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Houston reporter criminalized for good writing

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In any other culture, the delicious reportage of an experienced local reporter of Steve Olafson's skills would have earned him a column and lucrative fringe benefits. In England, he'd probably be hosting a talkshow.

But thanks to America's constipated "journalism ethics", Olafson's talents have earned him the sack.

He's become the first professional journalist to be sacked for running a blog, a move that earns his editor at the Houston Chronicle, a minor place alongside spam pioneers Cantor and Spiegel in Net infamy.

Olafson worked for the Chronicle for sixteen years, covering the Brazoria County beat. He also ran a warmly-regarded pseudonymous blog, the Brazosport News, under the name Banjo Jones.

The two proved incompatible for Olafson's boss, Houston Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen, who told him to "take the fucking site down", and then dismissed him.

The alternative Houston weekly that broke the story spun the tale as one of Olafson using his blog to rat on local politicians.

But even a cursory examination of Brazosport News reveals that isn't true, confirming Olafson's contention that only about 20 per cent of his blog covered local politics. And even when it did, it was typical diary copy, only better crafted.

See for yourself: here's a Google cache, and the Wayback Machine's snapshots.

It's pithy, color reporting - of the kind my local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, is eagerly promoting as an attempt to 'connect' with its community of readers.

Cohen didn't see it that way, and in a steam of self-righteous red mist, told Olafson: "I'm running a mainstream American newspaper. There's no place here for gonzo journalism."

A puzzled Olafson told The Register:

"What I define by Gonzo journalism is Hunter S Thompson, and it's certainly not that."

Which the backlogs would seem to confirm, suggesting that Olafson's editor hadn't seen the blogs before firing his experienced reporter. Examining the facts before reaching a conclusion therefore, is a task that only reporters, not editors should undertake.

"The overall bent was column writing - it was about kids in the neighborhood, about baseball, about sport. There's very little political reporting on my beat - because there's very little political coverage they're interested in."

"It was column writing."

However, for America's self-congratulatory Ethics-in-Journalism Taliban - the nation's fastest growing industry - Olafson had stepped over the mark by providing his community with his well-written intimate reportage.

Before we pin a halo on Olafson, we asked what journalistic taboos he might have breached. Had he ever used off the record material gleaned from his Chronicle beat on the blog?

Absolutely not, he says.

"I went to jail for protecting a source at the Eastern Post," he told us. "It was overturned by a judge, but in the Autumn Hills nursing home scandal, I was asked to reveal a source and I said no."

Olafson might have been injudicious in his playful treatment of the Chron's front page lead linking Enron and Playboy. And he should have mentioned the blog upfront with his employer. But in the UK, where the BBC operates under a Government charter that requires objectivity, TV anchors are free to write opinion columns for newspapers, present TV shows, and write books. By contrast, the US Ethics Taliban demands its reporters remain silent eunuchs, even when they're off-duty.

We've been here before.

What can explain this puritan streak? In the rest of the world, journalists are rightly despised. Nowhere else is the desire to institutionalize itself so strong.

By and large, the Fourth Estate's role is accepted as a social necessity: as we describe above, it's as a kind of soil microbe, turning over new bacteria to daylight. Journalists don't expect to be loved, and shouldn't expect to be respected. But in America, journalism has become an elaborate form of social climbing. Respectability is demanded, and rewarded, in the form of the countless gongs and trinkets the circuit bestows, almost hourly. While so many media professionals in the United States agonize over questions such as 'Is this journalism?', readers elsewhere in the world scan the newspaper, ask themselves, 'Is this news?' or 'Is this useful to me?' and move swiftly on, hopefully discarding the chip wrapper in the appropriate recycling bin.

The Houston Chronicle has scored a spectacular own goal by losing a talented writer, and if you're troubled by the ethics, scan those archive links and ask yourself - is the world really a better place without Brazosport News and Olafsen on the beat? ®

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