The Houston Review
November, 2002

Houston Chronicle Secret Memo Alleges
Vast Light Rail Conspiracy

By Phil Magness

Someone who operates the Houston Chronicle website must have had a terrible day on November 20 (2002). What the Chronicle described in a notice intended to cover its tracks as an "internal document" entitled "A Houston odyssey: DeLay, Lanier and light rail" appeared briefly in the editorials section on the newspaper's website beginning late in the evening on November 20.

Houston's daily newspaper quickly removed the "internal document" upon its discovery and posted a brief correction to the page, though not before the document was publicly accessible for at least several hours. According to the retraction, "An internal Houston Chronicle document was mistakenly posted to the editorial/opinion area of the Web site early Thursday morning." The message went on to apologize for the "confusion" it may have caused, yet said nothing of the document's contents.

The "internal document," which appears to be a memorandum to the paper's editors and editorial writers from one of their own, proposes that the Chronicle Editorial Board essentially embark on a year-long editorial campaign to help pass an as-of-yet not publicly announced November 2003 referendum giving Metro a blank check to expand light rail throughout the Houston area.

The memo begins, "I propose a series of editorials, editorial cartoons and Sounding Board columns leading up to the rail referendum." Each is to have "this specific objective: Continuing our long standing efforts to make rail a permanent part of the transit mix here." The author, who is presumably involved in some capacity with the editorial page, suggests of this effort that "There isn't a more critical issue on the horizon."

The memo continues with the suggestion that news stories could be used to accompany the Editorial Board's opinion pieces. "I suggest that [the editorials] could be built upon and informed by a news-feature package with an equally specific focus," writes the unnamed Chronicle official. The main purpose of these "news-features" would be to "inform" readers of a supposed anti-rail conspiracy in Houston. In other words, expect the Chronicle's radical pro-rail editorial opinions to seep over into their news coverage as the Chronicle intentionally engages in the art of yellow journalism so famously associated with the founder of their parent company, William Randolph Hearst.

According to the document's author, a virtual conspiracy of power comparable to the "Chinatown" organized crime epidemic decades ago in Los Angeles revolves around highway construction in Houston. "Since World War II, Houston's currency has bee (sic) concrete," reads the memo, "millions of cubic yards poured for freeways."

The document then outlines the nature of this supposed conspiracy by bullet point with the implication that each should be part of the editorial and "news-feature" package of political propaganda that will be promoted through the paper. The chief architects of the conspiracy are identified as former Mayor Bob Lanier and Congressman Tom DeLay. The Texas Public Policy Foundation is also fingered and the memo pledges to expose each of them.

For example, the memo describes Lanier as the "public kingmaker" for all who seek to be elected in Houston and implies that he uses his fundraising prowess to leverage his support in exchange for candidates agreeing to oppose rail. Those who seek political office in Houston, the document asserts, pass through "Lanier's den" and "kiss the great man's ring and bid for his approval." Even the former mayor's wife is not spared as the author proposes for a story "Elyse Lanier: From jewelry salesperson to Houston political insider."

With DeLay, the memo takes the Chronicle's usual obsessive slash-and-burn approach of smearing the Congressman. DeLay has been the target of some two dozen vitriolic editorial attacks by the Chronicle Editorial Board and its columnists over the last two years, most of them related to his positions on rail. If the "internal document" is any indication, readers should expect more of it with greater intensity.

The memo calls for an investigation of DeLay's rise to seniority in Congress, the topic being "How it come about (sic) and . . . how it was funded (by the highway lobby)." Other topics include supposed disputes between DeLay and mayors in Fort Bend County and, ultimately, the "DeLay-Lanier relationship" in politics and in any campaign against the Metro spending referendum, described in the document as "Ground zero for November."

The latter part of the memo strays off into some seemingly unrelated questions with a unifying disdain of highway and road construction. It calls for an investigative story about why the developers of what is now the Southwest Freeway built it to go southwest instead of simply west. Another bullet point calls for investigation of frontage roads on Texas interstates. The story, it is said, should as why we have them "in the first place," why Sam Rayburn included them in the Interstate Highway Act, and "At whose bidding?"

The overall implication is that frontage roads encourage development along highways, which the memo implies is somehow a bad thing. It is unclear what this has to do with any objective consideration of light rail, but that does not seem to be the Chronicle's interest. Instead, they seem motivated by a radical anti-road agenda commonly known as "Smart Growth."

As always, there are several serious problems with the conspiracy theory outlined in the memo, none of which the memo pauses to consider. First, Lanier's hand-picked successor Mayor Lee Brown is a strong supporter of light rail, debunking the notion that he somehow has continually wielded his power to sabotage rail in Houston. Also, while Lanier's opposition to rail did help vault him to victory over Kathy Whitmire, Lanier has shown little interest in the rail issue one way or another since leaving office. He certainly did not publicly oppose the Main Street rail referendum in November 2001 and he did not back Orlando Sanchez, the only anti-rail candidate in the last mayoral election. Yet, the memo focuses more on Lanier than any other figure, even DeLay who the Chronicle Editorial Board has long despised.

Another auxiliary participant in the supposed conspiracy is identified indirectly as a "San Antonio-based think tank doing the the (sic) research to discredit rail." The reference is to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has extensively researched transportation policy in Texas and published studies showing that light rail is not an efficient or cost-effective option in cities as spread out as Houston. Is there something sinister about a think tank consistently opposing light rail because their studies show it does not work? While much has been written about the TPPF's chief benefactor Dr. James Leininger, no one has alleged that this inventor of medical equipment and owner of the Promised Land Dairy has any financial interest in Houston's transportation policy. These facts suggest that a Chronicle "investigation" of this group would amount to nothing more than an attack on a source whose facts and conclusions they cannot refute on their own merits.

As for the highway construction firms that are supposedly spooked by rail, their financial support was nowhere to be found in the under-funded referendum to kill the Main Street project last November. While one can argue the limited scope of the project was not enough to stimulate their interest, everyone recognizes it is the critical and long sought after camel's nose under the tent for rail in Houston.

The truth is that those in the highway construction business have little to worry about because the average new light rail line in the United States carries barely 20 percent of the volume of a single freeway / motorway lane, according to transit expert Wendell Cox. This statistic and a wealth of other evidence showing light rail has only a marginal effect on traffic congestion can be found at Cox's website, publicpurpose.com.

What is most disturbing about this in-house document outlining the Chronicle's coverage of light rail over the coming year may be what was not included. In addition to the omission of obvious flaws in their conspiracy theory, the missive was silent on whether the motives or activities of pro-rail entities would be similarly scrutinized. If the Chronicle made any pretense about being an equal opportunity investigator, they would certainly want to ask whether METRO has a motive to expand its own budget through rail and what contractors and consultants will benefit from rail construction.

In sum, the inadvertently posted memo constitutes an announcement from the Chronicle that they have no intention of being fair or objective in what promises to be a year-long pro-rail propaganda campaign clothed in a garb of journalism by this monopoly newspaper. Pro-rail activism began on the editorial page and in a John Williams political article only days after the inadvertent posting, suggesting the memo was indeed a preview of what we can expect from now until November. However, thanks to a fortuitous programming mistake, the people of Houston are now on notice that the Chronicle's coverage will be conspiratorial pro-rail propaganda, not objective analysis.

Although the memo has been removed from their site, you may find a copy of it here: