Archive for July, 2011

Jason Noble, The Kansas City Star’s Jefferson City correspondent the last several years, has resigned and is moving to Des Moines to take a reporting job with The Des Moines Register.

Noble, who has been with The Star about seven or eight years, ran into a buzz saw earlier this month, when inaccuracies undermined an attempted “expose” that Noble wrote about Republican State Sen. Rob Schaaf. After Schaaf wrote a three-page letter of complaint to The Star’s political editor, the paper published a four-part correction.

In a brief telephone interview from his Jefferson City office Thursday, Noble confirmed a report I picked up on Wednesday that he was parting ways with The Star.

“I am leaving The Star and going to The Des Moines Register, and it’s entirely my own volition,” Noble said.

He declined to elaborate or to discuss the correction, but it is obvious that the move to The Register was in the works well before July 10, when the Schaaf story was published.

The application, interviewing and screening process involved in selecting a reporter for a salaried position at a major metropolitan daily customarily takes at least two to three months.

A man who answered the phone on The Register’s Metro desk yesterday said that Noble’s first day of work would be Aug. 9.

In one way, Noble was very fortunate: He landed a new job before, or about the same time as, the Schaaf story came crashing down around his head. In another way, he was unlucky: The snakebit story will overshadow his years and his good stories at The Star.

After Metro columnist Steve Penn was fired for plagiarism a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry under the headline “A horrible way to pack up your pencils.”

Same applies for Noble. A cloud accompanies him to his new job; he’ll be watched like a hawk.


Missouri State Sen. Rob Schaaf

The damning story led the Sunday, July 10, edition of The Star. Ten days later, The Star published a seven-column-inch piece on Page A2 correcting three key facts in the main story and one in a sidebar.

Any reporter will tell you that while one factual error in a story is regrettable, having to correct several errors in one piece of work is ignominious.

The story was an attempted “gotcha” of Schaaf, a first-year senator from St. Joseph.

Noble sought to establish in the story that, during the last legislative session, Schaaf had steered a bill he didn’t like to a committee where he is vice chairman.

There, the bill — which would have more strictly regulated Missouri’s medical-malpractice insurance industry — died.

The story implied that Schaaf, a 54-year-old physician, was dead-set against the bill because he has a significant financial interest in a company called MoDocs that which insures physicians. The bill that died in Schaaf’s committee, Noble wrote, “would have required his company to substantially increase its cash surplus and rewrite its policies for charging customers.”

On its face, the story gave the clear impression of a legislator acting out of, and motivated by, self-interest.

Ah, but a really nasty devil was lurking in the details.

In several interviews with Noble before the story was published, Schaaf did his best to defend himself — saying he did not recall talking to Senate leader Rob Mayer about the bill and correcting Noble several times after Noble referred to him in conversation as “co-owner” of MoDocs.

After the story appeared, Schaaf said, he talked with Noble and disputed several things that Noble had written. Getting no satisfaction from Noble, he said, he and his 22-year-old son, Robert, a recent Harvard University graduate, laid out Noble’s grievances in a three-page letter, which they sent to Bill Dalton, The Star’s political editor.

Schaaf, who previously served eight years in the Missouri House, said he got Dalton’s name and title from a Senate staff member.

The letter, which Schaaf posted on his state website, is measured and direct.

After laying out his objections, Schaaf said: “In conclusion, I again ask that the Star print a public apology and retraction. Mr. Noble reported very dishonestly…”

Schaaf said he later spoke with Dalton, who has been a KC Star editor for many years, and that Dalton told him the paper was planning to run a four-part correction. Other than that, Schaaf said, Dalton essentially told him, “We stand behind the story.”

That’s exactly what I would expect an editor to say under such circumstances. Similarly, when I asked Noble yesterday why he didn’t want to talk about the correction, he replied, “The correction speaks for itself.” Nothing he says about it now will make any difference or lessen the gravity of the errors.

The correction appeared on Wednesday, July 20. Among other things, it said that Schaaf was not “co-owner” of the insurance company but “co-founder, secretary, treasurer and chairman of the board.”

Where his co-ownership comes into play is with a holding company that has a contract to supervise MoDocs’ day-to-day operations.

The correction also acknowledged that Noble’s story had incorrectly stated the manner in which Schaaf receives compensation for his MoDocs-related work.

In addition, very damningly, Noble had reported that after the bill had been introduced “lawmakers recalled that Schaaf rushed to the office of Senate leader Rob Mayer, who is responsible for assigning bills to committee.”

