Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Down in the Hole: The Newspaper Business is Just like Any Other Business, Only More So

If you were one of the unfortunates at the Houston Chronicle whacked by the wide-swinging scythe of publisher Smilin’ Jack Sweeney’s “position elimination program,” take heart: You can set aside some of that buyout money (if you got bought out---hey, the Hearst Corp.’s hurtin’) to get hooked up to the cable and order HBO (which, we must sadly report, has risen by $10 a month under Comcast's ownership of the city's cable monopoly). Then you’ll be ready to pull up a chair come January for the fifth and final season of the network’s The Wire---now the best show on television after the exit of The Sopranos*---whose main story line will be devoted to downsizing at a big-city monopoly newspaper. It will be worth forgoing a few meals.

We can’t wait for the new season: It’s probably the first time we’ve actually looked forward to something on television since we heard The Beatles were going on Ed Sullivan. Given The Wire’s grand theme---the relentless commodification of the human, on all fronts---and its past treatment of the drug war, urban politics, the declining white working-class and shot-to-hell public schools, we suspect its approach to the faltering newspaper business will strike a chord for anyone involved with, or concerned about, the faltering newspaper business.

In a long story on The Wire in a recent New Yorker, bombastic creator David Simon offered some lacerating insights on the state of newspapers. We knew that Simon was a long-time cop shop reporter for the Baltimore Sun before his book Homicide was turned into a television series in the early ’90s, but we were surprised to learn that he had worked at the Sun as late as 1995 and left only after “bitterly” accepting a buyout offer, believing the newspaper “was squandering talent under new management.” (“Tone-deaf and prize-hungry and more interested in self-aggrandizement than in building lasting quality at the paper,” is the way Simon describes his superiors; the last season of The Wire will be partly set at a newspaper called the Baltimore Sun.) He’s a newspaper guy but clearly sees the medium’s major (and self-imposed) limitation:
This final season of the show, Simon [said], will be about “perception versus reality”—in particular, what kind of reality newspapers can capture and what they can’t. Newspapers across the country are shrinking, laying off beat reporters who understood their turf. More important, Simon believes, newspapers are fundamentally not equipped to convey certain kinds of complex truths. Instead, they focus on scandals—stories that have a clean moral. “It’s like, Find the eight-hundred-dollar toilet seat, find the contractor who’s double-billing,” Simon said at one point. “That’s their bread and butter. Systemic societal failure that has multiple problems—newspapers are not designed to understand it.”
Yes, there’s little that comes neatly packaged in black-and-white on The Wire, but it’s a more accurate depiction of the master narratives of urban life circa 2007 than you’ll ever get from reading a daily newspaper, including the two or three left in the country that are worth a shit.

*Meaning it’s the second-best show of all time, behind The Sopranos and just ahead of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why Are There No Grandmasters Seeking the Highest Office of Our Land (Or Even an At-Large Seat on City Council)?

We occasionally devote this space to our tiresome grousing about the ongoing and apparently inexorable dumbing-down of our native land. It’s one of our “themes,” so to speak, yet every once in a while we are reminded, with a piledriver-to-the-forehead vengeance, that it’s actually much worse than we let on.

Such was the case last weekend when we happened upon Bill Maher’s Real Time on HBO, which we lay prone to watch after Maher announced that one of his guest panelists would be Sheila Jackson Lee (although we believe Maher mangled SJL’s name on first pronunciation). To our mild surprise, The Ubiquitous Congresswoman from Texas’s 18th Congressional District, as she’s formally known, came off well, within the narrow confines of her reflexive partisan predictability (the heathen Maher managed to elicit a grudging admission from the voluble congress gal that she “believes” in evolution, a view we suspect is not shared by many pastors in the 18th District). She did, however, manage to hog most of the dialogue---no mean feat, considering one of the other two panelists was Chris Matthews---and her appearance moved us to wonder what it must be like to be married to SJL, or to be one of her offspring, or to be even a four-legged pet in the SJL household, when no occasion is undeserving of a Major SJL Pronouncement: “Well, Bill, let me say this about [that] …” (which is how she actually seemed to preface every answer she gave Maher).

