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I was glad to see this afternoon that The Star has hired a new editorial board vice president.

Colleen McCain Nelson looks like a good catch. Along with two colleagues, Nelson won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for a series of editorials comparing an affluent part of Dallas with a low-income area. She’s been a reporter at the Wall Street Journal since 2012 and currently is covering Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

She probably won’t start at The Star until late this year at the earliest.

Here’s another wrinkle: The Star also hired her husband, Eric Nelson, to lead its digital news operations. Nelson currently is head of digital content for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

(As an aside, I’d like to suggest that anyone who is looking for a high-profile job at The Star be sure to first tie the marital knot with a relatively strong journalistic partner. Three years ago, as you might recall, The Star hired Vahe Gregorian as a sports columnist and also hired his wife Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian as a reporter for the Sunday House & Home section. The Gregorians came from St. Louis, where they both worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I’m sure there have been other conjugal hires at The Star, but I can’t think of any offhand; maybe you commenters will help me out there.)

colleen

Colleen McCain Nelson, after learning she and two colleagues had won a Pulitzer Prize six years ago for editorial writing.

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Eric Nelson

The Nelsons are coming from Washington, D.C., but they’ve got roots in the area — always a good sign for the prospect of long-term employment in Kansas City. Both graduated from the University of Kansas and have family in the area. Eric Nelson grew up in Omaha and Colleen (pronounced co-leen) in Salina. She also worked as a summer intern at The Star in 1995. (I don’t remember her. Guess I should have taken notice.)

A few other interesting elements to this move:

:: It reflects a continuation of a youth movement in leadership at The Star. Early this year, McClatchy, The Star’s owner, named 38-year-old Tony Berg as publisher. Now, The Star will have a 42-year-old editorial page editor and a 46-year-old digital editor (Eric Nelson).

:: The editorial page editor’s job was not advertised, to the best of my knowledge. All indications are that Berg scouted the landscape and interviewed candidates. The Star’s story on the hires, written by Mark Davis, says in part, “Then came a call from Kansas City and a chance to move back to their roots.”

:: A few months ago, The Star advertised two editorial-writing positions on the website http://www.journalismjobs.com. From the way they were written, it sounded like the paper was looking for two relatively young and inexperienced people willing to work for a relatively modest salary. Those jobs are no longer being advertised. (The only job being advertised now, as far as I can tell, is digital editor/social editor, and I don’t know how that squares with Eric Nelson’s job.) It is not unusual, however, for job descriptions and goals to change along the way, especially when it comes to editorial-page posts, where the publisher has wide discretion…My guess is that somewhere along the line Berg decided to go for a big gun and bagged the person he wanted. Now, with Colleen Nelson coming in at what I would expect to be a very handsome salary, Berg might forgo one or both of the previously advertised, lower-level hires.

:: Even with Colleen Nelson and the indefatigable Yael Abouhalkah on the editorial page, it still has deadwood. I really don’t like to be critical of a former colleague, but the only-other current editorial board member, Lewis Diuguid, needs to go. He is an insipid writer and a lackluster manager of the Letters to the Editor. All KC Star readers know the letters “page” has gone down in quality as well as quantity in recent years. Maybe Colleen Nelson can help bring it back, but first she’s got to maneuver out the highest-ranking and  most visible African-American employee at The Star.

Good luck on all fronts, Mrs. Nelson — and spouse.

Another day, and we Kansas City area residents are fortunate enough to get another insightful Kansas City Star story on Schlitterbahn — this one on how the Caleb Schwab wrongful death lawsuit might play out in the legal system.

I should also quickly add that these investigative stories The Star is producing are just as maddening as they are insightful.

For example, The Star’s first investigative story showed how Schlitterbahn officials were essentially free to build the world’s tallest water slide, which they called Verruckt, with little or no regulatory oversight or restrictions.

