Archive for December, 2010

Your journalism detective is on the job, readers.

In my reading of recent editions of The Star and The New York Times, I came across three items that gave me pause. Sometimes, newspaper stories that prompt you to pause are good because you’re reflecting on what you’ve been reading. But in these cases, the pauses were not good because what I had just read had me thinking, “What the hell is going on here?”

:: A Dec. 28 item in The Star reported that a 17-year-old boy from Fort Smith, Ark., died on Christmas Day from injuries he suffered when a Ford Model A he was riding in struck a light pole in the 9100 block of Nieman Road in Overland Park on Christmas Eve.

You don’t see many fatalities involving Model A’s any more, so it piqued my interest. The five-paragraph story, written by Bob Cronkleton, said that the victim, Travis S. McAfee, was in the rear seat of the “kit car” when it veered off the road, hit the pole and rolled onto its top. McAfee was ejected. The driver, a 65-year-old man and two other passengers, suffered serious injuries, the story said.

I wondered just what a “kit car” was because Cronkleton didn’t explain. I looked it up in Wikipedia, and the definition gave me the impression that this was probably a case of a new car body being put on an old chassis. But it could be something else. In any event, I wondered if this was an old putt-putt car or if it was an old car that had been souped up and was capable of high speeds.

Since Cronkleton had failed to inform, I called Officer Jim Weaver, Overland Park Police Department spokesman. Unfortunately, he wasn’t much help, either. He said he didn’t know much about the wreck, including whether excessive speed had been a factor. He said the traffic unit was investigating but that a report on the wreck had not been completed.

Then, I asked about the “kit car” business. He didn’t know, so he put the phone down to check with another officer. When he came back on the line, he said, “We’re not exactly sure what a kit car is.”

So, once again, just like in the collision that killed 16-year-old Zach Myers of Lenexa a few weeks ago, The Star raised questions in an account of a fatal accident, but it didn’t bother to try to sort out the answers.  

This time, though, I’m not pulling out all the stops to find out what happened and what the deal is with this “kit car.” 

I’ll say this, though: Cronkleton owed the readers an explanation, and his editor should have pushed him to explain. You can’t just toss an unfamiliar term out there and expect readers to know what you’re talking about. Once again, it was a case of lazy reporting and editing.

:: The New York Times had an outstanding, front-page story on Sunday, Dec. 26, about a football coach in California who is teaching youngsters a safer way to tackle. Instead of head-first, helmet-down, the technique he teaches is chest-up, head-up, with the tackler thrusting his hips and shoulders upward into the ball carrier.

An accompanying photo showed several youngsters, with their heads pushed way back, moving into tackling “dummies.”

The photo told the story.

Two days later, however, The Times ran a story on its sports page about the growing popularity of football in Israel. And right there, in the middle of the page, was a four-column photo of a player doing exactly the wrong thing — hitting a dummy helmet first, head down. That’s the prescription for a concussion or other head or neck injury.

The journalistic moral? If you’re going to preach what is good, such as a safer way of tackling, don’t turn around and depict what is bad. It’s like a paper crusading against texting or using the cell phone while driving (which The Times has done), but then running a photo of a teenager texting someone while driving to illustrate a story about the proliferation of social networking. (The Times has not done that, I’m happy to say). 

:: On the Op-Ed page of Wednesday’s New York Times, an eye-catching chart appeared under the heading “The Year in Questions.” In the five-column spread, which consumed about two-thirds of the page, contributing columnist Ben Schott presented readers with an end-of-year quiz consisting of about 100 questions. It was a very challenging quiz, which included a section that asked readers to match eight specific quotes with the people who uttered them.

Before starting the “match the utterance” section, I scoured the page to see where I might find the answers after I finished. Sometimes with those types of quizzes, the answers are upside down at the bottom of the page; or they’re on another page; or they’re in the next day’s edition. But the reader is almost invariably guided to the answers.

In this case, though, there was no clue anywhere on the page where the answers were or when they would be provided.

Well, I slogged through the “match the utterance” section and hoped that the answers would be on the Op-Ed page today, Thursday. They were…And, sad to say, I only got two of the eight “match the utterance” questions correct.

Yes, I flunked “The Year in Questions.” However, I’m smart enough to know that The Times should have told the readers on Wednesday when and where the answers would be published.

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I know…’tis the season to be jolly. But it’s hard for me to be jolly when I see what my old employer, The Kansas City Star, is up to these days.

Or isn’t up to, to be more precise.

In recent days, two stories that The Star has chosen not to do have really surprised and disappointed me.

Take a look.

:: On Sunday, The Star ran a long obituary on former Jackson County politician Charles E. Curry, who died Dec. 13 in Key Largo, FL. He was 92.

I looked for a news story that day, but there was none. I wrote a blog on Curry that day and fully expected a news story in The Star on Monday. But nothing. Nothing again Tuesday, nothing Wednesday and nothing today, Thursday.

To me, the oversight (and slight) is inexcusable and reflects the poorest of news judgment.

Charles E. Curry

Charlie Curry was a giant in Jackson County politics. He, along with the two other administrative “judges” who ran Jackson County from 1962 to 1970, ushered in perhaps the greatest era in county history.

A $102-million bond issue that his court put to voters (and which voters approved in 1967) gave us the Truman Sports Complex, a modern Truman Medical Center, the Little Blue Valley Sewer District, upgraded juvenile facilities and expansion and improvement of the parks system, among other things.