But we did not come here this evening to take a cheap and easy shot at Shelia Jackson Lee, which would be just too cheap (and easy). What really grabbed our attention on Maher’s show was the pot-puffing host’s interview with Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion and candidate for the Russian presidency next year (he also has new book to sell). Kasparov was trenchant and funny (as in funny-dead serious) and demonstrated a notable ability to think on his feet while directly answering a question---notable, at least, when compared to the 18 or 20 or however many supplicants are still seeking the presidency of the United States, where SOP for candidates is to open the can and pour out the market-tested horseshit.* We especially enjoyed his cogent explanation of rival Vladimir Putin’s cozying up to Ahmadinejad (had something to do with the price of oil---can ya believe it?)

Kasparov wowed his audience: “He’s something, huh?” enthused Maher after the by-satellite interview ended. “Why can’t run in the Iowa caucus?” A lathered-up Matthews declared himself especially impressed by Kasparov’s ESL ability: “Do you ever get the feeling we’re playing checkers and they’re playing chess? That was sophisticated …our guys never get to that level of sophistication! They talk down to us … And he’s thinking in Russian!”

It was indeed quite a performance, as it apparently stunned Shelia Jackson Lee into an unprecedented silence.

This is the Kasparov-Maher interview.

*For the time being we must exempt the callow Obama from this gross generalization, because like our podnah Peggy Noonan we’ve begun to notice that the Illinois senator actually seems to consider questions and think before he speaks. Sometimes he even appears to be talking with people, rather than at them, and mildly embarrassed when he has to resort to pre-packaged blather. There’s no way in hell he could be president!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

War in Iraq Affords Opportunity for Another "Local Boy" to Get His Name in the Paper

The Wall Street Journal reported on its front page Thursday that a Houston businessman named Samir Itani is a “key figure” in what appears to be a wide-ranging federal investigation of fraud, kickbacks and price-gouging by contractors supplying food to the U.S. military in Iraq.

Mr. Itani---doesn’t ring a bell, does it?---is described by the WSJ as a Lebanese American who runs privately held American Grocers Inc. According to the Journal, Itani

has worked closely with a pair of Kuwaiti companies that lie at the heart of the U.S. government’s fraud inquiry. American Grocers supplied them with peanut butter and other food items, according to court records and corporate spread sheets. Investigators suspect the goods were overpriced.
The two Kuwaiti companies, Sultan Center and Public Warehousing Co. (the latter being the main contractor for providing food to American troops), appear to be intertwined, the Journal says, with “members of Kuwait’s powerful Sultan merchant family … among the largest stockholders in both.”

Sultan Center acted as middleman in supplying Public Warehousing with pepperoni, calzone, potato wedges and other American products made by Con-Agra Foods and other U.S. firms, which originally shipped the products to American Grocers. It’s unclear why American Grocers couldn’t ship the food directly to Public Warehousing, instead of adding Sultan Center as a middleman.
It’s also unclear why American Grocers was a necessary link in the food chain, at least according to the scenario the FBI has outlined. Itani was indicted in July by a federal grand jury in Houston on 46 counts of conspiracy to defraud the government, an event that rated just five paragraphs in the daily newspaper (Itani appears not to have generated much in the way of publicity prior to his indictment). The indictment alleges that American Grocers gained about $2 million from the false claims. In a lengthy news release following the grand jury action, the FBI summarized one part of the scheme:

Itani allegedly instructed an American Grocers employee to bill [Public Warehousing Co.] for the cost of trucking food products to its warehouse, when in fact American Grocers did not incur such costs. American Grocers directed its suppliers, according to the indictment, to ship products directly to PWC, bypassing American Grocers’ warehouse in the supply chain. At Itani's instruction ... the employee billed PWC for the bogus trucking costs by inserting the costs into invoices that American Grocers presented for payment to PWC. PWC paid the invoices, and pursuant to its government contract, billed the government for the moneys it paid to American Grocers, which included the bogus trucking costs. The government then reimbursed PWC for the bogus trucking costs PWC paid to American Grocers.
Peanut butter, calzone, Houston warehouse, fraudulent invoices, Sultan merchant family ... war in Iraq. Yes, we've lost our appetite now.*

*An indictment, of course, is not a finding of guilt. (Hey, we really believe that!)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Priscilla Slade is Still a Thief of the Public Purse, No Matter What a Jury of Her Peers Says

We saw that Priscilla Slade was thanking God for answering her prayers and hanging up the jury in the former TSU president’s trial for “misapplying” more than $500,000 in public funds.

If that’s so, and God was actually moved to deadlock the jury on Slade's behalf, then we again must conclude that God is one colossal ass.