They didn’t even bother to hire a professional water-slide builder. The family that owns the water attractions — one in KCK and four in Texas — decided, heck, they’d just do it themselves. We know our business…Why spend a bunch of money hirings some outsiders to tell us what we already know?

And so, as things often play out when arrogance and unregulated capitalism are the driving forces, disaster struck two weeks ago Sunday when 10-year-old Caleb was decapitated after the raft he was riding in apparently left the water channel, his body colliding with “safety” netting and perhaps metal rods supporting the netting.

Today’s story, written and reported by Scott Canon and Steve Vockrodt, appears under the headline “Legal landscape may mean we never know where Verruckt went wrong.”

Canon and Vockrodt report that while experts will probably be able to determine exactly what went wrong that day, we the public may never know.

“Taking yet-to-be-filed lawsuits all the way to trial would be costly,” the story says, “so the most likely outcome figures to be settlements. Such deals typically come with agreements to keep any findings secret.”

Here are a couple of other potentially maddening elements that Canon and Vockrodt explored.

First, in the Schwab family’s wrongful death lawsuit, Schlitterbahn might off by paying as little as $250,000, the maximum amount provided for in Kansas law. (Inexplicably, the reporters didn’t state what the comparable limit is in Missouri, and I was not able to find the answer on a Google search.)

Second, the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department is investigating to determine if a crime occurred, but a department spokesman told The Star that if they find no crime was committed (the likely result), the department would release the first page of its incident report and maybe a press release, but nothing more.

…From experience, I can tell you that 20 years or so ago, The Star would have pulled out all the stops to get the full report, when it was completed. The paper would not have hesitated to file a lawsuit; it might not have been successful, but it would have pushed it to the hilt and spared no expense.

The Star’s penchant for filing lawsuits in the interests of the public’s right to know dropped off precipitously, however, after Capital Cities/ABC sold the paper to the Walt Disney Co. in 1996. Subsequent owners KnightRidder and the McClatchy Co., which bought the paper in 2006, were equally averse to spend money on lawsuits to uncover relevant, concealed facts.

In the Schwab case, there is sufficient public interest that we may see The Star file a lawsuit. I hope they do; the public deserves it.

…On the other hand, while public interest is high, I’m afraid public outrage is not…Otherwise, how to explain throngs of people returning to Schlitterbahn when it reopened three days after Caleb’s awful death? I can’t help but think that 20 or 30 years ago, before society started becoming desensitized to lying, cheating, corner cutting and outrage itself, very few people would have darkened the door of that facility ever again.

The fact is, as I’ve pointed out in some recent posts, the public doesn’t seem to get outraged about much any more. General Motors covers up an ignition-switch problem that killed 124 people and injured 275 and what happens? GM sales go up several percentage points…Donald Trump paints Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former military POW, as “a loser” because he got captured, and many people just shrug.

Maybe it’s just the newspaperman in me, but I wonder if society’s increasing imperviousness has something to do with the demise of newspapers as the public’s primary source of information and the proliferation of less reputable, less reliable sources of information.

On second thought, maybe it’s not just the newspaperman in me. Maybe I’m on to something. I think as a society we’re paying a big price for the veritable monopoly of corporate journalism and the rolling back of the daily paper as a trusted enterprise dedicated to rooting out the truth and defending the public interest.

To me, the overall attitude of people today seems to be reflected in a great country song by Pam Tillis called “Land of the Living.”

The refrain foes like this:

Just hurry back
To the land of the living
Things have changed
Since you’ve been gone
The world is turning
In the land of the living
Take a deep breath
Life goes on… Life goes on

Those of us who came of age around the time of the Watergate scandal got about the best lesson you can learn in life: Attempting to cover up something you’ve done wrong often thrusts you into a deeper stew than the deed itself.

The Watergate story should be taught starting in elementary school and carrying right into high school, and it should be taught at least every other year.

I doubt that U.S. Olympic swimmers Ryan Lochte, Jimmy Feigen, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz ever got the lesson, or they wouldn’t have made up the story — even in their drunken state — about getting pulled over in Rio and robbed at gunpoint by people posing as police.