Then, his court approved the creation of a Jackson County Charter Commission. The commission drew up a proposed home-rule charter, which voters approved in 1970, the last year Curry served.

The charter, which took effect Jan. 1, 1973, replaced the three-judge administrative court with a county executive and county legislature and instituted a merit system of employment. Since 1973, Jackson County has been much more professionally run, with less patronage and more accountability by elected officials.

Curry was a quiet but effective operator. His successor, on the other hand, George W. Lehr — the first “county executive” under the new system of government — was blessed with a big personality and the ability to fill reporters’ notebooks, and he quickly capitalized on the spotlight cast on the fledgling “charter” government.

He capitalized so well that was able to get himself elected state auditor in 1974, two years after becoming county executive. In about 1978, he left politics and took a cushy job as executive director of the Teamsters Central States Health and Welfare Fund in Chicago.

Why do I bring up Lehr, whom I covered during my seven years as county courthouse reporter, from 1971 to 1978?

Because when Lehr died of a brain tumor in March 1988, The Star gave him a front-page send-off. I remember it well because my first child, a daughter, had been born on March 17, and I was called in from paternity leave to write the story.

Spring forward to the present. Now, we have the death of Charlie Curry, who did immeasurably more for Jackson County than Lehr did, and what does The Star do? Nothing. Not a word, besides the family-paid-for obit.

On Tuesday, I sent an e-mail to Managing Editor Steve Shirk, saying:  “Have you decided, God forbid, that Charlie Curry’s death does not merit a news story?”

I haven’t received a response. Well, maybe Steve isn’t working this week. Maybe he’s ducking me. Maybe he’s afraid of an “anti-Star blogger,” as readers representative Derek Donovan has labeled me.

Or maybe he’s ashamed…I hope that’s it.

:: God knows, I’ve already stirred up enough dust reporting the Zach Myers story, but a bit more has to be said.

Zach was the 16-year-old Lenexa boy who died Dec. 2 as a result of injuries he received in a head-on collision a day earlier in Olathe. A police report released on Tuesday said the car in which he was riding was traveling at least 51 miles an hour when it collided with a car being driven by a 20-year-old woman.

The Star had one, and only story, about the wreck. It ran on Saturday, Dec. 4, and reported, essentially, that Zach was one of three boys in the car; that the crash took place shortly before 10:30 a.m. in the 600 block of Iowa Street; and that none of the other people involved in the crash was seriously injured.

The story did not attempt to explain:

–Why the boys were out of school on a Wednesday morning.
–Where they were going.
–Who was driving.
–If speed was involved.
–If Iowa is a residential street or major thoroughfare.
–If the boys or the woman were wearing seatbelts.
–Where the boys were seated in the car.
–What type of injuries Zach suffered.
–If toxicology tests were being conducted.

It didn’t even say that police were investigating. As feeble and vacant as the story was, The Star should have written a two- or three-paragraph brief and let it go at that, instead of writing a relatively long story, with a photo, that agitated reader interest but provided no answers. 

I have written four stories about the case (see blog entries for Dec. 6, 9, 15 and 21) and have given a complete account of the tragedy. I have also been the object of considerable criticism from people who think I imposed on the Myers family and that I went overboard on coverage.

To the critics, I say, fine. If you’re not interested in the case, don’t read about it. To those readers who wanted to know more and supported me in the reporting effort, I thank you. 

To The Star, I say: Shame on you for abdicating your responsibility to make any effort to report the circumstances of the wreck — circumstances that show how easily the tragedy could have been avoided and how important it is for parents to impress on their children the proper use of seatbelts and the inherent risks of speeding.

The many self-respecting reporters and editors at The Star should be embarrassed at their paper’s ineptitude on the Curry and Myers stories.

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The car in which Zach Myers was riding when he suffered mortal injuries in a Dec. 1, head-on collision was going at least 51 miles an hour — more than twice the posted 25 mph speed limit, according to an Olathe Police Department report released today.

The passenger in the front seat — who, like the driver, survived — told police that shortly before the crash “he looked at the speedometer and noticed that they were traveling 70 mph.” 

In addition, the car had partly crossed the yellow line, into the oncoming lane of traffic. The driver of other car, trying to get around a parked truck and trailer, also had come partly across the yellow line.

The driver of the other car told police she was going about 20 miles an hour when the collision took place on North Iowa Street, several blocks north of downtown Olathe.

None of the three people involved in the crash, besides Zach, was seriously injured. Zach suffered a severed head injury.

The police accident report also said that:

— Zach, seated in the back seat behind the driver, was not wearing a seat belt when the first officer got to the scene.

— The 16-year-old driver, a classmate of Zach at Olathe Northwest High School, had borrowed the car from a friend.    

— Officers saw no indication that either driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but blood samples were drawn and will be tested at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s forensic laboratory.  

The accident report squares with earlier accounts from police and from a woman who arrived on the scene moments after the crash. Police had said last week that the driver had borrowed the car. The woman who came upon the scene, Kathleen McElliott, told me two weeks ago that Zach did not have his seatbelt on when she got to the car and that she believed, based on the severity of the damage to the cars, that at least one of the cars had been speeding.

McElliott said that she had seen blood stains on the lap part of Zach’s seatbelt, but not on the shoulder harness, leading her to believe that if he had been wearing the belt, he might not have had it properly affixed.

The police report is ambiguous on the seatbelt issue, as far as Zach is concerned, because the page with information about the drivers and passengers indicates, by code, that all four people involved in the crash were wearing shoulder and lap belts. 

