Houston Chronicle Defames Helena Brown
by John Griffing on July 10, 2012 at 10:29 AM
Is this what journalism without the accountability of the Houston Post has become, transparent partisanship, shameless shilling for the Democratic Party?
The Chronicle, using a barrage of incomplete information and half-truths has intentionally and repeatedly misrepresented Council Member Helena Brown, making her out to be an eccentric nut. But who is CM Brown, really? Let's begin by addressing the list of factual inaccuracies reported by the Chronicle, in order of importance:
- The Chronicle claims that CM Brown just votes “no” on many issues and doesn't explain her supporting rationale, dubbing Brown “Dr. No.” It is strange the Chronicle should assign Brown this role, since Brown votes “yes” approximately 80 percent of the time. In this line of thought, the Chronicle has alleged that Brown opposes educational spending and common-sense health reforms. The unnamed writer of the article referenced puts the onus on Brown to use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to explain her decisions. This is akin to the situation that arises when two old friends do not communicate for years and are waiting for the other to call. Except that, in this case, the onus is not proportionate to both parties, since press organs like the Chronicle always bear the responsibility for rooting out the facts on any issue of public importance. It seems that no such attempt was made when writing the referenced article. In making such charges without consulting Brown, the Chronicle is setting up a straw man, easily rebuffed, so that no communication need actually take place.
Furthermore, by insinuating that Brown is against education and placing optional projects under the category of vital city services—what the writer contends “seems like a wise use of city funds”—the Chronicle gives the impression that Brown is extreme. But Brown has repeatedly explained that she will oppose new and unnecessary spending unless new sources of funding are available and efforts are made to eliminate the city budget gap. Such is not an extreme position. Consider a family that wants to take a trip to France because a trip of this nature would be educational and a “wise use of family funds.” The question then becomes, can the family afford the trip? If the answer is no, the family cannot go. Why is government above such sound financial principles? After-school programs may be “wise” but are not essential. This is the crux of Brown's philosophy. If families must tighten their belts, why never the government?
- The Chronicle claims that Brown underpays her staff by classifying them as “part time,” depriving them of city benefits and lavish pensions. And yet, nowhere mentioned by the Chronicle is the fact that all of Brown's staff is paid between $20-$60,000—well above a living wage. Employee pay, concealing the identity of employees, is listed below:
Employee 1: $60,000
Employee 2: $45,000
Employee 3: $43,000
Employee 4: $30,000
Employee 5: $30,000
Employee 6: $21,000
*Additionally, almost all of Brown's interns are paid $10/hour." The Chronicle claims to have “reviewed all council staffing with information obtained through a public records request.” How did it miss the above information?
As far as benefits are concerned, employees voluntarily opt-out when joining Brown's staff. There is certainly a trade-off: employees get better pay and workload is more evenly distributed. Is this a bad thing? Besides, no one is forcing anyone to work for CM Brown.
- The Chronicle claims that Brown illegally altered time cards of employees in violation of federal law. Interestingly, the Chronicle waited until Helena Brown was out-of-country on a goodwill mission in Korea to release this piece.
As part of its support for its allegations, the Chronicle references the remarks of a disgruntled ex-employee, a compromising source of information with a built-in conflict of interest, who claims to have been forced to accept fewer hours. No matter; the Chronicle cites this source authoritatively. Importantly, all political appointees of council members, e.g. chiefs of staff, are exempt from overtime pay, making pretentious claims of coerced acceptance of illicit pay reduction disingenuous at best.
Buried at the bottom of the Chronicle piece is a statement from the city attorney denying any wrongdoing on the part of Brown. The city attorney also advised CM Brown that no response was necessary due to the fact that there was no wrongdoing. This is arguably the most important bit of information in the entire piece, i.e. Brown has not engaged in criminal activity. And yet, this information is mentioned only in passing and is given virtually no weight by the Chronicle. An honest reporter would have to change the name of an article after incorporating such information into the analysis. Needless to say, the title of the piece remains incendiary.
This is an overtly dishonest technique employed as a cover for bias by journalists called “stacking the deck.” Readers, who are statistically inclined to read only the headline and maybe the first few sentences of a newspaper article, will likely walk away from the Chronicle piece thinking CM Brown has illegally shorted employees hours.
- And finally, the Chronicle has on several occasions contested Brown's loyalty to her constituents, using the statements of two Brenda Stardig supporters (Brown's previous opponent and former incumbent) as the corroborating evidence. Ann Givens and W.C. Wright accused Brown of selling 5.7 acres of land long favored for a park to an automotive body shop owned by an award-winning member of the community, known for his kindness and faithful service to neighbors and the community at large. The body shop has been of the neighborhood for 30 years. Both individuals inaccurately claimed that Brown had allowed the sale of said acreage at the expense of plans for a public park, and the Chronicle jumped on the story. In reality, the body shop only requested 20-feet for additional parking space to expand community parking capacity, primarily for the benefit of nearby public schools.
In the common idiom, that means that roughly 5.65 acres remain for the desired usage of nearby residents. Furthermore, Brown secured the support of all five at-large city council members for the use of the remaining land according to the vision of residents like Wright and Givens. The city claimed it did not have the resources or the wherewithal to maintain the land or transform said land into a public park. Brown was not deterred by this news. She then approached county officials, who manage trails immediately adjacent to the park, and the county said they had the funding, and would have no problem maintaining and converting the land for use as a public park. After this news was relayed to city council, Mayor Parker and her compatriots took a sudden interest in the land—the land the City of Houston supposedly lacks resources to maintain—and ordered that a study be done of alternative uses of the land before approving a transfer. It is the city holding up this project, not Brown. How did the Chronicle miss all this?
Even if we assume altruistic motives on the part of the Chronicle, the result is still a factual misrepresentation of a duly elected city council member as a result of lazy journalism. Either reality is unacceptable for a publication of the Chronicle's size and stature.
In any case, it is unlikely that the Chronicle, with its thorough research, would make this many mistakes in factual reporting. Why subscribe to a newspaper that is consistently wrong?
Once or twice is an accident; three times is a pattern. As former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal once remarked, “If all of these incidences were merely mistakes, occasionally they'd make a mistake in our favor.”
The Chronicle should be more careful going forward.