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Archive for July, 2010

The TV anchors love to set up the next story — the one coming after the impending round of commercials — with teasers like, “You won’t believe this next story…Don’t go anywhere!” or “Shocking discover in Kansas City…You’ll have to hear it to believe it.”

That’s usually the signal to flip channels because the station promoting the pyrotechnics is guilty, invariably, of hyperbole. After all, if it was such a big story, wouldn’t it have been the lead story at the top of the broadcast?

And yet, every once in a while stories come along that merit some hyperventilation and deserve to be written and reported in a you-gotta-be-kidding tone. Such was the story that led The Star on Thursday about the rediscovery of the shotgun that was used to kill political leader Leon Jordan 40 years ago.

The Star gave it an attention-grabbing headline — “The missing gun turns up — in use by police,” which captured the irony of the situation: The weapon had disappeared from the evidence room at police headquarters. But from that tantalizing headline, the story, while inherently interesting, went downhill because the reporter wrote it like he was reporting the discovery of a turd in a sand box.

It just goes to show you that even Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporters like Mike McGraw have their off days and need the guidance of watchful editors. Along with Mark Morris, federal courts reporter, McGraw is the best investigative reporter at The Star.

He wrote Thursday’s story because it was a follow-up to a “take-out” that he and reporter Glenn Rice did a couple of weeks ago on the 40th anniversary of Jordan’s slaying — one of Kansas City’s greatest murder mysteries.   

Being The Star’s primary investigative reporter, however, McGraw writes relatively few stories — devoting his time to the big throws. As a result, his style is not well suited to the big, breaking developments that are the bread and butter of most “daily” reporters, who write several times a week and are experienced in calibrating their stories to the appropriate level of excitement.

And, make no mistake, this was exciting news: Police lost the gun that was used to kill Jordan, perhaps selling it at auction in 1976, only to repurchase it the following year from a gun shop and put it to use in one of its patrol cars. Presumably, the Jordan murder weapon has been in one or another patrol car, moving about the streets of Kansas City, the last 30 years or so.

But consider how McGraw opened his story:

“In a reversal of an earlier decision, Kansas City police are reopening a 40-year-old investigation into the 1970 shotgun slaying of black political leader Leon Jordan.

“The about-face came after local civil rights leader Alvin Sykes met with Police Chief Jim Corwin, and comes on the heels of another major development in the cast. Police have rediscovered physical evidence in the case that they had earlier said was missing.”

I hate to say it but “blah, blah, blah.” Pro forma. No imagination, little thought.

It’s not until the third paragraph that McGraw mentions the discovery of the Remington 12-gauge shotgun that was used to kill Jordan outside his Green Duck tavern early on the steamy morning of July 15, 1970.

Unfortunately, the pace of the story does not pick up; it plods through its entire 34 column inches.   

Now, let’s analyze the key elements of the story.

Is it important that police have decided to reopen the investigation (which they had earlier indicated they were not interested in doing)? Of course. Is Sykes’ agitation important? Yes. But ask yourselves….What’s the most astonishing part of this story? Right…the shotgun being found in a police car! 

Without question, the lead of the story — the first sentence or two — should have turned on the gun. 

It could have gone something like this:

“The weapon used to kill political leader Leon Jordan has been found…not buried in the police evidence room but in a patrol car, where it circuitously ended up decades ago after police disposed of it.

“The astonishing development, along with the discovery of other missing evidence in the case, has prompted police to reopen the Jordan case, one of Kansas City’s most enduring murder mysteries.”    

To me, that strikes at the inherent drama of the case and immediately gets the reader focused on the seminal question: “How in the world did the gun end up being used as standard equipment in a police patrol car?”

The lead usually is the key to grabbing the readers’ attention. In this case, the subject matter is so interesting — and the layout (including a 16-1/2 inch photo of the gun) was so good — that  most readers probably stuck with McGraw, even through his lackluster account.

But with a better lead and a more dramatic pitch throughout the story, he could have maximized readership and had a story that merited a spot in his portfolio of “all-time-best stories.”

Some people might say, “Who are you, Mr. JimmyC,” to cast aspersions at Mike McGraw?” My answer is this: I was not nearly as good a reporter as McGraw. He’s one of the best in the country, and The Star is fortunate to have him. But on this day, with this story, he blew it. And, by now, he probably realizes it.

His line editor (his immediate supervisor) could have — should have — saved him. So could other editors who looked at the story before publication. But they didn’t.

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It’s a happy day in JimmyC land because a missive has arrived from my oldest friend, Hubartos vanDrehl, the Prince of Paonia…Colorado, that is.