When we were first informed of the judge’s declaration of a mistrial, but before we had sampled any media reports on his decision, we idlely wondered whether the jury had been hung along racial lines---whether black jurors had had pulled a nullification gambit, a la O.J. Then we saw a group of five or six jurors at a post-trial sidewalk news conference on Channel 13, all white except for one, and thought, “Shame on us for being such a cynical honky SOB!”

But we obviously weren’t alone in the thought, and the Chronicle undertook to address and apparently put to rest that very question---belatedly, but better late than never---in its Sunday follow-up, wherein the newspaper reported that just three of the 12 jurors were black and that the foreman and another white juror “emphatically said that neither race nor gender” were factors in the 6-6 deadlock.

Ok, we believe ’em, but we gotta have an answer. The seemingly popular notion that running up a $100,000 tab at Scott Gertner’s SkyBar and Grille is just the normal run of taxpayer-funded entertainment expenses for university presidents is flat bullshit.

So our suspicious mind next settled on the jury foreman, a white guy who’s a tax attorney. He’s been pretty accessible to the media since the mistrial was declared, and while we haven’t seen that he’s specifically revealed how he was leaning, he did speak disparagingly of the prosecution’s efforts---“They just didn’t get to the heart of the case”---and said that TSU needs someone like Slade “so they can get the right things done.”

Our question is: How did a tax attorney get on the jury? Or more to the point: How did the prosecution let a tax attorney get on the jury? Think about what a tax attorney does. We must agree with a former assistant county D.A. named Ricky Raven, quoted in a sidebar story in Saturday’s Chronicle saying “the battle in the courtroom is won and lost in jury selection.” Raven allowed that Slade attorney Mike DeGeurin “masterfully picks jurors … which may have won an advantage in Slade’s case.” Yes, quite often it’s all over when the jury is seated---the ability to read would-be jurors’ predispositions, proclivities and (most importantly) prejudices is the reason that Joe Jamail is today one of the state’s richest humans---and we’ve always thought the younger DeGeurin stood far out from the throng of blustering, sawed-off defense attorneys tottering around town in their cowboy boots with the 3-inch heels. He’s the guy we’ll call if we ever get caught spending $100,000 of taxpayers’ money on home furnishings.

This was a point made by two old black guys---both consummate barbershop bullshitters---whom we overheard discussing the case as we were dressing after a “workout” Saturday at our Y. One guy noted that “she didn’t do anything they all do,” meaning other university presidents, and he proceeded to click off the name of every local institute of higher learning----“Rice, U.H., Houston Baptist …”, except possibly for DeVry Business College, where he believed expenditures of the epic Slade scale were routinely incurred by university presidents in the pursuit of … well, being university presidents. The lockerroom dialogue between these two unclothed gentlemen rambled around on this point for a while until the pair came to a mutual agreement that Slade, whatever the merits of the state’s case, managed to slip free because she could afford to hire an exceptionally talented lawyer. "It's too bad if you're poor," said one before the conversation veered into a near reverential appreciation of Marvin Zindler.

Yep, it’s like our granddaddy always said: It’s nice to have God on your side, but it’s better to have a good lawyer.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Out of Towner Uglies Up Adopted City With Unsightly Political Signage, A Slampo’s Place Pictographic Exposé

We’ve spotted our first misplaced political sign of the still-young campaign season, and damned but if didn’t belong to recent immigrant and city council candidate Jack Christie, known in some quarters as the Larry Craig of Houston politics* and in others as The Man Who Couldn’t Keep His Pool Clean.

The sign---check out the rich, bold royal blue---is affixed to the fence of what we believe is an HISD charter school at the corner of Bissonnet and Rampart in southwest Houston. It’s got very high visibility, as they say.

We’re not sure about the legality or propriety of the placement and whether Christie, a former member of the State Board of Education, has some connection with the school or property owner, but it’s not the sort of thing to engender warm feelings toward that HISD bond proposal (on which we remain decidedly undecided).

We're pretty sure you wouldn't see this sort of thing in Bunker Hill Village.

*We are not of course referring to Christie’s proclivities in the men’s room, which we assume are the same as ours (do your business and shove off, and try not to make contact with the toilet seat), but to his on, off and on-again campaign.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sweet Hitchhiker (A Cautionary Tale of the Road)

The recent mass exhumation of the literary remains of J. Kerouac (that’s us in the group picture, back row, third from right, holding our Bic aloft), which culminated, we hope, in this belated but very sharp appreciation by Louis Menand in the recent New Yorker, as well as an even more belated parsing by New York Times tight end David Brooks, who uses the 50th anniversary of K’s On the Road as an excuse for Baby Boomer-bashing (which is OK when we do it, ’cause we earned the right), compels us to document for posterity---or whenever this Internet thing craters---our first hitchhiking experience, which coincided, perhaps fittingly and perhaps not, with out first massive, nerve-mangling hangover experience.

