Naked City

Capitol Reporter Untimely Ripped

You wouldn't guess the Washington Post would pay much attention to daily reporters' assignments in Austin, but last month the Post's media critic got one of the best political reporters in Texas yanked off part of his Capitol beat. On April 8, the Post's Howard Kurtz opened a transparently planted item with this lead: "A reporter for the San Antonio Express-News is raising eyebrows among Texas politicos by writing about his former bosses." The reporter in question is W. Gardner Selby, and according to Kurtz, those unnamed "Texas politicos" with sensitive eyebrows thought Selby shouldn't be reporting on the political campaigns of John Sharp for lieutenant governor or Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander for re-election -- because he had worked in the comptroller's office from 1995 to 2000, overlapping the tenures of the two candidates. Selby was never in a political or even policy position -- he did research and wrote reports for the agency -- and the notion that this might now disqualify him from covering two politicians in different races, from opposite parties, is complete hogwash.

One beef to Kurtz came from Sharp's Republican opponent, David Dewhurst, but "Naked City" happens to know Sharp was upset earlier this year by an accurate Selby report of Sharp's comments to a business convention -- because Sharp complained to us about it as well. Selby is an excellent, thorough, fair-minded reporter, and he doesn't deserve to be jerked around by a media columnist 2,000 miles away.

For a reporter who works in D.C., where the revolving PR flack/reporter door spins at light speed, Kurtz sounds like he just fell off the turnip truck. Readers in Bethesda or Alexandria must have been muttering over their corn flakes, "Who are these people and why am I reading about them?" It's clear that some Texas campaign operative got Kurtz's ear and bitched about Selby for no good reason, and Kurtz swallowed the bait. That's not so surprising inside the Beltway. But when Kurtz called Selby's boss, Express-News Editor Bob Rivard, Rivard swallowed it too -- sanctimoniously deciding on the spot that Selby can no longer cover his former bosses, saying, "It was a mistake to send him on such assignments." Rivard did praise Selby as "a solid reporter with no political agenda," but he had already yanked the rug out from under him by kowtowing to Kurtz.

Kurtz should have been told that spurious campaign back-stabbing didn't start yesterday, and Selby's boss would catch any partisan knives aimed at his reporters, thank you very much.

Selby can't comment on his own job, but a call to Rivard was returned by State Editor Gary Newsom, who said, "The simple explanation [for the reassignment] was a perception of a conflict of interest. Gardner hadn't done anything wrong, but if somebody is asking these questions, it means the reporter has become part of the story. It would have looked bad whatever we did or didn't do." Newsom said, "We have complete confidence in Gardner," who has been reassigned to be the lead reporter on the U.S. Senate race and the second reporter on the governor's race. "That's not a demotion," Newsom added.

Selby's story is not a censorship outrage, but his work will definitely be missed on the Sharp/Dewhurst race -- although not having to cover the titanic battle between Rylander and Marty Akins he might well consider a boon. After the flap, a small weekly published in Crawford, The Lone Star Iconoclast, named Selby "Iconoclast of the Week." The paper might have added that Rivard and the Express-News had earned awards for "Invertebrates of the Month."

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