league change a requirement for approval of this sale.  The Astros’ new owner had to agree, or walk away from the whole deal.

Now the Astros will be in the same division with the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and play a larger percentage of their games against them instead of against their current NL Central rivals.  Three of the AL West teams are in the Pacific time zone, which means the Astros will play a larger number of road games that won’t start until 9 p.m. Houston time and won’t end until midnight or more.  That will cut into the size of the TV and radio audiences in Houston, hurt ratings and hurt the team and the broadcasters financially.

It will mean a big change in which teams we see come to Houston.  Instead of three visits a year from the Cardinals and Cubs and other NL Central teams, and once a year from the Giants and Phillies and other National League teams, we may see all of them once a year at most. Instead, we’ll get a therapeutic dose of our new AL West buddies and annual drop-ins from not only the Yankees and Red Sox but the Twins and Orioles and Royals, too.  Oh boy.

And as for the idea that the Astros will have a wonderful rivalry with the Rangers…well, that may come to be, but it’s far from certain.  Notwithstanding all the balloon juice emanating from Major League Baseball about the “natural rivalry” between the two teams from Texas, let me presume to speak on behalf of Houston fans when I say, we don’t care about the Rangers.  Don’t hate ’em, just don’t care about ’em.  Never have.  I think Rangers fans feel the same way about the Astros, but I’ll stand to be corrected on that.

And yes, I believe watching a team that plays all of its games with the designated hitter will be annoying.  It won’t be the end of the world, but it won’t add to my enjoyment and excitement, either.  I’m just not a DH kind of guy.  Now it turns out that that will be part of the price I have to pay to get the Old Grocer out of my life and out from that seat behind home plate in the centerfield shot on my TV screen.

Well, things have been worse…did I mention Kaz Matsui?

The man says media bias isn’t a problem, it’s a solution; thoughts?

Are you like me, do you just love the press criticism?  (Of course you are; of course you do.)  Well, I correspond today with news of the new location for Jack Shafer, who was laid off last month by Slate, where as editor at large he wrote the Press Box column (and other things).  In fact, Shafer’s first column at Reuters is dated one week ago so I’m a couple of days late to the party, but there’s not as much to catch up on if you start right away.

If you’re new to Shafer’s brand of criticism, jump in with a look at the latest column: he’s arguing against self-described centrist journalism.

If not for media bias, I’m certain that my news diet would taste so strongly of sawdust and talc that I would abandon news consumption completely. As long as I’m eating news, give me the saffron smoothness of New York Times liberalism and the hallelujah hot sauce excitement of Fox News Channel conservatism. Anything but a menu of balance, moderation, and fairness!

Read the column—he’s not against “balance, moderation and fairness,” he’s against bland; he’s against lazy news consumers who are insufficiently critical of what they read, see and hear, and recommends we all expand our menu of news providers.

The recommendation comes from my prejudice that liberals are better at sniffing out corporate corruption and national security shenanigans and conservatives better at blowing the whistle on waste and overreach by governments. Centrist news outlets, or at least self-defined centrist journalists, don’t strike me as possessed or deranged enough to battle their way to the end of a good investigation.

I also call upon readers to learn how to hit both lefties and righties—and whatever ambidextrous centrist journalists take the mound. Media bias isn’t a journalistic problem. It’s a solution.

Shafer’s new spot at Reuters is now on my blogroll over there, for your future reference.

Houston’s News Authority has left the building

Today they smothered the last vestige of what once was the most kick-ass radio news station in Houston when KTRH Radio fired morning anchors Lana Hughes and J.P. Pritchard.  “Eh, yeah, 27 years…but it’s just not working out for us; we feel like we need to go in a new direction.”

JPP(Full disclosure: I worked with Lana and J.P. at KTRH, liked and respected them both.  I anchored afternoon drive with Jean Jangda, and then Tom Bacon, while they held down the mornings.  In fact, I was already at the station when they were hired, separately, and then when they were made the morning drive team.)

Today’s KTRH (740 on your AM dial) is just a faint echo of the real news organization it once was: full of reporters and writers and producers who bested every other broadcaster in town, and competed with two daily newspapers despite the papers’ overwhelming advantage in resources.  But that station is long gone, and I haven’t listened to KTRH in years.  It lost all depth of coverage, all its authority…become almost feathery, just a series of short readers ping-ponged back and forth between the morning anchors, and the rest of the day filled with Limbaugh and Limbaugh imitators, local and syndicated.  I can’t even turn it on for the Astros’ game (this part is not the station’s fault) because the Astros won’t can Milo Hamilton.   Lana and J.P. were the last link to that past.

As is the norm in these cases, station management has nothing but the highest praise for those so hastily dispatched—“been blessed to work with” them—and J.P. is quoted as saying he knows this is “nothing personal,” just part of a changing business.  But management let them know about “the change” after they got off the air this morning, and after 27 years they just won’t be back.  Makes you wonder: if they were so valued, and so loved, why weren’t they given an opportunity to say goodbye on the air?  To the audience, they will simply vanish, perhaps to be referred to by the new people, in mock reverent tones, for a week or two.  And why has every scintilla of evidence of their existence already been scrubbed from the website, like they were never there?

Station management reportedly admits that this decision means the end of a “traditional morning news show” on the station, and they hope for something more like “Fox and Friends.”  (Great.)  They say they’re making this change based on research and feedback—ah, the magic words that signal another victory for consultants…

In 1984 KTRH was the powerhouse news/talk station in Houston, making a ton of money, when it committed ritual hara-kiri of the talk component because a new program director (who would go on to become a consultant!) proclaimed that talk was a dying format that appealed only to the older demographic…well, we’ve all seen how right he was about that!  Since then subsequent management slowly brought back in the talk shows to fill time, because no one can bear to listen to the same news stories over and over and over again all day, but you need to keep the cume ratings up.  Then the station was bought, and ended up absorbed into Clear Channel Communications, and like most of the other tentacles of that beast it became a rebroadcaster—of right-wing talk, and right-wing news.  Today, they announce they’re going all the way…back to news/talk, but now with a partisan political point of view.

Hey, it’s their station (broadcasting on my airwaves and yours, free of charge), and they can do with it what they want.  What they want is to make money, and I’m fine with that—but don’t any of you for one minute think that they’re trying to do anything other than that.  Any informing or educating or entertaining, or whatever, that happens along the way, is gravy—they’re here to make money.  Today’s decision is, ultimately, undoubtedly, one they believe will make them more money (which, as I said, I’m fine with).  Any consideration about serving “the public interest, convenience and necessity” is an afterthought.

Lana and Jeeps: well done, old friends…sleep in.