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Newspaper wars: Why The Post ran a Chronicle photo

By Ernie Williamson The Bulletin

Unless you are a long-time reader of the Houston Chronicle, you might not recognize the name Dave Einsel.

But you may remember his work.

Dave worked for 17 years as a Chronicle photographer and photo director, winning numerous state and national awards.

Back when Houston was a two-newspaper town and I was managing editor of the Houston Post, and Dave was shooting for the rival Chronicle, I too often had to admit that the Chronicle - thanks to Dave - had the day’s best photo.

Dave’s photos reflected his deep concern for the disadvantaged. There were gripping pictures of a cholera epidemic in Peru, warfare in Africa and hurricane devastation here at home.

Then there was the assignment that took Dave to Ethiopia. That trip embroiled us in one of the most bizarre and embarrassing episodes in my journalism career.

In 1989, Texas congressman Mickey Leland’s plane vanished in heavy weather while he was in Ethiopia inspecting a refugee camp.

As the search began, the financially strong Chronicle rushed Dave to Ethiopia. At the financially struggling Post, we decided to stay home.

After a couple of days, Dave finagled his way onto a U.S. military helicopter and joined the search.

That day searchers found the site where Leland’s plane had crashed. The plane hit a mountain about 4,300 feet above sea level. It missed clearing the peak by 300 feet.

Dave got an exclusive crash site picture and made arrangements with Associated Press Wirephoto to transmit the photo to Houston.

This was before digital photography. In those days, AP Wirephotos travelled over-the-wire and were produced on paper by machinery on the receiving end.

AP members - and most newspapers are AP members - agree to share their photos with other members. In return, members get access to other member photos from around the world.

There is an exception, however. Members are not required to share pictures with direct competitors.

So, when Dave’s crash picture moved across the wires, it was marked “Houston Out.” We all knew what that meant: The Chronicle could use the picture, and we could not.

My boss at the time, however, argued that since Dave had flown on a flight funded by U.S. taxpayers, our Post readers were entitled to see the photo. He ordered us to use Dave’s photo.

My boss may have had a sound legal argument, but it seemed unethical to most of us at the Post.

AP got wind of what was happening and sent their Houston bureau chief to our offices to collect the photo … which we had hidden.

I suspect - but do not know for sure - that AP was alerted about the Post’s disregard for the rules by Chronicle executives, angry that the Post was using a picture the Chronicle had earned exclusive rights to.

The AP executive arrived, and a newsroom standoff ensued. AP wanted the photo, and we would not give it to him. It was tense. I felt bad for the poor AP guy. Eventually, he left in frustration.

The next morning both papers had front pages featuring Dave’s crash photo. The photo in the Post had this credit line: Dave Einsel, Houston Chronicle.

Several days later my boss was asked by an angry AP to write an explanation for his decision to break the rules. I never heard anything more about it. As far as I know, we were not punished for breaking the rules.

But most of us at the Post were embarrassed for what we had done.

Several years later, the Chronicle bought and closed the Post, and I went to work for my long-time rival.

As fate would have it, I was now Dave’s boss.

I had never met him face-to-face, so on my first day at the Chronicle, I apologized to Dave for what I thought was a breach of journalism ethics by my former paper.

I was relieved that we were both able to laugh about the incident.

Sadly, however, now is not the time for laughter. Houston lost a world-class photojournalist when Dave passed away recently after a six-month battle with ALS.

(Contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516).


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