If you’ll recall, when last we heard from vanDrehl (see June 18 blog), he was inveighing against Buttcrack Nation and other discomfitting societal situations. I invited vanDrehl to write another blog entry soon. But I guess when you’re the mystic of the mountains, time is irrelevant. And, besides, in vanDrehl’s mysterious realm perhaps six weeks qualifies as soon.

At any rate, yesterday’s entry about last Saturday’s Paul McCartney concert sparked vanDrehl’s creative juices, and here are his words of…well, I would like to say “wisdom,” but I’ll let you be the judge.   

P.S. Before we launch, I must make a correction. In the June 18 blog, I offered an incorrect pronunciation of vanDrehl’s name. Like I say, he’s my oldest friend, and sometimes you forget small things like that. For the record, it’s pronounced van-drell, as in Archie Bell and the Drells. (I need to tighten up, don’t you know?)    

*****    

My Dear JimmyC,

Interesting. Interesting that you would wax nostalgic about a pale 70s version of an over-produced and over-hyped quartet of charming 60s mop tops that is still being shoved down the throats of people not yet born when the Bee’uls roamed the earth.

Also interesting is that I distinctly remember your dazed, confused and offended feelings about that disheveled time in the Sixties when a lot of us spoiled, pampered and indulged Boomers were feeling frisky.

I think the Seventies were your decade of choice, after having escaped the suffocating clutches of our hometown in order to breathe and grow. Being overly nostalgic about our Catholic-Boys’ education and paltry social life would be like laughing and telling funny stories about service in an ugly war. Being angry about our terrorized upbringing under the thumb of Holy Mother Church is like being angry at an ancient Nazi death-camp guard on trial and life support.

The 60s and 70s died with Lennon in 1980, when he took a bullet for fame. You remember him? He was the best and brightest Bee’ul, with tons more brains and talent than Cutie-Pie Paul. I believe it was Satchel Paige who said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

We were born in 1946, the first of the Boomers, and we’ve been making them pay attention to, and pay for, our sins ever since. Having turned this country into a spiritually, culturally, creatively, morally and financially bankrupt wasteland that produces nothing, stands for nothing and consumes everything with the help of 60 years of television and other types of useless information that oozes from pixel-ated surfaces, the Boomers should repair to the barn. Had I been your date the other night for the “Tour Down Memory Lane,” I would have stayed in the bathroom like your long-ago candidate for date rape. You owe her a civil apology and a night on the town if you can find your walker.

Like the old song says, these are the good old days. And like the yogis say, be here now. Yes, these are the good old days, JimmyC. Have a good one on me: The tab’s actually being picked up by the next generation(s). Boomers ride free.

I Remain,

A Detached Observer Somewhere On the Western Slope of Colorado,

Hubartos vanDrehl

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I have felt a vague sense of loss and unease the last few days, since going to the Paul McCartney concert Saturday night.

The concert — even the anticipation of it — prompted a wave a of nostalgia and introspection. Anchored at the root of those feelings were the memories from the last McCartney concert I attended, and the realization that a vast expanse of time (gone forever) and life changes (good and bad), had intervened between the two McCartney shows I have been privileged to see.

The first was in May 1976, when I was a young reporter for The Star, covering the Jackson County Courthouse. On the personal front, I was flailing romantically and still trying to find a sense of belonging in Kansas City.

On the day of the concert, as I recall, then-county assessor Wayne Tenenbaum offered to sell me his two tickets at face value because he couldn’t go. I needed a date, and another administrator, Bob Bosch, fixed me up with the sister of a friend. Bam, bam. Just like that, on a warm spring night, I was headed to Kemper Arena to see Paul and Linda McCartney and Wings. It was the Wings Over America Tour, which followed closely on the heels of the release of Wings’ Venus and Mars album.  

My date and I did some pre-concert drinking (and probably a little smoking). From the first song — I don’t remember what it was — I could tell it was going to be a memorable show. Paul was totally focused. He didn’t indulge in much chit-chat. Just song after killer song. His voice — and the accompanying music — was clear, strong and dazzling. I remember, in particular, the soaring strains of “Maybe I’m Amazed” — the lilting “ooooooww, wooo-oo-ooo-ooo, ahahh.” I was dazed, amazed and transfixed.    

Not long into the concert, my date was taken ill, undoubtedly from the pre-party indulgence. I was torn as to what to do. I felt an obligation to comfort and attend to her, but, at the same time, I didn’t want to miss this concert. She hunkered in the restroom. I felt bad for her and checked on her a while later, but she sent me back into the arena, telling me to enjoy the show. Her selflessness was remarkable. And, regrettably, she missed the concert of a lifetime. It was our only date. 

