Shooting Spelce in a Barrel

Bush and Bush Land a Free Ad

illustration by Doug Potter

With all the fluff that takes up space on local television news broadcasts, it would be easy to get excited over a station which chooses to sit down for an interview with not one, but two of the most powerful political figures in the state - and the world. But then, that station might be K-EYE-42. And then one would have to throw out all hope of hard-hitting journalism.

Every station claims to deliver news which impacts viewers' lives. On Feb. 19-20, K-EYE delivered a feature which could do just that - in that it could help sway the gubernatorial election by giving free publicity to incumbent George Bush, Jr. The piece in question was "George & George," a joint interview with George Bushes Senior and Junior, done by anchor Neal Spelce.

A trumpeting press release from K-EYE quoted station President and General Manager Dennis Upah blathering about how "George & George" was "continuing K-EYE-42's tradition of covering stories which impact people's lives through people's eyes." Exactly how a station can develop traditions after having a newscast for only two years is unclear, but if it has, it is a tradition as Austin's fluff leader.

And even when they try a hand at political coverage, the result is still fluff. We didn't really need a look at Bush and Shrub's staged "private" fishing moments, but we got it. The two-night special, which consumed almost 14 minutes total (more time than most stations spend on news for one night) seemed to last 14 days, with terminally boring shots of the two politicians sitting in their boat like lumps, grunting out short, curt answers (the former president has retained his inability to speak in complete sentences) to Spelce's unchallenging questions. Spelce filled in the gaps with obsequious monologues on what a special, private moment this was and how lucky he was to be along for the ride. One must admit that Spelce's ability to maintain a straight face when he should have been squirming with embarrassment is impressive. Also, despite its billing as a news segment, the entertainment factor of the "intimate" boat ride shouldn't be discounted. Take, for example, the following anecdote related by our former president as he cast his line:

"His [Shrub's] girls are pretty intelligent. Two years ago, I was sitting there with them when they came up on vacation, and they said, `Alright, Gampy, we want to know the truth.' I said, `What are you talking about?' [They said,] `You were head of CIA, weren't you?' I said `Yeah.' They said, `Okay, what did you do with those aliens you froze and took to the CIA?' I said, `Look, I'm a busy guy, don't give me this stuff.' `We're serious!' I said, `The hell with you!'"

No doubt that's the same reception Spelce would have received if he had asked a single question that smacked of relevance. What would the Bushes have done if Spelce had asked about Panama or Iran-Contra? Thrown him overboard? Or what if, upon hearing Senior wax about "how fortunate we are in this country to hear the call of the great cranes," the newsman had jumped in with a prickly question as to why President Bush consistently fought against environmental protection laws or why Junior is in the pocket of property rights extremists? That would have made for the kind of in-your-face television that would have made Fred Friendly proud.

Asked if K-EYE had extended a similar invitation to Bush's Democratic opponent in this year's gubernatorial election, Garry Mauro's campaign manager Billy Rogers says, "No they haven't." Upah points out that on the same night, K-EYE did air coverage of Mauro's birthday party/fundraiser at which Hillary Clinton spoke. As for the legal considerations of giving equal time to candidates, "Under the standpoint of the law, Bush isn't running against Mauro, but against R.C. Crawford [Bush's low-profile challenger for the Republican nomination]. (According to Michael Schreider, director of programs at the Texas Association of Broadcasters, K-EYE would not be legally required to offer equal time.)

According to K-EYE's press release, "landing this interview took tremendous patience," but according to the Mauro campaign, it's the "Reelect Gov. Bush" campaign that reeled in the biggest catch of the day: a free campaign commercial. "I don't know what their motives were," Rogers says, "but whoever produced that piece certainly has a future in political commercials, because that was a political commercial."

For its part, K-EYE never tried to present the segment as anything but the fluff piece it was. In the press release Spelce himself explains, "The two of them have been asked every question in the book about public policy and politics... but no one that we know of has examined the relationship between these two leaders." Too bad that in his attempts to delve into this "exceptional father and son moment," Spelce ends up looking like a fish out of water.

