I posted yesterday about how Houston Chronicle management rewrote Bradley Olson's analysis of Bill White's tenure as Houston mayor. The purpose of the rewrite was to make the Democratic gubernatorial candidate look better.
Now let's consider what it means when a big-city newspaper takes sides, politicallly, on its front page.
The article was not news, strictly speaking. It was a news analysis. A "thumbsucker," we called it back in my day.
Chronicle editors had an obligation to edit the article. That's what editors do, and everybody needs editing, even Mr. Olson. If you review the edits, you will see that several improved the story by tightening it up. That's a good thing.
But Mr. Olson's analysis was not merely edited, in a technical sense; it was deliberately rewritten to make Mr. White look better.
In the second paragraph, for instance, editors chopped the useful idea -- inarguably true -- that Mr. White had both significant accomplishments and failures. Instead, we are told, he had "significant moments."
And those "moments" didn't occur "at the margins of his authority as the city's chief executive" but "as he stretched the limits of his authority." (Is it a good thing to have government officials stretch their authority over the rest of us? It is, apparently, at the Chronicle.)
The revised paragraph also omitted the unfortunate (for Mr. White) point that Metro "since has found itself reeling from local and federal investigations" for actions taken during the mayor's tenure. Instead, we are reminded of "his leadership during Hurricane Katrina."
Two paragraphs in, we see that nothing bad happened. Oh, there were some unspecified "moments," but a "moment" ain't necessarily a "failure."
The balance of the story was rewritten to accentuate the positive and eliminate -- as much as possible -- the negative about Mr. White. For instance:
Under White, Houston often succeeded where other governments foundered.
What is Houston to the Chronicle? It's a government, not a city, at least according to this sentence. The measure of success during an economic downturn was not that the city prospered or that Houstonians didn't lose their jobs; it was that city government had no layoffs or furloughs. In other words, that Mr. White took care of municipal employees.
In the fourth paragraph of the rewritten analysis. Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen or one of his peeps also added this new text:
When he announced he was running for governor against incumbent Rick Perry, White said he didn't have "the polish or fame of career politicians who have been running for office for 30 years. But I do know how to bring people together and get things done."
The quotation was lifted straight from Mr. White's press release announcing his candidacy for governor, something that real journalists rarely do, and then only with a citation of the source.
Badly done, Jeff. Very badly indeed.
More striking than the puffery, however -- if such is possible -- was the purging of Mr. Olson's more critical words, sentences, and paragraphs about Mr. White's less happy "moments."
In the new reality:
City pensions are still underfunded, but not "woefully" underfunded.
Mayor Annise Parker does not say the city has been run in an "unbusinesslike" manner "for years."
The Houston police and fire unions are not endorsing Mr. Perry.
Dr. John Diamond of the Baker Institute says nothing about the "gigantic crisis" that is the city's pension system.
And problems that have come to light after Mr. White's departure are no longer "significant."
The sentence that best sums things up for the Chronicle is this:
In all, White left behind a legacy with plenty to brag about and a handful of unsolved problems that have come to bedevil his successor.
Plenty to brag about; a handful of problems.
This story reminds us of the Houston Chronicle of yore. When Unca D was still a young pup, the news columns of the paper were openly and unashamedly political. Friends of the Chronicle got kid gloves; others got journalism.
The old days are back, but the Chronicle is now on the other side. It's not old establishment conservatives who are coddled, but Clever People who attend the same parties as Mr. Cohen.
The Olson rewrite will go down in Chronicle lore. The mask of honest news and analysis came off. Underneath was naked political bias and a contempt for both the standards of journalism and the people of Houston.