Our story begins on a Friday evening, during the summer after either our freshman or sophomore year in high school, when we laced up our desert boots and sauntered over to our friend St-ve’s house to “spend the night,” as we informed our parents. We did not inform them that St-ve’s parents were away and his older brother, who was either a senior in high school or may have been in college already (but whatever his academic standing was a nice guy, and we were sorry to learn of his recent passing away), was throwing a party for his peers, and that St-ve had beckoned over some of his associates to mull around the periphery and observe the proceedings, perhaps pick up a few pointers in the art of acting “older.” The plan was that we---that is, us, St-ve and another buddy, R-b---were to arise early the next morning and head up to a weekend “ranch” north of town where St-ve had arranged for us to clean out a barn and rebuild a fence for some rich guy.

We passed the evening eating popcorn (the kind that was actually popped on a stove; this predated the advent of that nasty, carcinogenic microwaved crap, as well as the advent of the microwave) and sipping from the many available bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, a popular beverage of the day which in the not too distant future we would be purchasing from the 7-11 with our doctored high school I.D., which proclaimed us to be two years older than we actually were but showed us to look two (or more) years younger than we actually were. There was swingin’, swayin’ and record playin’: lots of Beach Boys and the Buffalo Springfield one with On the Way Home on it, and somewhere in there, as the evening took on a hazy, golden glow and St-ve’s brother’s friends began retiring to various secluded parts of the house, The Lettermen’s A Summer Place. Emboldened by the Boone’s Farm, late in the evening even we undertook to do the boogaloo with a Weejun-wearing, mini-skirted blonde of 18 or 19, who most likely perceived us as “goofy” and “harmless” (as well as “drunk”) but of course was unaware of the dark and powerful sexual energy coiled within our mostly hairless 15-year-old body.

We had had a nip or two here or there dating back to 7th grade, but were a decided amateur in the art of drinking, and we eventually partook of so much Boone’s Farm that we puked half-digested popcorn all over self before puking out what seemed to be all of our insides, then passed out---or fell into a coma---at the foot of a tall oak in St-ve’s front yard. It was there that we awoke shortly after dawn and noticed that R-b had also ended his evening at the foot of a tree, about 10 yards away. We had never felt so bad, maybe to this day (and if we try real hard we can recall the smell of the regurgitated Boone’s Farm at the base of our throat, laced with the fine tang of urped-up popcorn). But somehow we pulled our self together enough to be on board a couple of hours later for the drive out to the work site.

Then came the bouncing ride with the clanging tools in the back of a pick-up, the overpowering smell of the creosoted timber at the barn, our pressing need to vomit again shortly after arriving, and our subsequent announcement, after only an hour or so of desultory toil in the blistering sun, that we would be forgoing the further opportunity to earn $1.75 an hour stringing barb-wire and would be heading for home. Our pending departure was met with derision by St-ve and R-b, and we exchanged a round of insults and counter-insults that most likely were confined to such terms as “little girl,” “big pussy” and the chart-topping favorite “you big f-----' queer.” Such were the parameters of male adolescent repartee in the Hub City.

Unbeknown to us, St-ve and R-b would pack it in within the hour and drive back to ease their hangovers in the leafy green of suburbia, but we were in a decided hurry and made the long walk down the dirt road and out to the highway, where we stuck out our thumb by the side of a thoroughfare called the Evangeline Thruway (‘cause it went straight through town, we think). In very short order we were picked up by a car driven by a small brown-skinned gentleman, a native of the Subcontinent who must have been affiliated with the petroleum engineering branch of the local diploma mill, as there would have been no other reason for an Indian from India to be in that town then, the non-chain motels all being locally owned. Not too long after we climbed in the car, which was stuffy and stinking of B.O., the driver inquired in a small, tentative voice whether we would like to stop at the coming-up-on-the-right K-Mart to try on bathing suits. Not believing we had heard what we had heard, we asked the driver to repeat the question, which he did, but at much more of a mumble. We politely asked to be let off, immediately, then proceeded to walk all the way home, a good 5 or 6 miles as the crow flies.