Unfortunately for us Americans, this story reverberates well beyond these four guys. When it first came out, it seemed to confirm the reports that Rio was a wild and dangerous place and that your head better be moving on its swivel when you were out on the streets.

But as the story that Lochte and Feigen told police unraveled — turns out they fabricated it to cover up their destructive antics at a gas station — the backwash accelerated, and now many people around the world must be thinking, “Ugly Americans.”

A woman named Judy, from Canada, placed this comment on a story in today’s New York Times:

This, if it is true, is an unfortunate example of why some Americans are such bad ambassadors for their country abroad. They bring an attitude of arrogance and entitlement along with them. In this incident we have added to that the free pass that male athletes get in American culture. It is time that people who have so many privileges learn to respect others and act with a little humility in other countries and cultures.

Imagine how we in the States would react if Russian athletes were at the center of this caper. We’d be saying, “You can’t trust those Ruskies. Not only is the government systematically drugging the athletes, the athletes are liars.”

Instead, it’s Americans getting drubbed in the press. The headline in today’s Daily Mail, a British tabloid, screams “LYIN’ RYAN.” The paper quoted one Brazilian official as saying, “The only truth they told was they were drunk.”

Boy, that hurts. These guys have not only painted themselves as liars but they have embarrassed their country. One of the first thoughts that came to my mind was thank goodness Michael Phelps beat Lochte in their big showdown early in the Games.

lochte

Ryan Lochte got out of Rio before Brazilian authorities could question him about his made-up story of being robbed by men posing as police. Safely back in the U.S., he posed with a flight attendant in Charlotte, NC, on Wednesday.

One of the most surprising elements of this story is the ages of the two guys who concocted the phony story. Lochte, the group leader, is 32. Feigen, the only other one to give a statement to police before yesterday, is 26. The other guys — Conger and Bentz, are 21 and 20 respectively. (The truth came out after Brazilian officials pulled Conger and Bentz off a plane last night and interviewed them.)

Had all four been 19 or 20, I could have understood better the rush to the lie. But 32 and 26? Lochte and Feigen — like Richard Nixon and his pals who tried to cover up the Watergate burglary — are just stupid.

It’s too bad that this sorry episode will end up overshadowing some of the great athletic feats that U.S. Olympians have recorded in Rio. Not all, but some. At any rate, the story is going to be remembered for a long time.

Another New York Times commenter, John Calderhead of Denver, succinctly explained exactly why it is going to endure:

“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

Let’s start teaching Watergate early and keep teaching it often.

You remember the movie Caddyshack, in which the pesky gopher continually thwarted groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray) and wreaked havoc on the country club course.

Well, a couple of months ago, it appeared that golf, as a sport returning to the Olympic Games after a 112-year absence, was going to be similarly torn asunder after one top professional after another backed out, claiming fear of the Zika virus.

The list of defectors included world’s No. 1 ranked Jason Day of Australia; U.S. major champions Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson; and former world’s No. 1 player Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland.

One website I happened onto today, called The Wrap, said back in July, “You can officially add Olympic golf to the list of Rio disasters.”

Three weeks prior to the Olympics, the chief organizer of the Rio Games, Carlos Nuzman, put his finger on the real reason that some of golf’s biggest stars had bowed out. “They tried to blame Zika, but the media have shown that they are not coming because there’s no prize money,” Nuzman said.

Then, an amazing thing happened: Other top world players, including America’s Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler, moved to the fore and began saying how badly they wanted to play and how great an honor it would be to represent their countries on the world stage.

On Thursday, 60 players from 40 nations began playing the first of four rounds. Only three of those players would get any official recognition — the top three medal winners. No money was at stake; it was all for country, pride and prestige.

And what a finish!