Paul and Linda, 1976

Analyzing that concert in retrospect, I think that Linda McCartney played a large role in its magic. Even though she did mostly background vocals and percussion, she was the glue, and she was a picture of grace, femininity and professionalism. And everyone realized that she and Paul were a rock solid team, the foundation on which everything was built.    

Of course, it was a lot different on Saturday night. Paul is 68, not 34. His star is not ascending; it is holding, at best. And Linda is dead and gone. The four other band members – great musicians, for sure — were all men. To me, Linda’s absence was conspicuous.

Even before the concert started, I realized in my heart that it wouldn’t, couldn’t, measure up to the experience of 1976. Nevertheless, Paul was amazing. He still hits most of the notes, perhaps not with quite as much power, but he gets there. And he played many of the same songs he performed in 1976, such as “Jet,” “Let Me Roll It” and “Letting Go.” They sounded good. Very good. I stood and moved with the music, along with the rest of the huge crowd.

Instead of grabbing the crowd by the throat, Paul stroked and patted, for the most part. As you would expect from a retrospective, he did more talking between songs and exhibited more gestures of gratitude, such as raising the guitar above his head several times and forming a heart with his hands above his head at other times.

There was at least one song, however, when I felt the old intensity. It was “Band on the Run,” the great song about the “county judge who held a grudge.”  It’s got that slow, lazy start that segues, seamlessly, into a hard-driving rhythm and culminates with a full-throated guitar chord that socks you in the gut. If you don’t feel it in your gut, your hard wiring is fatally flawed.     

Of course, it wasn’t just Paul who had changed, but me, too. I am 64, not 30. And I didn’t arrive at the concert “high and primed” as I did 34 years ago. I was with my wife and 22-year-old daughter, so there was no pre-concert overindulgence, just a couple of drinks at Raglan Road.

And there was a side story. Through a bit of luck, while at the bar, my daughter got a brief audience with the g.m. for a job as a hostess. The g.m. told her he’d call her for an interview. Today, she goes in for that interview….Let youth be served. It’s her generation that is ascending now.

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With the Chiefs getting set to open summer camp next week in St. Joseph, this is a good time to address a subject I’ve been thinking about lately.

Jason Whitlock.

More specifically, Jason Whitlock and his future at The Kansas City Star, where he’s been a fixture for 16 years.

In my opinion, Jason is effectively finished at The Star. I’m not just basing that on the fact that he hasn’t had a column in the paper – either sports or one of his ridiculous “independent thoughts” op-ed pieces — since June 2. No, the tell-tale sign that he’s effectively finished is that there have been very few inquiries and very little speculation, anywhere, regarding his absence from print.

That tells me that he has essentially become irrelevant, as far as readers of The Star are concerned. At this point, The Star might as well cut his big, fat salary loose and spend the money on some more reporters or copy editors.

In recent weeks, The Star has been running a box, usually on Page 2 of the Sunday sports section, saying that Whitlock is on vacation. A few weeks ago, someone at The Star told me that Whitlock had gone on vacation and then had a death in the family.

But still…seven weeks? Nobody at The Star gets that much time off; I’m pretty sure five weeks is the maximum.

He’s been writing columns for Foxsports.com, and he’s been Tweeting, but, like many a suspect on A&E’s “The First 48,” he’s “nowhere to be found” in the pages of The Star. I haven’t put in an official inquiry to anyone at The Star because if a separation is looming, I won’t get a straight answer. Besides, it’s not particularly material if he does resurface in print because, as I said at the outset, my point is that he’s effectively finished at the paper.

Here are three reasons I say that:

:: During the go-go years, when Whitlock and Joe Posnanski were a solid one-two punch, just about everyone who followed sports couldn’t wait to read what Whitlock and Poz had to say. They had a symbiotic journalistic relationship that worked to the benefit of the readers. With Whitlock often wielding the hammer and Posnanski bringing the lyrical touch, the duo gave the readers a reason to open their papers early. Then, a year ago, Posnanski left The Star to become a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, and the magic quickly disappeared. It was like any great team – Burns and Allen, Martin and Lewis – they were just a lot better together than as solo acts.

:: We came through the entire conference realignment story, which went on for many weeks, without an utterance, as far as I can tell, from Whitlock. It has been, by far, the biggest story in college sports this year, and The Star’s supposed No. 1 columnist never wrote about it. The people who carried the ball for The Star on that story – and ever so capably – were reporters Blair Kerkhoff and Mike DeArmond and columnist Sam Mellinger. Mellinger is Posnanski’s successor. A baseball expert, he has made great strides in his relatively short tenure. He’s like Posnanski in that he’s prolific, but he’s different in that he relies less on turning a phrase and more on insight and keen observation.

:: Finally, the Chiefs are in a sorry state, and, while they still are very popular, they are not nearly as relevant as they used to be under “King Carl,” as Whitlock memorably referred to former Chiefs president Carl Peterson. They have an earnest but unimaginative owner in Clark Hunt; they have a hot-headed, yet dull-as-dirt coach in Todd Haley; they have an egocentric president, Scott Pioli, who hides in his office; and they have a sub-par group of players. So, really, what does it matter what Whitlock might write about this year’s Chiefs?   

Let’s face it…Whitlock’s day in the sun as a columnist for The Star has passed. I wish him luck in the future, but it’s time for him and us to move on.

The king is dead! Long live the king! (Mellinger, that is.)

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I was thinking about George Steinbrenner yesterday as my daughter and I watched the Oakland A’s drub the Royals 9-6 at Kauffman Stadium.

The combination of the 95-degree heat, still air and Brian Bannister pitching something akin to batting practice (There goes another A’s home run!) put us in close to a catatonic state. Fortunately, however, along about the fifth inning, my daughter had the good sense to suggest that we get some water. The $4.25-each investments brought us around a bit.

But, like I was saying, when I was reasonably conscious I was thinking about Steinbrenner. I was thinking particularly about a letter to the editor that appeared in The New York Times last Thursday. The writer, Paul Kaplan of Roswell, Ga., said that Steinbrenner was responsible for diminishing baseball for about two-thirds of the fans.

“That is roughly the percentage of teams that start each season with no realistic chance of becoming champions because they can’t afford the best players under the twisted system that Mr. Steinbrenner exploited,” Kaplan wrote. “Yes, he was a brilliant businessman, but he spoiled the sport that so many loved back when it was played on a level field.”

What can you say, other than “Amen”?

*******

Maybe you read last week about the Missouri General Assembly approving — and Gov. Jay Nixon signing — a bill that will give $150 million in tax breaks for automakers and aimed at Ford Motor Co.’s assembly plant in Claycomo. 

Part of the money to finance the tax breaks will come from changes in the state pension system. The reforms — all good, in my opinion — will raise the retirement age for most state workers from 62 to 67; require a 4 percent contribution from employees toward their pension funds; and require them to work 10 years before becoming eligible for retirement benefits, instead of the current five years. 

Nixon called the pension changes ” a fiscally responsible measure to modernize the pension system for future state employees and ensure the solvency of this retirement system.”

John Burnett

I just about jumped out of my chair, however, when I read what state Rep. John Burnett, a Kansas City Democrat, had to say about the pension reforms. 

“We just did some brutal, brutal revisions to the pension system,” Burnett said.

I understand that Burnett represents an area — northeastern Kansas City — that has a lot of blue-collar workers and many government employees. But, my God, hasn’t Burnett hasn’t been reading about the international financial crisis? The one that has been fueled by overly generous pension systems in southern European countries, including Greece, Portugal and Spain? 

Here in the States, our governments — state, local and national — have been doling out extremely generous pension benefits for decades, and it’s catching up with us, like it did with the European countries.

Wake up, John! The fabric in the golden parachute of government employment is fraying and about to tear asunder.

*******

Overheard at Sutherlands…..A man with a piece of corrugated tubing asks the checkout clerk if the store has a type of corrugated tubing similar to what he has. The clerk shuffles through some product paperwork and replies, “We don’t have no corrugated nothing.”

Six words, four negatives. Gotta be a record. I didn’t know whether to applaud or cry.

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Today I want to send out a big plum to The Star’s Kevin Collison for his A-1 story Wednesday on the city acknowledging that it will be subsidizing the Power & Light District to the tune of $10 million to $15 million for the foreseeable future.

This wasn’t a “gotcha” story, however; it was a “that’s-the-way-it-is” story. And it’s been developing for a couple of years. The city’s subsidy, as the story pointed out, was $4.8 million in 2008, $11.5 million last year and is projected to be the same this year. So, the trend has not been good.  

I also want to applaud Collison, The Star’s development reporter, for the tone that he took. It wasn’t like, “Ah, see there, the city screwed this up horribly.” He pointed out that the revenue projections were overly optimistic, and then, of course, along came that thing called the Great Recession.

The story is devoid of “the-sky-is-falling” comments, as it should be. The vast majority of people realize that the Power & Light District has been a great thing for Kansas City. After decades of looking at dilapidated buildings and crumbling sidewalks downtown, we can now take pride in our downtown. From the entertainment standpoint, we stack up well against several other midwestern cities, including St. Louis and Louisville. We are a few steps behind places like Indianapolis and Denver, but at least we’re within shouting distance. 

Did the Cordish Co., the developer, cut a fat hog here? Probably. But what were city officials supposed to do — drive a ridiculously hard bargain and watch Cordish take its proven model (see Baltimore and Louisville) somewhere else? We needed them more than they needed us. So, it’s done, and, as City Councilwoman Deb Hermann said in the story, “Regardless of what the projections were, we need to make it a success.”   

We Kansas Citians like to look over our shoulders at Omaha and try to gauge if it is catching up with us and — God forbid — if it has a chance to surpass us. Well, I’ll tell you, without the Power & Light District, we would have Omaha at our side, and we’d probably be glancing back, with concern, at Lincoln — the proud home of the newest member of the Big Ten Conference.

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The Star’s Mike McGraw and Glenn Rice had a riveting, A-1 story Sunday about one of Kansas City’s greatest murder mysteries — the July 1970 slaying of civil rights leader and politician Leon Jordan.

The slaying, in which Jordan was gunned down outside his Green Duck Tavern at 26th and Prospect, occurred 10 months after I had arrived in Kansas City.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the murder at the time. I was a general assignment reporter for The Kansas City Times, the morning edition of The Star, and had not been exposed to Kansas City politics. I was busy writing all manner of stories, including a June report on Janis Joplin’s last appearance in the Kansas City area. (I interviewed her in the stands, between shows, at Memorial Hall in KCK. Four months later, she died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood, Calif., motel.)

Soon enough, however, I got involved in political coverage and in 1971 I was assigned to the Jackson County Courthouse, covering politics and courts. (These days, papers generally have political reporters and courts reporters, and they don’t have the same reporters covering both “beats.”)
As a result, I got deeply interested in both politics and the court system, and I came to understand the significance of the Jordan case. 

Jordan was a co-founder of the renowned political group Freedom Inc., which controlled much of the black vote in Kansas City. The other founder was Bruce R. Watkins, a former city councilman who, in the 70s, was Jackson County Circuit Court clerk. He later ran for mayor but lost to Richard Berkley, who served three terms, from 1979 to 1991.

The two prosecutors who served during my years at the courthouse — first Joe Teasdale and later Ralph L. Martin — each took a stab at bringing the case to resolution. Both failed. Two days after the shooting, Teasdale announced first-degree murder charges against two men, Reginald Watson and Carlton Miller. He dropped the charges 10 days later because…well, he had the wrong guys.

Three years later, Martin announced the indictments of James A. Willis, Maynard Cooper and James “Doc” Dearborn. Willis was later acquitted when his alibi — that he was out of town the day of the murder — held up. The charges against Cooper and Dearborn were dropped. I later covered a case in which Willis, a career criminal, was charged; I think it was bank robbery. I spoke with him several times during the trial, and he was a slick operator, a flatterer. He told me, for example, that he had deduced that I wasn’t a cop because I was “too well dressed.”

There were all kinds of rumors about who killed Jordan and why — everything from politics to sexual indiscretions. Unlike many unsolved murders, however, there was never a prevailing theory about what happened, and there was never an “off-the-record” prime suspect, as far as I knew.

It was just a mystery. One thing wasn’t a mystery, though — how well the murder was planned. The crime occurred about 1 a.m. in steamy weather — temperature 86 degrees — as Jordan left the tavern and walked to his car. As McGraw and Rice reported, three black men drove up in a brown, late-1960s-model brown Pontiac. One of the men fired a shotgun at Jordan, bringing him down. Then, the shooter got out of the car and shot Jordan in the groin and chest as he lay on the sidewalk.

Both the gun and the car, which were found later, had been stolen. Police found partial fingerprints (I guess at least one of the assailants didn’t wear gloves), but a match was never made.

Now, Alvin Sykes, a well-meaning and effective civil rights activist, is pushing hard for police to reopen the case. One problem, however, is that physical evidence, including the murder weapon, has gone missing from the Police Department’s evidence room. Also, there’s no new information.

No less an anti-crime figure than Alvin Brooks, a former police officer and city councilman, is against reopening the case. “Forty years later, do you want to do some things, say some things, and have some things come out that would cause embarrassment, when there is a good chance that the perpetrators are deceased?” Brooks was quoted in the story.

Reading between the lines, I think it’s clear that Brooks doesn’t want to see allegations of sordid affairs and infidelities mar Jordan’s reputation as a civil rights leader and political pioneer. 

I agree. This is one case that, in my opinion, will never be solved. I would sure like to know, however, everything that James Willis knows about that case. For the record, Willis, who is alive, still denies any involvement.

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