Television News Done Right

More helpful with the just-completed elections was KVUE-24's "Truth Test," which they apply to television political ads. "Media Clips" caught an examination of the ads by attorney general candidate John Cornyn, which tout Cornyn's experience as a judge and his "support" from Governor Bush. KVUE pointed out that although Cornyn is indeed an experienced judge, Bush has not officially endorsed any candidate, a point which needs "clarifying," according to KVUE. Given how important television ads have become in elections, this is truly "news you can use."

NAHP Goes Corporate

The National Association of Hispanic Publishers (NAHP) recently held its 12th annual convention at the Doubletree Hotel in Austin. Spread over four days, Feb. 25-28, the affair featured a Hispanic career fair and numerous panels and workshops on the state of Hispanic-owned publications and how they can stay strong in the face of increasing competition from mainstream sources encroaching into the Latino market.

It also featured a heavy - some might say disturbing - corporate influence. Many panel discussions were sponsored by the likes of Coors and Pepsico, and one presentation was titled "NAHP Salutes the U.S. Auto Industry."

NAHP Executive Director Andres Tobar explains that the annual NAHP event helps Hispanic publishers network in a way that a more general publishers gathering might not. "We have 115 Hispanic publications reaching over 17 million people. Individually, most of them might not be able to attract ads, but collectively, we make a strong presence to corporate America, which is trying to reach us."

However, James Garcia, editor and publisher of Politico, an Austin-based newsletter on Latino politics, said he was "amazed" at the time that a representative of Phillip Morris Company was given to speak at the convention. (Although he attended the event, Garcia is not a NAHP member). Victor C. Han, the vice president of corporate communications for Phillip Morris, spent 20 minutes outlining the tobacco industry's position on pending congressional legislation and complaining about supposed injustices committed against the industry. That speech was followed by Tobar's announcement that every member of NAHP in good standing can expect to be paid by Phillip Morris to run a full-page ad in their respective publications.

"I interviewed [Han] outside the panel room... and I asked him if by offering everyone in the room a full-page ad he was trying to buy influence with the NAHP," Garcia recalls. "He went ballistic." Han denied Garcia's description, saying that he merely called it "a disagreeable question," and that Garcia kept cutting him off before he could fully answer. In this week's Politico, Garcia also quoted NAHP President Eddie Escobedo as saying that Phillip Morris might file suit if any publications refused to run the ad. Escobedo, publisher of Las Vegas' El Mundo, says that Garcia misquoted him: "I said Phillip Morris has been a customer of ours for years. I said that unless the federal government tells us we can't run the ads, we [El Mundo] can't refuse to run the ads because Phillip Morris has always been a big supporter." But Garcia says he took clear notes on the interview and stands by his original story.

Asked if the NAHP was bending over backwards to please its sponsors, Tobar answered, "Phillip Morris has been one of the NAHP's biggest sponsors since the beginning. Obviously, this is an issue that is important. They asked us if they could speak on this, and we let them. Obviously, if everyone asked for this, it would be a problem, but after 12 years of just accepting awards and not saying a thing, we felt that this was not unreasonable.

"Most of the ads that come from tobacco and liquor companies are not product-driven, but are about corporate image, ads discouraging young people from smoking. The kind of ads they're getting are not promoting cigarettes."

Another issue that Garcia says cropped up at the event was the somewhat hostile attitude that some Hispanic publishers have toward Hispanic publications owned by mainstream businesses. The San Jose Mercury-News, Knight-Ridder, and others have started Latino publications. NAHP publishers "think that these corporations are trying to force Hispanic publishers out of business," Garcia explains. "The group will not allow a paper to become a member [of NAHP] if it is not 51% Hispanic-owned. I have mixed feelings about that. I see their point, but to state that it must be 51% Hispanic is troubling to me. It blocks out publications reaching for the same audience."

Alfredo Estrada, publisher and editor of Austin's slick, glossy Hispanic magazine (and also owner of Moderna, a Latina-oriented magazine) disagrees with Garcia's assessment. "These companies are throwing their weight around," Estrada counters. "These big players are putting smaller Hispanic-owned media out of business.

"I approach it from the point of view of empowerment of the Hispanic community," Estrada adds. "The only way we can become empowered is if we control our own media. People in our community are often portrayed in stereotypes, the `Frito Bandito' and such. We can combat that by presenting our own image."

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