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Tuesday, September 27

never get in a fight with a man who has gallons of ink

I am angry at Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman over his column criticizing local news coverage of Hurricane Rita and have been exchanging emails with him today.

He penned the following column on September 24, 2005

I threw a hurricane party Friday night, but the guest of honor stood me up.

Anybody want to buy 10 packs of D-cell batteries and 32 bottles of water?

Hurricane Rita barely brushed Galveston and pretty much missed Houston. A little of me was disappointed, I wanted to see what a hurricane felt like, but a lot of me was relieved.

When this is over, and everybody's home, two things need to be investigated and corrected: Houston's evacuation plans and television news' role in making us all crazy this past week.

Despite what newscasters had been predicting, I woke up Saturday morning to leaves and branches in the street, but nothing that an ordinary heavy rainstorm wouldn't cause. It was windy, but nothing scary. Marvin Zindler's toupee was safe.

I played tennis outdoors at 8 p.m. Friday. Later that night, I saw two neighbors ballroom dancing on the sidewalk.

I have weird neighbors.

So ... why were there power outages in cities like Bellaire, where the wind hit maybe 35-40 mph? Reliant needs to name stadiums less, and fix its equipment more.

I knew the hurricane was a no-show when my satellite TV signal never went out. Usually, I can tell it's drizzling in Conroe when my television goes blank in Houston.

And how come fuel trucks couldn't make it to Houston, but Tom DeLay and Sheila Jackson Lee had no problem getting here? The wrong bags of gas got through.

Did four different TV stations need to be doing 24-hour hurricane coverage without even a commercial break? After a while, I couldn't tell the difference between Dave Ward and Tom Koch and those two idiots in the drive-through at Sonic.

Did I really need to watch KRIV's news on Channels 20, 26 and 55?

Let's take a poll: Do you think that local TV news went overboard covering Hurricane Rita? My e-mail address is below.

Channel 11's Lisa Foronda: "Hello, (weatherman) David Paul, the last time we saw you, you weren't wearing a rain poncho and now you are. So I can assume you're getting soaked?"

David Paul: "Uh, not really."

Jeff McShan was reporting live from Galveston when his baseball cap flew off. The Channel 11 anchors used that as an indication the hurricane was whipping up.

My baseball hat flies off when I run from second to third in the West U Coed Softball League. It's not a big deal. It's certainly not a meteorological event.

I give credit to Paul. He was the first weatherman I heard flat out say, "Harris County will not experience hurricane force winds tonight."

Instead, he said, Houston faced "minimal tropical storm conditions."

Great, so let's switch over to regular programming and the Late Show with David Letterman.

No chance.

Reporter Amy Tortolani said "the rain hasn't started yet, but the wind is blowing debris around." The camera showed, I swear, an empty plastic Ozarka water bottle rolling gently to the curb.

Another reporter described "a sea of people" rushing into a Wal-Mart for last-minute supplies. I saw maybe five people casually walking through the parking lot.

CNN interviewed a pop culture professor from Syracuse University and asked him to comment on TV news going berserk with Hurricane Rita coverage. He said, after Katrina, it was to be expected.

That's why Channels 2, 11, 13 and 26 stayed on around the clock, even though nothing was really happening. Nobody wanted to be the first to blink. It was a contest, who cares more about Houston?

If one of the stations had gone back to regular programming, it would have been the first 100 percent rating in the history of Houston television.

How many times did you hear an anchor say, "Prepare for the worst, hope for the best?"

"Hunker down" and "dodged a bullet" were very big, too. I wondered, did somebody type those cliches into the teleprompter, or were they ad libbed cliches?

TV weathermen two in particular looked like they needed to be sent to Vienna for
clinical depression when Rita sidestepped Houston.

For Channel 13's Tim Heller, this would have been his first Big Story, the chance to make a name for himself in Houston. For Channel 11's Dr. Neil Frank, this could have been his last rodeo.

Funny, when he was director of the National Hurricane Center from 1974 to 1987, Frank advised local TV weather forecasters against making their own predictions when hurricanes threatened. Just stick with what the National Hurricane Center gives you, he said.

Now that he's a local guy, Frank was among the last to cry uncle and admit the hurricane would likely miss us.

My response to Hoffman and the Chronicle :

Ken Hoffman has made much of his sophomoric view on life in Houston. In fact he has parlayed his shtick and happy go lucky boy-man confounded by modern life into a Chronicle newspaper column and now on Pat Gray's equally sophomoric KPRC radio program.

His recent Chronicle column (September 24, 2005) criticizing local television stations doing wall to wall coverage of Hurricane Rita was as snarky as any written by a frustrated college journalism student left alone on a Friday night to paste up the paper on his own.

His act is old. The only thing missing in it is a drummer to crash a cymbal at the end of his deflated jokes.

I am no big fan of local media. The monthly strip club stories for ratings masquerading as "hard news" are tedious. A weather crawl during a network program is rare. A weather report breaking into national radio programming like Limbaugh or Martino is a miracle. But this time, the local media got it right. Hoffman has cable/satellite and could have readily watched ESPN women's volleyball or bullfighting, but many Houstonians don't have cable. They have their little homes and little televisions and local media was their window on the world.

There is little sense of old fashioned community in Houston and one show of community was local media coverage of the hurricane. Callers let the local media know how much they appreciated the coverage. Reporters in the field actually helped people reach their families. Hoffman bemoaned the lack of Letterman, of course, a brother in Hoffman's world, but even Letterman, who had been a local weatherman, knows the television value of local people perplexed by events surrounding them. It is even a staple on Letterman's show.

