Monday, January 17, 2005

I never wrote anything in The Brazosport News about my firing from the Houston Chronicle back in the summer of '02, but in doing the interview today with National Public Radio's Eric Weiner, naturally I had explain how it all went down.

The interview, if it gets edited and put together in time, is scheduled to air tomorrow (Tuesday) on the "Day to Day" program. This is a program that isn't carried by KUHF in Houston, but you can listen to it on the Web.

So now I will attempt to paraphrase what I told Mr. Weiner.

I started The Brazosport News as a creative outlet. I had always been interested in column writing, and in fact wrote a weekly column at my first newspaper job in Wichita Falls, Texas, for about three years. The editor there at the time had been my first journalism instructor at the University of Texas @ Austin.

Since reporters typically don't publish their opinions and are supposed to be objective in writing their stories, I chose to write under a pseudonym. The weblog, for the most part, was intended to be satircal and humorous, though at times it dealt with serious topics (example: the death of my father), and as time went on, a few partisan stands were taken.

Yes, I poked fun sometimes at public officials. Yes, I once endorsed a candidate in a down-ballot judicial race (that I did not write stories about for the Chronicle, other than to list the candidates' name, etc). Political races in Brazoria, unless the circumstances were unusual, weren't of much interest to the editors. But, no, I shouldn't have actually endorsed a candidate. But how was I to know someone would actually "out" me?

I occasionally engaged in media criticism, principally criticism of The Facts, the only daily newspaper published in Brazoria County. I gave special attention to the Facts' editor at the time, who wrote a weekly Sunday column that I found to be lacking in virtually everything you want in a column.

The weeks and months rolled by, and The Facts editor, somehow, deduced I was the man behind the Banjo Jones curtain (He gave his source confidentiality). Apparently, according to a Facts reporter, they put 2 and 2 together, piecing together what I had written about my dad's death with biograhical information I included in the obituaries I wrote for The Chronicle and The Baytown Sun, my hometown paper.

The Facts editor, who no longer is employed there, called my bosses at the Chronicle to tattle, saying I was violating all sorts of journalistic ethics. The Facts editor had one of his reporters call me for a news story. I declined comment. Then one of the Chron supervisors called me and I said, yep, I'm the guy who writes The Brazosport News.

Jeff Cohen, editor of the Chron, got on the horn, cussed a lot and said something about not wanting a "gonzo" journalist working for the Chron. He said to take the blog down, which I did, then another editor told me to "stand down" for a week, which I did. After a week, I was summoned to the Chron mothership at 801 Texas, where I was seated in a Human Resources conference room, where the managing editor at the time (who's now teaching journalism in college) came in, sat down and read a letter that said the newspaper decided I had "compromised" my ability to be Chronicle reporter, resulting in termination. Then he got up from his chair and marched out.

So that's the nuts & bolts.

I told the Houston Press, the New York Times and other news outlets (including a goofy radio talk show guy in Denver) that the newspaper overreacted by firing me. My position was I could still function as an objective news reporter, no matter what opnions had been dispensed under a pseudonym, since all reporters have biases that they set aside to put together a news story. But I never told the Chronicle that because there was no discussion about that issue.

Mike Merkel, the police chief in Alvin, whom I chided several times in the posts of The Brazosport News, even wrote a letter to Cohen praising my journalistic abilities. Moreover, none of the other people I dealt with as a news reporter ever expressed any indignation or outrage to me that I was the guy who was writing a pseudonymously written blog. Most people seemed a bit bemused by it all, though I don't doubt some newsmakers thought I got what I deserved even if they didn't tell me so. The common reaction by non-journalists in Brazoria County was "what about free speech?"

I have no idea how many people read the blog back then. I only added a counter to the site last May.

Eric Weiner of NPR asked a couple times what, exactly, the Chronicle objected to, and I had to say that my supervisors never really told me. Was it WHAT you wrote, or just The Fact you wrote an anonymous blog, he asked. I told him, well, I guess a little bit of both.

Of course, I created The Brazosport News knowing it could cause problems with my employer, since reporters are supposed to be "objective" despite the procession of reporters on TV who dispense judgments and opinions. That's why I chose to write under a pen name. So when the local Facts editor (a former board member of the pious Sigma Delta Chi journalistic fraternity) outed me, I accepted my firing with little thought of, say, filing a lawsuit on the grounds of free speech.

To tell you the truth, the whole thing was just embarrassing. I'm accustomed to the role of asking the questions and being the observor, so being declared a "blog martyr," as a British journalist dubbed me, made me fairly uncomfortable.

As a matter of fact, going through the whole thing with NPR again is kind of depressing, but that's the long and short of it.

NPR also was to interview the Delta flight attendant who recently got canned for her blog, plus, perhaps, a few other bloggers who have paid the penultimate price to blog (the ultimate price being torture, imprisonment, etc.).

Man, I sure wish that dadgum Facts editor hadn't outed me. I guess I shouldn't have been so hard on his lame column, but, believe me, he deserved it.

This just in ... CAT FIGHT!

The Chronicle's blogger takes a swipe at Houston blogger Laurence Simon, who hisses back.

Dogpile! More fur a flyin'

It's officially a donnybrook.


Laurence said...

Her saccharine inspid posts make me want to hurl.

Banjo Jones said...

she probably hates cats too.

Laurence said...

She has a cat, I believe.

Just one. Which makes that cat a very sad and lonely cat when she's not there.

One should never have just one cat.

One should never have a thousand cats.

Somewhere in between, closer to two, should suffice.