This, we’re embarrassed to say, was not to be the last time we would hitchhike, or drink to excess.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

New Heights in Victimology: Should We Call Southampton Residents “Refugees,” or “Evacuees?"

We’re in general sympathy with homeowners of the “affluent” neighborhoods of Southampton and Boulevard Oaks in their efforts to thwart construction of a 23-story apartment tower along a two-lane stretch of Bissonnet, and we're also down with Guv’nuh White’s vow to all but position himself in front of the oncoming bulldozers, although the mayoral proposition does set an interesting precedent for similar future development conflicts.*

But we didn’t know how deserving of our sympathy the genteel folk of the Rice University-area neighborhoods were until we read an opinion piece in the Sept. 25 Village News/Southwest News, a weekly throwaway rag that circulates to the east of our domicile.** The writer is identified only as “Leslie Miller, Ph.D.,” and Doc Miller’s argument apparently was so incisive that it reappeared, with the only the slightest touch of the editor’s hand, on the front of the Sept. 30 Outlook section of the Houston Chronicle.***

In the Village News/Southwest News the doc’s piece was ominously titled “Houston: Living in the Shadow of Greed,” while the Chronicle (which more fully identified the writer as a “native Houstonian and resident of Southampton for 35 years”), opted for the similarly faux-spooky but slightly more pop culture-friendly “23-story high-rise would be nightmare on Bissonnet.” In both pieces---and here we must link to the Chronicle’s version ( thus helping to account for the newspaper’s claimed 50 million [or is it jillion?] monthly page hits), because we can find no evidence of an online presence of the Village News/Southwest News---this native Houstonian and holder of a Ph.D., who after all that time clocking-in here suddenly finds herself in the “shadow of greed,” draws a slightly strained analogy:
In this mix of unregulated development and a proliferation of developers without concerns about the impact of their actions, we are witnessing the destruction of our neighborhoods and the diminution of our quality of life.

A perfect storm is brewing — literally in my back yard in Southampton and yours.

The mayor of our city, Bill White, exercised great courage and civic responsibility in helping thousands who were escaping from the terrible storm, Katrina. I would urge him and all those on City Council to exercise that same courage and civic responsibility to stop this impending storm.

Its destruction will be every bit as real.
So can we expect to soon see the bloated bodies of Southampton homeowners floating down Main Street? Will the intrusive tower force the residents out of their homes and into shelter at the Astrodome, the first stop on the road to longtime government-subsidized residency in cramped southwest Houston apartments? Perhaps Kinky Friedman, while readying himself to run against the courageous Guv’nuh White in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary, can come up with a mock talkin'-blues number---as a working title, we’d suggest Buckhead Done Drove Me Down---that could be used as a soundtrack behind CNN’s footage of the beleaguered and bedraggled Southamptonites lining up to catch a bus out of town.

Oh, we’ll stop now. At least we can’t accuse Leslie Miller, Ph.D., of exploiting 9/11.

*Say, for instance, if some developer suddenly lost his or her mind and wanted to drop down a 23-story tower along a major thoroughfare fronting our much less affluent neighborhood, would the mayor come to our rescue? On second thought, never mind---we’d welcome a 23-story tower right down the street, and if things don’t work out along Bissonnet we’d like to invite Buckhead Investment Partners to investigate our area. It’ d be prime for an “Enclave Near the Foodarama/Wing Stop.” We’d voluntarily help assemble the parcel.

**We’ve kept a jaundiced eye on this rag ever since the publisher, many seasons back, ran for a state representative seat and suddenly was having her newspaper tossed onto the driveways of our neighborhood, which was in the district she sought to represent but previously had not been in the rag’s distribution area. After her election loss the newspaper summarily, and thankfully, did not appear on the driveways of our neighborhood.

***Although the subject is only tenuously related, we are again moved to wonder about the criteria for employment at the Chronicle. We know the daily newspaper requires prospective employees to piss in a cup and have their urine inspected by a private contractor, but apparently the newspaper does not force actual employees to submit to IQ exams or random field sobriety tests. We were moved to this conclusion after being among what surely were the single-digit number of readers of Tuesday’s “Sky Watch” column, a monthly feature whose lede ran thusly: “This is a great month for early rising planet-watchers but not so good for the evening crowd.” The headline over the column read “Star-gazing better in the early evening.” Gaaawwwdamn!