Speak No Evil
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- Subject: Speak No Evil
- From: Carol Holst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Date: Sat, 13 Sep 2003 09:01:18 -0500
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Speak No Evil
Not part of HISD's spin machine? No interviews for you
BY RICHARD CONNELLY
Abbott and the HISD administration want employees talking to only news
outlets they deem fit.
Unlike a lot of media, the Houston Press was never an enthusiastic
cheerleader for the so-called Houston Miracle, the unending public
relations barrage that landed former HISD superintendent Rod Paige his
job as U.S. secretary of education.
And with the return of PR whiz Terry Abbott, the man behind the curtain
of the "miracle" (see "Paige Boy Returns," July 24), it's clear what
happens to media organizations who aren't part of the district's spin
On August 25, Abbott announced an official policy that he would do his
best to ensure that no HISD employee ever speaks with the Houston Press.
Questions about any story, in any school, must be submitted in writing
to him, he said, and he would respond in writing after checking with the
principal, administrator or other employee the Press wanted to talk to.
"We just can't get any kind of fair shake out of the Houston Press," he
said. (At first, Abbott's assistant said that the policy was in place
because Abbott said the Press "got stories wrong," but in direct
conversation Abbott made no claims about errors and instead talked of
getting "a fair shake." He cited no specific stories.)
"It is going to be my recommendation to everyone else that works for the
school district that they decline to be interviewed by the Houston
Press," he said.
Individual principals of schools, according to HISD policy, are allowed
"to be a spokesperson for that school," Abbott said, so they could
ignore his advice. But in the paranoid bureaucracy of HISD, where
teachers and administrators quickly get the message not to make waves,
Abbott was likely right when he said he "suspect[s]" employees will
A slip of the lip indicates as much: "My request is going to be -- my
recommendation is going to be that they refer the questions back to me,"
he said in an interview.
In response to a follow-up (written) question, Abbott wouldn't answer
whether he thought HISD employees would be intimidated from talking to
the Press by his request (oops -- his recommendation) that they do not.
"That question calls for me to reach a conclusion on a hypothetical
situation," he wrote. "Of course, I won't do that."
In another follow-up (written) question, Abbott was asked why the
Press -- or HISD, for that matter -- couldn't simply tape any interviews
it does with HISD personnel, another way to ensure accuracy.
Abbott's (written) response sidestepped the question, saying: "Thanks.
We'll stick with the written answers to your questions."
Press editor Margaret Downing said no other area school district had
taken such steps. "From time to time, the Press does stories involving
school districts in the Houston area. Sometimes we're complimentary,
sometimes not. Never has this resulted in a shutdown of access," she
said. "In fact, in most of the other districts, personnel in the public
relations office are rarely quoted, preferring instead to direct
reporters to the actual people doing the work.
"Taxpayers have a right to know what their teachers, administrators and
elected officials are doing and thinking in any school system. They've
lost that in HISD. Anything said there will be filtered, handled and
reshaped by Terry Abbott. Maybe he'll make that quote he passes on just
a bit better. Maybe he'll leave out that information that might be just
a bit damaging to HISD. We won't ever know what exactly came from the
source and what was Terry Abbottized," she said.
Abbott's policy also would effectively bar the Press from visiting any
"Exchanging e-mails is a very ineffective way of interviewing anyone,
being both clumsy and time-consuming," Downing said. "In person, if
someone doesn't answer a question or brings up something unexpected, you
can immediately follow that up with another question. That's not
possible with a follow-up e-mail question that isn't answered for hours
Abbott did not get approval from the school board for his policy:
"Generally, board members do not approve office operating procedures,"
Board members do -- at least in Houston -- tend to slavishly support the
administration. Calls to board president Kevin Hoffman and first vice
president Karla Cisneros were not returned. Neither were e-mail requests
for interviews sent to board members through Abbott's press office.
"What is scary in a sort of sickly humorous way is that Terry Abbott has
appointed himself grand pooh-bah for the Houston Independent School
District. And he may get away with it because Superintendent Kaye
Stripling and HISD trustees are apparently so terrified of bad publicity
that they'd rather give him free rein to intimidate employees and speak
for the entire district," Downing said. "The idea that HISD chooses to
give out its information only to the media outlets who do what it wants
is outrageous and unjustifiable."
Abbott writes that his policy is nothing new. "I began doing this toward
the end of my first tenure here after…many hours spent trying to get the
Houston Press to report fairly about the district," he wrote.
"I'm sorry, but that's not my recollection," Downing said. "The
occasional exchange of e-mail for primarily statistical information is
fine. But e-mail cannot replace the benefits of a face-to-face
interview. That's how we do our jobs."
Abbott said his policy applies to "a few reporters at other
organizations and then the Houston Press in general." In response to
another written question, he wouldn't name the other reporters.
One of those, however, is KTRK's intrepid Wayne Dolcefino. He said
Abbott "is full of half-truths, omissions and total BS…News directors
and editors around town now quite honestly view Terry Abbott as a guy
who you know will spew nonsense. Forget Terry Abbott personally, this is
not what taxpayers have a public information officer for. You have one
so we can get information quickly and easily without bothering every
employee in the district, not to spin or fight with the press all day
KTRK's news director asked for a meeting with Superintendent Stripling
to discuss the station's relationship with Abbott, Dolcefino said; he
was told to go through Abbott. (Downing also asked Abbott for a meeting
with the superintendent and has yet to hear a response.)
The New York Times is also apparently on Abbott's Shit List (or not on
his Shiny Apple Polishers List, if you look at it the other way). A
Times story August 28 on some of HISD's bogus PR claims noted that
requests for interviews with Stripling and district principals were
rejected, and that Abbott "refused to explain" discrepancies between
some HISD claims and reality.
A statewide expert on school district public relations wouldn't comment
directly on Abbott's policy but noted that it's not common. Kirk Lewis
is president of the board of the Texas School Public Relations
Association and spokesman for the Pasadena school district.
"Our district always tries to be open -- the schools don't belong to us,
they belong to the taxpayers who pay for all this," he said.
Lewis said that in the 18 years he has worked at PISD, there may have
been two reporters "who I felt might not have been objective, and I
worked a little differently with them. But I talked with the reporter
and editor first, and I never did it for a whole paper at once. You know
you're going to take some lumps in coverage sometime, but you're not
going to blackball someone because of it."
In case you're wondering what Abbott might consider a "fair shake" in
coverage for HISD, you might check out the front page of the August 23
Houston Chronicle. The biggest story on the page that day -- one that
featured two photos, including one of happy students cheering wildly --
was about an HISD administrator and Yates High School alumnus who was
returning to the school as principal. (New principal George August was
going "to bring the school's academic freefall to a halt," a
That page-one layout also featured a bannered, highlighted quote from an
expert, one who analyzed thusly: "We expect Mr. August will dramatically
The expert? None other than Terry Abbott. Now that's one helluva fair
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