The crash occurred at 10:27 on a Wednesday morning, as the three boys were headed back to Olathe Northwest on College Boulevard, from the school district’s vocational technical in downtown Olathe.

The Elantra was northbound on Iowa when it collided with a southbound, 1998 Dodge Stratus driven by a 20-year-old woman who lives a few blocks from the scene of the crash. The woman, who is five months pregnant, told police she was on her way to the bank to cash a check.

An officer who interviewed the woman said she told him in the hospital that she “noticed a truck parked along the curb so she went around it.

“(She) said that she observed the other vehicle coming towards her and she attempted to swerve out of the way. (She) said that it appeared the driver of the other vehicle was also trying to swerve out of her way and then they hit head on.”

crash site, looking south on Iowa Street

At the point where the crash occurred, the 600 block of North Iowa, the street is narrow and it curves slightly at the juncture of Catalpa Street, which T’s into Iowa from the east.  

The driver of the Elantra told Officer Wes Clark that he was going about 60 mph. In a later interview with a different officer, he estimated his speed at 50 to 60 mph. The surviving passenger told Clark that he had seen the speedometer registering 70 mph shortly before the crash.

Based partly on damage to the two cars and also on the woman’s statement that she was going 20 mph, officers who reconstructed the scene determined that the Elantra was going 51 mph at impact. If the woman was going faster than 20, the reconstruction officers said, then the boys would have been going faster than 51.

Clark said that the driver of the Elantra told him he saw the oncoming car come around the parked truck and trailer. He tried to stop, he said, but struck the other car head on.

A diagram of the scene, depicting the cars in the instant before the crash, shows the boys’ car straddling the middle of the road and the woman’s car coming around the truck and edging across the stripe.

The report does not indicate that either driver was cited for a traffic violation.

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The man who propelled Jackson County government into the 20th century has died.

A Kansas City Star obituary, published today, said that Charles E. Curry died Dec. 13 at his home in Key Largo, FL. He was 92.

The Sunday Star did not have a news story about Curry’s death.

Charles E. Curry

In the 1960s, while presiding judge of the old Jackson County administrative court, Curry began reforming the county, which had fallen deep into a spoils and patronage system. 

Among other things, the county can thank the Curry administration for home-rule government, the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, a modern Truman Medical Center, the Little Blue Valley Sewer District, upgraded juvenile facilities and expansion and improvement of the parks system.   

The building boom came from a massive (at the time) $102 million bond issue that voters approved in 1967. Voters approved each of seven specific proposals, including the sports complex, by more than the required two-thirds majority. (Back then, bond issues to be paid for with property-tax increases, required two-thirds voter approval.)

The sports complex alone was a $43 million proposal. Former Mayor Charles B. Wheeler said Sunday that when construction bids later came in above estimates for the twin stadiums, Royals’ owner Ewing Kauffman and Chiefs’ owner Lamar Hunt pledged $10 million each to make the complex a reality. 

It turned out to be a spectacular deal for the county and a tremendous boon for the region. In recent years, more than $600 million has been spent on sports complex improvements. 

The 1967 bond issue had been approved for a public vote by the three-judge county court consisting of Curry; Wheeler, who was western judge; and Alex Petrovic, eastern judge, who also is still alive.

“He (Curry) was very important in Kansas City history,” said Wheeler, who served as Kansas City mayor from 1971 to 1979. “He really stepped forward and did the whole thing.”

Wheeler said that, before the bond issue, county court inhabitants “hadn’t spent a nickel on improvements in Jackson County for years.”

Wheeler credited a Curry ally, the late John E. Kelley, with putting together the $102 million bond issue. Kelley, who died several years ago, was county counselor at the time.

One of Curry’s major, lasting contributions to the county political scene was his founding of the Committee for County Progress, a progressive, Democratic organization that remains influential in county politics to this day.

Wheeler said that when the C.C.P., as it is known, fielded its first slate of candidates, in 1964, Wheeler was the only one of seven C.C.P.-backed candidates to win. Wheeler’s first post was county coroner. He was elected western judge two years later.

In 1966, however, it was a different story. With one exception, the entire C.C.P.-backed team soared to victory. The lone survivor from the “machine” era was public administrator  Bill Morris, who two years later was elected lieutenant governor under Gov. Warren E. Hearnes.

The biggest single reform that the Curry court set in motion was the changeover to “home-rule,” charter government. A charter commission, headed by lawyer Harold L. “Fritz” Fridkin, wrote a proposed charter, and voters approved it in 1970.

The charter, which took effect in 1973, gave the county the ability to create its own laws, instead of depending on the state. In addition, the three-judge court was succeeded by a county executive and a 15-member “county legislature.”

Under the charter, the late George W. Lehr, the last presiding judge, automatically became the first county executive. He served as presiding judge in 1971 and 1972 and then as county executive in 1973 and 1974.

Several years after the advent of charter government, voters approved a reduction of the legislature from 15 to nine members. 

Curry later held other political posts, including treasurer of the Democratic National Committee in the early 1980s, but his greatest contribution remains his indelible stamp on Jackson County.

Fridkin, who is 84 and still practicing law, said he believed the key to Curry’s success was attracting capable and dedicated people to the government to carry out the reforms that he envisioned.

“He brought in people who believed in what they were doing,” Fridkin said.

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With each passing day, the Fourth Estate, as the newspaper industry has been deferentially referred to for about two centuries, is becoming less of an estate and more like common ground.