This afternoon (Rio is two hours ahead of Kansas City), Sweden’s Henrik Stenson (No. 5 in the world) and Great Britain’s Justin Rose (No. 12) were tied at 15 under par as they stood on the tee at the par-five 18th hole. If one of them beat the other on that hole, he would be the gold medal winner; if they tied that hole, they would immediately begin a sudden-death playoff.

I love both those golfers — tremendous professionals and great sporting personalities — and would have been happy with either one. As it turned out, Rose made an incredible short-range pitch shot — his third on the hole — that came to rest two feet from the cup. The crowd roared. Minutes earlier, Stenson’s pitch, from farther away, landed about 20 to 25 feet from the cup.

justin

Justin Rose, winning Olympic gold

After Stenson three-putted — ramming his first putt several feet past — Rose claimed the victory by cooly tapping in his two-footer. As the putt dropped into the cup, Rose pumped his fist in the air and tugged at the British crest on his shirt, emphasizing the win was just as much for his country as for him. He later said:

“The reality is incredible. The reality hasn’t sunk in. The whole week, I’ve been so focused. I’ve been so into it. I’ve been up for it. I’ve been just so determined, I suppose, to represent Team GB as best as I could. And it was just the most magical week.”

And so, an event that had taken on dismal overtones just a couple of months go surged to the top Olympic tier, along with swimming, gymnastics and women’s beach volleyball.

And those guys who turned their backs on the Olympics — especially Spieth, Day, McIlroy and Johnson? I won’t be pulling for them nearly as much as I used to. I’ll be rooting for any of the 60 men who spent the week in Rio and played for the love of the game, love of country and to be part of golf’s historic return to the Olympics since the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis.

And now this week, starting Wednesday, the world’s top women take to the course. I invite you to join me in watching at least part of it. I think it, too, is going to be a great show.

Let’s talk about that shining political light Donald Trump and The Press.

Have you ever seen anyone so adept at digging deeper hole for himself virtually every day?

Speaking Friday at a rally in Erie, PA, for example, he pointed at the media platform and said: “These people are the lowest form of life, I’m telling you. They are the lowest form of humanity.”

The crowd responded approvingly, giving Trump the satisfaction he was seeking, I suppose.

But what a dummy! To the best of my memory, no one has ever gotten elected to anything by bashing the press. It has never worked and probably won’t for a long time, despite the thinning of the “mainstream media” ranks and the proliferation of new media models.

doleRemember Bob Dole? The year was 1996, and he was the Republican nominee, running against incumbent Bill Clinton. Dole railed against “the liberal media” and angrily denounced The New York Times for a pro-Clinton bias.

A story back then in The Weekly Standard, a conservative publication, said, “By all accounts, Dole’s audiences have loved this media-bashing.”

Fine and dandy. But what happened in November? Well, Dole lost the electoral vote 379 to 159 and the public vote by nine percentage points.

While surveys might show that much of the public says it doesn’t trust The Press, the vast majority of Americans intuitively understand that freedom of the press as it is practiced in our country is the best by far, and they rely on The Press to root out corruption and peel back the bullshit that so often shrouds the truth.

Trump’s latest demonstration of pique at The Press prompted The Times to do a story in today’s edition titled “Trump’s Other Campaign Foe: The ‘Lowest Form of Life’ News Media.”

At one point, the story quoted Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney’s and George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, on how futile it was for candidates to waste time tilting at the media windmill:

Whining about media coverage is just that: It’s whining. Any campaign that tells you it makes a difference with swing voters is just lying to themselves and lazy, because it’s easier than developing an actual strategy or message.

The Times’ reporters, Alexander Burns and Nick Corasaniti, added this bit of analysis: “If bashing the media proved an effective way of rallying the Republican base to his side during the primaries, Mr. Trump must now prove himself to a broader community of voters in the general election, who are far less preoccupied with the notion of press bias.”

From all accounts, Hillary Clinton has no love for The Press, either. She’s just smart enough not to talk about it. And shrewdly, an effective way she has chosen to deal with it is to hold precious few press conferences. That, of course, pisses off The Press no end…At the same time — just like Trump’s anti-journalistic drumbeat — it doesn’t bother the public a bit.