Why is Hoffman complaining? Because he can. Hoffman and many local radio commentators find the tin foil lining in local events. Complaining about how unhappy they are in this modern world is their one joke stand up routine.

The coverage was not supposed to be watched non-stop by those who are smarter than the rest of us, but it did comfort those who were not able to get in print or on the radio to complain about how they were not able to watch something more interesting than human interest stories. When I worked in radio and television news viewers would call in to complain when we interrupted their soap operas with news events. I completely understand how disorienting it must have been for Mr. Hoffman to miss Letterman. Although many of our callers thought that our television anchors could see into viewer's living rooms, I don't think that Mr. Hoffman's narcissism has reached such delusional proportions.

Hoffman didn't appreciate Tim Heller, Frank Billingsley, or Neil Frank the local meteorologists. He believes that the anchors looked "depressed" and needed counseling in Vienna. He thought the weathermen should just rip and read reports from the National Weather Service. If Mr. Hoffman would follow the real news instead of so intensely pursuing his overly active fantasy life of an upscale television buffet, he might realize that the local meteorologists are not working with much from the National Weather Service because the federal budget to the NWS has been cut. There was a huge fight to even keep a weather service to observe hurricanes in Texas. The local weather forecasters educated viewers. What did you do for readers, Mr. Hoffman?

May be Mr. Hoffman would like to talk to those "gas bags" as he called them, Congressman DeLay and Jackson-Lee about federal funding for weather forecasting, crisis management, highway construction or high speed rail to get the gridlock moving. The biggest news story of the year is how the federal government failed during Hurricane Katrina. Members of Congress are supposed to come back to the district to help their constituents. How did your column further life in modern Houston? Mr. Hoffman would rather chew tin foil, think of himself, and not people who were isolated, afraid, in their homes or wondering if they would have a home when the storm was over. Are you going to be snarky with the evacuee's as they try to get home to find water in their houses? Since you know every fast food restaurant between here and Oklahoma, perhaps you can make some calls and see if they can help feed returning Houstonians in hot cars loaded with crying children and carsick pets.

He replied:
Dear Ms. Sutter:

I received your e-mail. I respect your opinion, we just disagree. I thought that TV went way overboard and kept repeating the same old stuff over and over and over.Some of it was just silly, like showing a plastic water bottle rolling gently to the curb as an example of wind whipping debris around.

In my column, I asked readers, do you think that TV's coverage was overblown? So far, I have received more than 1,000 e-mails. Only 11 people, including you, think TV did a calm, reasoned, responsible job of covering the hurricane. The rest thought it was overblown, overdone and overhyped.

But that's what makes out country great. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Like I said, we just disagree.

Ken H.

I replied:

Never underestimate the stupidity of large numbers of people.

He replied:

Dear Ms. Sutter:

I want to make sure I understand your point. Do you think that our local TV stations did a good job of covering the hurricane from start to finish? Do you think the reporters did a good job of honestly illustrating the conditions where they were? Do you think the weathercasters did a good job of keeping the public informed of what was really happening? Do you think the overall coverage was sound and informative and did not resort to scare tactics and sensationalism? And you don't think the coverage went on too long after Houston was clearly out of the woods?

You and I just disagree on this. I thought some of the stuff I saw was just embarrassing. And I thought some of the anchors, when left to defend for themselves and think on their feet, did a poor job of handling the situation.

Tell me which reporters or anchors or weathercasters you felt did a top notch job.

I'm not trying to be argumentative, but I, along with most readers, was simply stunned by some of the stuff I saw.

Again, we just disagree.

Ken Hoffman

I replied:

People lost there lives evacuating. People were terrified of the storm surge. The biggest news story of the year is how FEMA failed New Orleans and media here (which I do have my issues with) were really concerned they had the same story in their own back yards. Houston may have been out of the woods, but Beaumont gets her news from Houston. People there are dead.

The problem was the pictures from last month and Katrina. People were terrified. The plastic bottle of which you speak, I didn't see, but I have the sense not to watch the whole thing. But I did see Galveston burning and with transformers blowing all around us, it is a wonder there weren't more fires.

Frank Billingsley took calls from people who were frightened for their lives, property and loved ones. He was terrific. Sure he is stuck doing the weather with a dog because some suit at the Washington Post/Newsweek is too stupid to shine their own shoes, but he was a pro. People told them on the air that they appreciated it.

I am no big fan of Belo, Inc. My husband was a plaintiff in the largest libel lawsuit in American history (Feazell et. al v. A.H. Belo, Inc.)a former weather man and one amazing press secretary. We know media and Doc Neil did a great job. He can't rip and read because Congress has slashed funding to NWS and there forecasting capabilities are terrible. Commercial weather forecasters are better and they told oil companies to get the hell out of here. They knew it was serious. That is why the stations reacted the way they did. The damn thing could have stalled or come back out and gone back in.

Usually the local news is ridiculous. No argument there. Stories about the local stabbing and prostitution in River City are just silly. Enron happened under their noses and they missed it. Their coverage of major political issues is just dumb. They have failed their calling of being the on going political educator in a democratic society. I really hate the titty bar stories and the baby pictures, but this was serious stuff.

I think too that alot of people are not that sophisticated. Little old shut-ins with their televisions and they don't have much more. They really count on the television and in their minds it was Katrina all over again. I was surprised I didn't have to watch some "reality" television show without knowing what was going on. Most of the time they don't dare break from network programming but they were trying, and remember they aren't the brightest media people, (as if there are any in the business) they did what they thought was right.

Mr. Hoffman, comedy is tragedy with better timing. Your column would have been funny a week from now, just not right now while people are trying to calm down.

Everything would just be so much better if people would do exactly what I told them to do.

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