(FYI, the term seems to date to the 1700s, when there were three “estates” of Parliament — the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the House of Commons.)

Newspapers used to be the great purveyors of information. The big-city papers operated out of hulking fortresses, their minions scrambling around inside to meet deadlines and their delivery trucks spoking out for a hundred of more miles to deliver the precious product onto the lawns and to the newsstands for the waiting masses.

Some of the papers wore their hubris under their mastheads…like the Chicago Tribune, which for many years claimed the mantle of “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”  Then, there’s our own Kansas City Star, which still uses as its slogan the imperious words of founder William Rockhill Nelson: “A Paper for the People.”

(Doesn’t it just make you want to cry out, “Oh, thank you, Mr. Nelson, thank you!” ?)   

Others, like The New York Times, touted (and still do) their earnest and hard-working approach — “All the News that’s Fit to Print” — or, in the case of the Atlanta Journal, their mission — “Covers Dixie Like the Dew.” 

For outsiders — those not baptized in black ink — it was, and still is, difficult to get over the moat and into the fortresses. To peel a layer from the old saying about Las Vegas, what went on behind those walls stayed behind those walls.  

Over the years, though, and particularly in recent years as the news-gathering business has feathered and fractured with the galloping expansion of the Internet, some papers have gotten humility and have realized it’s time to descend from the stratosphere and get down to street level, where people are inhaling the exhaust fumes.

The Star, for example, has its Midwest Voices program of contributing columnists, and it also periodically invites area residents to The Star building at 18th and Grand to sit in on the editors’ afternoon news conferences to learn more about the paper’s inner operations.

Now, a Connecticut newspaper has taken things to an entirely new, egalitarian level. Peter Applebome reported in The Times on Thursday that The Register Citizen in Torrington, CT, has a sign out front inviting residents to the Newsroom Cafe for coffee and muffins.

The paper also circulates fliers around town, inviting members of the public to attend the daily 4 p.m. news conferences, where editors discuss and evaluate the stories that are in various stages of development. A sign on a newsroom wall, near the conference area, says, “Newsroom story meetings — 4 p.m. daily. Right here. Public welcome.”

Applebome says the open-arms approach reflects the paper’s commitment to the new, online-dominated journalism. John Paton, chief executive of the paper’s parent company, “has become a hero to new-media gurus,” Applebome said, “by taking a newspaper company emerging from bankruptcy and turning it into a company militantly focused on the Internet.”

The paper’s slogan says it all: “Digital first. Print last.”

Obviously, The Star and other big-city, mainstream papers are not going to be able to turn their ships around as fast as small operations like The Register Citizen. But they’d better start spinning the wheel faster, while there’s still time to salvage the evolving and weakening link between newspaper and reader.

With a few notable exceptions, like the Sulzberger family that controls a majority interest in The Times, industry leaders are no longer aristocrats. They are business people scrambling to figure out how to save an industry and what they can do to get lost readers back.

In my opinion, it’s important for newspaper editors and publishers to do whatever they can to shed the fortress, high-on-the hill image and to give the public more access to their buildings and their inner workings…within reason, of course.

The Star has taken the first baby steps, but I think it’s time for a more courageous move, one that tampers with the paper’s very origins.

Here’s my idea.

For those of you who subscribe, when you look at the bottom of the Op-Ed page, what do you see? Next to the masthead, listing the names of the top editors and executives, looms the frowning visage of William Rockhill Nelson, next to his words, “A Paper for the People.”

I say, get rid of the photo. Off with his head! That high-collared shirt, bulbous nose and icy frown send the wrong message in this day and age. The collar, the nose, the frown — they don’t make people want to buy the paper; they push people away!

I know this is a bold step. But The Star has taken bold steps before. Why, until about the early 1980s, the words “The Kansas City Star” were followed by a period on the flag (the top) of the paper. Some of you may remember. A period. Nobody understood it, but it was sacrosanct. 

Then, a publisher named Jim Hale, who had come along after a media conglomerate bought the paper in the late 1970s, decided one day to do away with the period. And so, poof, it disappeared. No one (or very few people, anyway) said a word.

The highfalutin photo of Nelson could disappear just as quickly and quietly. So could the slogan.

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The vehicle in which 16-year-old Zach Myers was riding when he suffered mortal injuries on North Iowa Street two weeks ago was a borrowed car, Olathe police said today.

Sgt. Johnny Roland, public information officer for the police department, said he had heard that the driver of the car — a classmate of Zach — did not own the car. Roland said he did not know that for sure, but he made no attempt to otherwise qualify his statement. 

Roland said he knew nothing more about the ownership of the car, but he said the official police report of the Dec. 1 crash would address the ownership, when the report is completed and made public.

On Dec. 6, a friend with inside information about the case, told me that people who had visited the Myers family while Zach was in the hospital had reported that the car had been borrowed. The friend also quoted friends of the Myerses as saying that the car had been exceeding the speed limit and that Zach might not have been wearing his seat belt properly.  

The fact that the car was borrowed could indicate nothing, or it could be pivotal. For example — and this is just my speculation — the driver might not have been familiar with the car, or the driver might have been less inclined to observe the 25 mph speed limit while driving someone else’s car.

Again, that’s just theorizing, but it’s a point worth considering, in my opinion, especially in the absence of an explanation from police.

The answers to what happened and how on Dec. 1 could help other people avoid similar circumstances in the future. It also could lead to many child-parent discussions about the importance of wearing seat belts properly and heeding speed limits.

Kathleen McElliott, an Iowa Street resident who got to the scene moments after the crash, said last week she believed that, based on the damage to the cars and the seriousness of Zach’s injuries, excessive speed was a factor in the head-on collision. While she did not witness the crash, she said she thought that at least one of the cars had to have been speeding. 

In addition, McElliott said that while blood was on the belt part of Zach’s seatbelt, there was no blood on the shoulder strap, indicating that the harness might not have been fastened around his torso.

Zach was seated behind the driver of the northbound vehicle, which McElliott described as a grey Hyundai Elantra. The third boy in the car was in the front passenger seat. The boys apparently were on their way that Wednesday morning to Olathe Northwest High School, having left the Millcreek Center career and technical school in downtown Olathe.

The driver of the southbound car, a small red vehicle, was a 20-year-old woman who is pregnant, police have said.

None of the other three people involved in the crash was seriously injured. The woman’s air bag deployed. McElliott said she did not notice whether the air bags deployed in the front seat of the car Zach was in.

McElliott said Zach was struggling to breathe when she got to the car. She learned later that he had suffered a severe, internal brain injury. She said she wanted to try to help him but followed instructions from a 911 operator to wait for emergency responders.

“I would really like to know the official cause of death,” McElliott said this afternoon. “I won’t feel satisfied until I see on paper that I couldn’t have done more.”

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Today, I’m going to follow the lead of a popular Kansas City blogger and run a “girlie” picture.

I submit, however, that this photo is twice as alluring and titillating as any photo that my fellow blogger (sorry, not going to name him; gotta keep the focus on the photo) has ever put on his site.

Now, you fellows out there, put your eyes back in your sockets and compose yourselves.

And everyone — ladies, as well as gentlemen — get ready for a quiz.

I will tell you this about the photo: It was taken at Elaine’s, a legendary New York City bar and restaurant that has long attracted celebrities. Elaine’s has been in the news lately, since its owner, Elaine Kaufman, died Dec. 3.

The photo was reprinted Sunday in The New York Times style section, along with a story by Times reporter Tim Arango, who used to frequent Elaine’s. 

Now for the quiz.

1) This picture was taken when?

2) Who is the woman?
A–Olivia de Havilland
B–Jayne Mansfield
C–Candace Bushnell
D–Tina Brown

3) Who is the distinguished-looking man standing in the background?
A)John Updike
B)Prince Philip
C)George Plimpton
D)Gay Talese

4) Who’s the man kissing the lady’s ankle?
A)Jack Kerouac
B)Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
C)one lucky guy
D)Jack London

OK, here are the answers: ACDC. (Pure coincidence…I swear.)

If you’re at all like me, this is a picture that, when seen for the first time, makes you want to know more about it. It was taken by a New York photographer named Jessica Burstein. Burstein’s web site says that she began her career in 1974 as the first female staff photographer for the NBC network.

She now is a freelancer whose work has appeared in many publications and magazines. Among other things, she has worked as the official photographer for the Law & Order franchise, and she was the New York Yankees’ official photographer for construction of the new Yankee Stadium.

On Sunday, I sent an e-mail to Burstein, telling her how much I liked the Elaine’s photo and asking her if she would mind telling me more about how the photo came about.

Yesterday, Burstein phoned me from her home in New York, and we talked about that photo and her photography in general.

Burstein has been a regular at Elaine’s for many years and was a very close friend of Elaine Kaufman. In 1992, Kaufman asked her to document the bar in photographs, and she has been taking photos there ever since.

The night that she took the photo of Bushnell, author of “Sex and the City” and other novels, was “just another night at Elaine’s,” Burstein said.

“Candace was a few sheets to the wind,” Burstein said. “She would admit that.”

Not only that, but she was angling to have her picture taken. 

Burstein said she noticed the interplay between Bushnell and the two men — magazine writers — and that Bushnell made eye contact with her. “She knew exactly what she was doing,” Burstein said. 

In the frame immediately before the seminal one, Burstein said, both of Bushnell’s legs are raised (although not as high as the right one seconds later), but the man on the left is not kissing her ankle. Also, Bushnell’s hair is not shrouding as much of her face. 

When the scene changed slightly, Burstein was ready: “I saw it and caught it,” she said. 

To me, one of the many points of interest in the photo is the contrast between the bacchanalian scene in the foreground and the serious conversation going on in the background, with writer Gay Talese at the center of that facet of the picture.      

Another noteworthy point is that the photo was taken in black and white, which gives the photo a timeless quality. Burstein said she used black and white film exclusively until switching to digital photography in 2004. One advantage of black and white photography, she said, is that it eliminates “color distractions.”

At the time of the photo, Bushnell was about 39 and single. In 2002, she married New York City Ballet principal dancer Charles Askegard.

“She calmed down a lot,” said Burstein, who got to know Bushnell at Elaine’s. 

The photo first appeared in New York magazine as part of a retrospective, called “The Place To Be,” about Elaine’s.

Asked where the photo ranked on her list of personal favorites, Burstein said that for a long time it was “just another of my Elaine’s shots,” but that she has come to appreciate it more in recent years.

I asked her if she ever got any feedback from Bushnell.

“Yes,” Burstein said. “She said to me, ‘Jessica, you’re brilliant.’ ”

Jessica Burstein, Elaine Kaufman and Peter Khoury of The New York Times, 2008

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Today, we switch gears, dramatically.

Richard Arthur, my good friend and former comrade in the Army Reserve, occasionally writes pieces for the blog, and he has come up with one that stirred me deeply. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Here’s Richard’s story.

Walking up to the stark white, marble tombstone, among the hundreds of other tombstones, at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver and seeing my old friend’s name perfectly carved into it, I damn near went to my knees. I’ve been in dozens of cemeteries, but I always feel the solemn and cold finality of a grave marker. This time the feeling was painfully strong.

A recent, job-related trip brought me to Denver, and I had planned to pay my respects while there. I brought a camera to document the trip and got there late in the afternoon with the sun sitting low in the West, causing long, dark shadows to fall from the headstones. I spent about 15 minutes there, snapping pictures and hoping I could navigate my way back to the hotel across town without too much confusion.

Mike Shea and I went into the Army early in 1968, but that’s about the only commonality in our life experiences. I was yanked in, as an Army reservist activated by President Lyndon Johnson in the spring of 1968, while he rushed in headlong.

Mike enlisted in the Army with a guarantee in writing that he would be trained as an infantryman and also be sent to airborne training (parachute school) prior to deployment to Vietnam. That’s just what he wanted.

The summer of 1967 was the time I got to know Mike. He was a year behind me in school, and we didn’t really know each other until we played pool at a local “recreation” hall near 39th Street and State Line, called Rex’s Pool Room. Neither of us was anywhere near a true pool hustler, but we could hold our own with the novices who wandered in from time to time.

The main thing we liked to do, as I remember, was ride around town in our cars and drink Coors beer, which at that time could only be purchased on the Kansas side. Many trips to Los Corrals restaurant downtown were included to provide nutritional fuel for these treks.

We covered a lot of miles that summer and a good deal of it was in his old ’51 Chevy that used oil and had a tube-type radio that took forever to warm up and then didn’t work reliably. These were the days before FM radio hit the scene hard, when AM radio – specifically WHB and KUDL — ruled the airways in Kansas City. At night, you could also pick up WLS in Chicago and KAAY in Little Rock.


In the middle of that summer, Mike told me he’d been talking to an Army recruiter about joining the service. He wanted to serve, and he wanted to fight. He wanted to be an airborne Ranger and go to Vietnam.

I would be entirely untruthful to say that any part of his plan appealed to me. 

He joined the Army with a reporting date scheduled for more than six months out, and then he and another guy hitchhiked to California to see the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the hippies and the music scene there. They then hitched all the way back across the U.S. to Florida a month later. He sent me a few postcards along way, making me wish I had made the adventurous trip myself. When he returned, he said that he and his buddy had spent many hours sitting at highway entrances in rain and heat, waiting and hoping for rides.

Mike reported to the Army sometime in early 1968, and I met up with him at Fort Leonard Wood in the spring, where he was nearly finished with basic training (the first eight weeks of training), and I was just starting my first or second week.  Being that far ahead of me in training, he seemed like a wise old owl, giving me some pointers for getting through this time of great adjustment to military life.

Mike was a very good correspondent and wrote to me from his advanced infantry training post and later from “jump school,” where he made five parachute jumps in a week’s time to earn the coveted sterling silver wings worn above the left pocket. He would soon have plenty more awards to adorn his uniform.


By summertime, he was in Vietnam doing exactly what he had enlisted to do. He was in an airborne infantry unit, the 173rd, and walking point on combat patrols. Very soon, he volunteered for LRRP (long range reconnaissance patrol) duty and further immersed himself into war. LRRPs, called “lurps” for short, had unenviable job of patrolling enemy territory in small groups, normally consisting of five to seven men.

The main job of a lurp is to observe and report enemy movement and strength. The mission requires great stealth, and the overriding goal is to avoid combat or enemy contact, due to the small the size of the group. If discovered, these lurp crews were often wiped out at once. Their main weapons were the radio and an escape plan with a helicopter in the vicinity.

Mike liked lurp duty because their outfit was housed in a secluded corner of the base camp and lurps never got assigned mundane chores like KP (kitchen patrol) or guard duty. Most of the regular troops didn’t dare enter their area, as they were considered secretive and very dangerous soldiers. At the same time, they were on the Vietcong’s hit list, complete with bounties offered.

A few months into his Vietnam tour, Mike sent me a letter with exciting news – exciting for him: He had been invited to attend Ranger school! This was a dream come true for him. Being a Ranger was another level of service that he had wanted but had not gotten the opportunity to try in the States. The Rangers had only recently started an in-country (Vietnam) qualification school, and it was already known to be far more difficult to pass than the state-side version.

His letters stopped for several weeks while he gave his full energy to Ranger training, and then he wrote that he had indeed graduated and was entitled to wear the elite Ranger tab on his shoulder. Having read in-depth about the rigors of Ranger School, I knew how great an accomplishment this was. The letters started flowing again, and we exchanged mail for the rest of his tour.

Back home

On his return to the States, Mike got assigned to some unproductive garrison duty, and he quickly decided not to stay in the Army. His last year in the service was uneventful and consisted mainly of answering phones and other mind-numbing work, which he hated.

We basically lost contact at that point. I finished the active-duty phase of my enlistment and returned to Kansas City to be an Army Reservist for several more years. I guess you could say I fulfilled my goal of being a part-time soldier, slogging through college and attending weekend drills.

Mike had returned to Kansas City, started dating a former high school classmate, got married and moved to Denver to work for the railroad.

In 2003, a high-school classmate hatched the idea of promoting an all-class-years, informal reunion at T.G.I. Friday’s at the Ward Parkway Shopping Center. Someone located Mike in Denver, and he came to Kansas City for the event. We got to spend some time catching up on the last 30-plus years, and we swapped e-mail addresses. For a few months, we exchanged e-mails, but then, for whatever reason, he stopped responding.

Our same classmate arranged informal, all-class reunions almost every two years after that, but Mike didn’t come back for any of them. At the 2009 reunion, I mentioned to a mutual friend that I wished Mike would come to another one. I was floored when the guy told me that Mike had died almost a year and a half earlier.

A quick Internet search and a look at the Denver Post obits verified what I had been told: Mike had passed away in the summer of 2008. I also learned he was buried in the national cemetery. 

Saying goodbye

Before leaving Kansas City for the Denver trip, I looked up a phone listing for his widow. I was hesitant to contact her because we had never met, and I suspected she might have no idea about my long-ago friendship with Mike. I didn’t call when I was out there, but on Veterans Day, after I had returned home, I made the call and had a very gratifying chat with her.  

She was Mike’s second wife. He and his first wife divorced in the 80s and had remarried in 1985.  

His widow told me how happy she was to hear from one of his old friends and that she had been thinking about him on that Veterans Day. It only took a few minutes on the phone for her to recall my friendship with her husband, including some stories he had shared with her over the years about our military and personal experiences.

In our half-hour conversation, she told me a lot about Mike’s years at the railroad and about raising a family. She still operates a small business that they started together. We agreed to talk again after the holidays.

As I stood next to Mike’s tombstone with the shadows lengthening that October afternoon, I thought about how I admired Mike as a soldier – aggressive, fearless and dedicated to the mission. To me, he was a hero. I felt privileged to have known and befriended Mike Shea.

I’ve always had a problem with how to respectfully depart from the gravesite of a friend or loved one. It seems sort of cold to just turn and walk away, so this time I gave the engraved stone the best military salute I could muster, then headed for the car.

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Eight days have passed since the head-on car crash that resulted in the death of 16-year-old Zach Myers, a junior at Olathe Northwest High School.

And the public is still without an official explanation regarding the circumstances of the crash, which occurred on a narrow residential street about a mile north of a downtown trade school where Zach took some classes.

So, taking up where I left off on Monday — trying to get answers about this tragedy — I spent part of Wednesday surveying the crash scene and interviewing neighbors.

But first, here’s the latest from Sgt. Johnny Roland, public information officer for the Olathe Police Department. Roland said Wednesday afternoon that he did not expect the traffic unit’s report to be ready at least until next week, and perhaps later. (When it is finished, it will be a matter of public record.)

“There’s tons of data and information to gather,” Roland said, adding that it was “not uncommon” for a fatality investigation to take two or more weeks.

He said he did not know if toxicology tests were being conducted on any of the three survivors —  the two boys that Zach was with and the 20-year-old woman who was driving the other car. No one was seriously injured besides Zach, who suffered a head injury. 

The head-on collision occurred shortly before 10:30 a.m. Dec. 1 in the 600 block of North Iowa Street. Zach was in the back seat of what a neighbor said was a grey Hyundai Elantra, which was northbound, apparently headed from the technical school to Olathe Northwest on College Boulevard. 

The woman, southbound toward downtown, was driving a small red car, the neighbor said.

Everyone involved in the crash apparently was wearing a seatbelt, including Zach. 

The neighbor who described the cars, 35-year-old Kathleen McElliott, said she heard the crash and thought that her parked vehicle had been struck. She hurried outside, while her domestic partner was on the phone with a 911 operator. When McElliott looked inside the boys’ car, Zach was struggling to breathe. At that point, the belt was off Zach, she said, but she noticed that blood was on the lap part of the belt. “It looked like he was (had been) wearing at least the lap part of the seat belt,” she said.

She saw no blood on the shoulder harness, however, raising the possibility that that part of the belt was not around Zach’s torso at the time of the crash.

McElliott said she did not remember or notice if air bags deployed in the boys’ car but that the air bag in the woman’s car did deploy.  

Zach did not have an open head wound, McElliott said, adding that an emergency medical technician who was at the scene and visited her house a day or two later told her that his injuries were internal.

McElliott said she strongly suspected that excessive speed was a factor. The posted speed limit on that part of Iowa is 25 mph.

“It’s my opinion that at least one of them (the drivers) — I don’t know who — had to be speeding,” McElliott said. “There’s no way that a collision at 25 miles per hour would take a life.”

Like everyone else who has come in close contact with the case, McElliott said her heart went out to the Myers family. “I am deeply sorry for their loss,” she said. “Our kids to go school with them (the boys who were involved.)”

Wednesday, looking south on Iowa

The crash occurred on a section of Iowa that is two lanes, divided by intermittent yellow lines, and where Iowa curves and rises slightly. At the crash site, narrow gouges are visible in the street on both sides of the yellow line. The roadway had been cleaned with a solution that left a large, bleached-out-looking spot in the road.

McElliott said that on the morning of the crash, a large truck was parked on the west side of the street and that the woman who was southbound in the red car could have been trying to navigate around the truck. 

McElliott said a lot of drivers exceed the speed limit on Iowa. Indeed, as I was interviewing another neighbor, a car sped by at 45 miles an hour or more. “That’s part of the problem,” said the man I was talking to at his front door.

McElliott said that although she did not know Zach, she is haunted by the incident. “I wish I could have done something more,” she said.

The reason she didn’t, she said, is that the 911 operator had told her partner — who, in turn, had told McElliott — not to move him and to wait for emergency responders to arrive.

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Zach Myers’ soft, beckoning smile jumped out at readers from Page 8 of Saturday’s Kansas City Star.

The vitality of that smile — the glimmer in those happy eyes — stood in stark, awful contrast, however, to the news that accompanied the photo: Myers, a 16-year-old junior at Olathe Northwest High School, had died from injuries he suffered in a car crash last Wednesday.


The story, which did not bear a by-line, said Zach had been in a vehicle with two other boys; that a head-on collision had occurred on Iowa Street in Olathe about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1; that neither of the other boys nor the woman driving the other vehicle suffered serious injuries 

The story said that Zach, in addition to being a student at Northwest High, attended the Millcreek Center, a career and technical school in Olathe. The story quoted a statement from the district that described Zach as a well-liked student “with a caring heart whose wit and charm touched many lives.”

As far as it went, the story was satisfactory. But it left so many questions unanswered. 

Not just unanswered, but, worse, apparently unasked.

As a former reporter, as a parent, as a curious human being, I wanted to know more. 

For example, were the boys in school that day? And, if so, why were they out driving on the street at 10:30 a.m.? Where, exactly, did the crash occur? Was speed a factor? Were drugs or alcohol involved? Did one of the vehicles cross over into the path of the other? Were the occupants of both vehicles wearing seatbelts?

The Star’s story addressed none of those questions. 

It’s not every day that the life of a beaming, 16-year-old student is snuffed out in the Kansas City area, and when it does happen, in my view, it deserves more than a cursory story from the area’s leading news-gathering force.

Readers should expect a lot more than what they got on Page 8 of Saturday’s paper.

So, I set out to expand the record and set it as straight as I could. Here’s what I did and what I found. 

:: I checked the school calendar, which indicated school was in session that day.

:: I called the school district public relations office to verify that school was in session and to try to find out why the boys might have been out on the streets. I was told that the district spokesperson was not in but that someone else would call me. That was about 9 a.m. I haven’t heard back.

:: I went to Mapquest and discovered that Iowa Street is a north-south street that runs from Santa Fe, near downtown Olathe, to just south of 119th Street, west of Woodland.

:: I called the police department and spoke with Sgt. Johnny Roland, police spokesman. 

Roland said he believed the boys were on their way from Millcreek Center, near downtown Olathe, to Northwest, which is about five miles from Millcreek, at College Boulevard and South Lone Elm. He said Iowa, a logical route for the trip north, was a two-lane street, where cars parked on either side.  

Roland said the crash was under investigation and that he had not seen a report. Knowing the street, he said he could understand how a head-on crash could happen there, but he said he didn’t know if either vehicle crossed over.

He also said he did not know what kind of car the boys were in; if Zach or the other boys — or the woman driving the other vehicle — were wearing seatbelts; and if excessive speed was a factor. When I asked him if drugs or alcohol were involved, he said, “I don’t believe so.”

:: I called the Myers’ home in Lenexa. At first, I spoke with Zach’s mother, Kimberly Myers. I explained to her who I was and what I was doing, extended my sympathy and asked her if she was willing to talk about the crash. Before turning the phone over to her husband, John, she told me that Zach had been in the back seat of the vehicle and that he had been wearing a seatbelt.

When John Myers, a 21-year- veteran of the Olathe Fire Department, got on the line, I again offered my sympathy and explained who I was and why I was calling. We talked — amicably, I thought — for about five minutes.

He said all three boys were wearing seatbelts and that the other two suffered only scrapes and bruises. Like Sgt. Roland, that he didn’t know what kind of vehicle the boys were in. The other boys were classmates, he said, but he didn’t believe Zach was particularly close friends with them. Myers said he had not spoken with family members of the other boys.

He said Zach customarily spent part of school-day mornings at Millcreek and then went to Northwest about 10:40 a.m. or 11. So, the timing of the crash, as well as the route they were taking, he said, would indicate they were on their way to Northwest. He said the crash occurred about a mile north of Millcreek. 

Myers said that Zach, whose survivors include an older brother, suffered a head injury, but Myers said he didn’t know how he struck his head or on what. I noted that it sounded rather flukish — that everyone else walked away from the wreck, while Zach, buckled in the back seat, suffered mortal injuries. 

Myers agreed, saying: “We’re curious as well. We’re at a loss as to how this could happen.”

He said that the family was eager to get answers to their questions, but, at the same time, he did not want the investigation to be rushed.

“Frankly, I want them to take their time,” Myers said. “I want them to investigate this thoroughly.”

So, the Myers family and other people who would like to know more about this tragedy must wait. I certainly hope The Star will follow up. The loss of what appears to be a fine, 16-year-old boy should not be allowed to drift out of public awareness without explanation.


A post script is in order. 

As I said in the text, I thought my conversation with John Myers was amicable. He spoke with understandable sadness in his voice but never gave an indication he wanted to cut off the conversation. Before we signed off, I again expressed my sympathy and sorrow on his behalf.

About an hour afterwards, however, I got a call from Officer Michael Bussell of the Lenexa Police Department who told me to stop harassing the Myers family. I told him that John Myers had spoken freely and had given me no indication that he wanted to end the conversation.

Bussell took my “information” — name, address, d.o.b., telephone numbers, blog address — and said that if I attempted to contact the Myers family again, I could be charged with harassment.

…Such is the lot of a blogger who dusted off his reporter’s hat and tried to satisfy his curiosity — and perhaps the curiosity of members of the public –about a case that got short shrift from “the paper of record.”

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