Also, in spite of The Press’ irritation at Clinton for refusing to hold press conferences, Trump’s hyperbolic press rants serve only to increase the media’s overall tilt toward Clinton.

…A wonderfully insightful and funny political cartoon appeared Friday on The Star’s Op-Ed page. It was by Glenn McCoy of the Belleville (IL) News Democrat. Under the headline “Hillary’s post-convention bump” were caricatures of Hillary, looking thick and dumpy, and an iconic reporter from yesteryear, wearing a nondescript tie and a hat with a “press” sign sticking out of the band…Looking slyly at each other, the two figures were exchanging a fist bump.

Onward and downward with that pit-bull, attack-the-press strategy, Mr. Trump!

Tony Botello, my fellow blogger and friend (not close, by any means, but certainly we’re friendly), is fond of referring to The Star and other newspapers as “the dead tree media.”

Gotta hand it to him, it is catchy, and easy for people to nod in agreement.

But, as even those who might nod in agreement might suspect, it’s far too dismissive of traditional, shoe-leather-thinning journalism.

Even after a decade or so of transition to digital venues and outlets, the vast majority of the best-researched, best-reported, most important and most relevant news stories are still generated by newspapers…Without a doubt. Case closed. Shut the door.

For example, who but The Star could throw a half dozen or so reporters — most with deep newspaper experience and the ability to stay cool amid chaos — at the Verruckt tragedy? No one. All other reporting outlets — TV, bloggers, whatever — are just nibbling around the edges. By contacting engineers, physicists and other experts, The Star was able to create in the readers’ minds an understanding of how things likely unfolded in that raft that hurtled down the water channel, left the channel at some point and brutally killed 10-year-old Caleb Schwab before the raft reached the calm waters of the receiving pool.

That’s a local example. Here’s a farther-reaching one. The New York Times leads the way on so many national and international stories — both straight news and investigative — that it leaves all other news organizations in the dust. That’s how good it is. Frequently, stories you hear featured on NPR (the only national news worth listening to on radio) were initiated by reporters and editors who read about them first in The Times.

**

parker

Kathleen Parker

The importance of the role that newspapers play — not necessarily with their the print editions but through the content they produce — was wonderfully expressed in today’s Star by Op-Ed columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post Writers Group.

Listen to this, from the column:

The problem: People want news but they don’t want to pay for it. Consequently, newspapers are failing while consumers get their information from comedy shows, talk shows and websites that essentially lift material for their own purposes.

But somewhere, somebody is actually sitting through a boring meeting, poring over data or interviewing someone who isn’t nearly as important as he thinks he is to produce a story that will become news…(N)ews is a food chain, yet with rare exceptions, the most important members of the chain are at the bottom, turning off the lights in newsrooms where gladiators, scholars and characters once roamed.

As a reporter who earned his spurs in the 1970s and 1980s, I had to smile when I read the line about the newsroom being a place where “gladiators, scholars and characters once roamed.”

…I can’t help but digress here and give you an example of one “character” I encountered early on. Shortly after I started at The Star in 1969, reporters would routinely be sent out with photographers to go “cruising” for news. It was a ridiculous custom and never yielded anything, but it was what the editors did to keep us busy. Otherwise, between stories, we mostly sat around the newsroom, feet on our desks, reading the paper or magazines…Anyway, there was one particular photographer (still alive today, somehow) who was both an alcoholic and moral degenerate. While driving around with young reporters like me, he would routinely stop at the home of one of his girlfriends for a quickie. “Wait here,” he’d say, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Twenty or 30 minutes later he’d come back, refreshed — it would seem — and ready to resume “cruising.”)

But back to Kathleen Parker’s homage to newspapers. Here’s another dead-on paragraph:

“My point…is that only newspapers are the brick-and-mortar of the Fourth Estate’s edifice…What happens to the ‘news’ when there are no newspapers left? We seem doomed to find out, as people increasingly give up their newspaper subscriptions and seek information from free-content sources. And though newspapers have an online presence, it’s hard to get readers to pay for content. As (HBO’s John) Oliver says, now is a very good time to be a corrupt politician. Between buyouts, layoffs and news-hole reductions, there’s hardly anyone paying attention.”

**

I say, then, that Tony Botello and others digital dabblers who, for the most part, feed off other people’s research and reporting should reflect more deeply before they consign “the dead tree media” to history and irrelevance. Newspapers are the lifeblood of the news-generating machinery in our country and much of the rest of the educated world, and they will continue to fill that role for a long time to come.

We all need and greatly benefit from the content that newspapers provide, in whatever form, and I urge you readers to consider that good, valuable content does not come free: Those people turning out the lights in the newsrooms deserve to get paid well.

I would think Verruckt is kaput, and the KCK Schlitterbahn could be shot.

It will be interesting to see how many people show up when the water park reopens Wednesday, minus the 168-foot-tall Verruckt water slide, which will remain closed for at least the rest of the season.

It’s possible that media members will outnumber paying guests.

Wait…Did I say paying?

After Sunday’s unspeakable accident, with 10-year-old Caleb Schwab dying after apparently being thrown from the three-person raft he was riding in and then hitting protective netting full force — probably head first — it’ll be a wonder to me if anyone ever again pays to walk through the gates.

(For the record, general admission to the KCK park ranges from $42 to $50, with the lower rate available with online purchases.)

But then, I’m the same blogger who thought General Motors could be facing an operational crossroads after it came to light in 2014 that for a decade the carmaker had covered up a problem with ignition switches in Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions. At first, GM claimed the ignition-switch failures — and resulting deactivation of airbags — had killed 13 people. But attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who specializes in corporate payouts, later linked 124 deaths and 275 injuries to the debacle.

And yet, amid that terrible publicity and the exposure of a GM as a lying enterprise, the sale of its vehicles actually rose several percentage points in 2014.

The public is funny in an unpredictable sort of way…I mean, who would have thought that a major political party’s nominee for president would suggest, seriously, that gun-rights advocates might do something crazy if Hillary Clinton got elected and started appointing liberal Supreme Court justices? Yes, the public is really funny. 

verruckt

Verruckt

But tonight The Star has an investigative story that should hasten the demise of the Verruckt ride. KC Star reporters Laura Bauer, Steve Vockrodt and Eric Adler spoke with several people who experienced harrowing rides on Verruckt, either because their Velcro-style shoulder harnesses came undone during the ride or their raft lifted out of the water channel.

The reporters cited the case of Paul Oberhauser of Omaha who, on a trip to Schlitterbahn last month, had his shoulder strap come loose at the bottom of the first of Verruckt’s two big hills. Oberhauser’s wife Erin told The Star that for the rest of the ride her husband held on for dear life by his legs.

The Star’s story goes on to say:

The family figured the raft would be taken out of commission until workers could figure out the problem. But two hours later, Erin Oberhauser said from their cabana near the water slide, they saw it happen to another guy on the ride. “We heard a guy yelling, ‘My belt came undone!’ “

**

I have never liked heights, and I have never liked roller coasters, although I’ve been goaded into riding a few. I remember one in particular at Disneyland or Walt Disney World — an outer-space-type attraction that coursed through a darkened cavern. That was easier for me to tolerate because I couldn’t see the terror before my eyes.

Suffice it to say, I would not have been tempted to go on Verruckt. But our son Charlie, now approaching 27, probably would have been tugging at me to let him go on it, had it been around when he was a kid. Scary thought.

I learned today that the German word verruckt means “mad,” “crazy” or “insane.” To me, it will be downright crazy if Schlitterbahn doesn’t start tearing down the Verruckt ride tomorrow. It would be something positive for the handful of Schlitterbahn’s paying customers to witness.

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