Turns out, though, it was just one lawmaker — not two, three or several — who, under the cloak of anonymity, told Noble he had seen Schaaf hurry off to Mayer’s office.

Along with the sloppy errors pertaining to Schaaf’s corporate ownership and compensation (and a third one about a previous medical-malpractice reform bill that had been assigned to Schaaf’s committee) the facile and incorrect conversion of the singular “lawmaker” to the plural “lawmakers” gave the distinct impression that Noble was out to skewer Schaaf.

You can’t do that. You can’t do that. You can’t do that!

When a reporter sets out to expose someone’s perceived wrongdoing, he or she had better have all the facts down pat — double verified — and then keep the story free of anything that looks like he or she has it in for the subject. Errors of the magnitude that Noble made tend to indicate he was in such a hurry to stick the knife in Schaaf that he plundered through the reporting like he was knocking over bowling pins.

The result: Schaaf wins, and The Star looks like crap.

“The article about me was so over the top that it just feels like they were out to get me,” Schaaf told me yesterday. “…The whole thing is just a hatchet job.”

Read Full Post »

A couple of more things about Lenexa, that God-forsaken city that is in line to get the EPA regional headquarters, along with its 600 employees.

I’ve read up on Lenexa a bit, and one thing I learned was that in 2009, Money magazine named it the 26th best small town in America.

(Liberty, by the way, was named the 29th best small town.)

Really raises your estimation of Lenexa (and Liberty), eh?

Well, do you have any idea how those goofy “best of” cities are selected?

I’ll tell you…

A Money reporter is sitting around with his feet up on his desk reading The New Yorker, and an editor comes along and says, “Hey, Ernie, I’ve got an assignment for you…You’ve got a week to put together a cover story on ‘America’s best small towns.’ Let’s get cracking!”

As the reporter puts his head in his hands, elbows on his desk, his first thought is, “I wonder if it’s too late to go to barber college.”

Then he stews around a while, goes to lunch with some colleagues and complains about the “stupid assignment” he just got. The other reporters commiserate with him because they, too, have had their share of make-work assignments.

Back at his desk, barber school no longer an option, the reporter warms up to the task. He looks at past “best of” stories and starts running through some cities in Wikipedia. Then, he gets down to the real reporting: he goes around, asking fellow reporters about small cities they’ve visited.

“Hey, Julia,” he says, “aren’t you from Kansas? What’s a decent small town there?”

Julia says, “Well, I’m actually from Kansas City, Missouri, but there’s this town over there named Lenexa that I’ve heard is supposed to be the spinach capital of the world.”

Our irrepressible reporter jumps onto Google and, sure enough, finds that September 2009 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Lenexa Spinach Festival, commemorating the town’s 1930s status as the “spinach capital of the world.”

Bingo! One down, 99 to go.

(You might be wondering how Liberty made the list…Probably went something like this: “Hey, Larry, don’t you have a good friend who lives in Missouri? You know anything about small cities there?”

(“Well,” replies Larry, “my buddy tells me there’s a motel in Liberty, Missouri, a little north of Kansas City, and friends of his who stayed there said it was the best continental breakfast they ever had.”)

When Money magazine published its 2009 list, then, the opening sentence in the accompanying three-paragraph story on Lenexa went like this:

“Popeye would be proud of this town 12 miles southwest of Kansas City…”

The next paragraph says: “But Lenexa doesn’t get its strength just from spinach. It’s home to the headquarters of restaurant chain Applebee’s, plus a J.C. Penney distribution center that employs several hundred people.”

Ooooops! Fifty percent of that equation recently changed, with Applebee’s announcing in May that it was leaving 112th and Renner (future home of the EPA) and taking its 390 employees to an office building on Ward Parkway in Kansas City.

That reduces Lenexa’s claims to fame to Popeye and the Penney’s distribution center. In case you want to visit the distribution center, it’s east of Renner, at about 107th.

You might want to MapQuest it before you start out, though.

Read Full Post »

As you would expect, the Government Services Administration dotted all its i’s and crossed all its t’s before it made the controversial move of announcing that it had decided to move the regional Environmental Protection Agency headquarters from downtown KCK to lifeless and languid Lenexa.

That much became clear with Monday’s announcement that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had rejected an appeal by the current EPA landlord that the GSA’s decision was incorrect.

Lenexa…I can hardly imagine a worse place to live, work or visit.

I know a woman who lives there, and she has no concept of what urban living is like and seldom leaves the suburbs. She might as well be living outside Lawrence…Also, she can’t get any dates, even though she’s a Merengue instructor.

I know another woman who lives there — might be gone now — and after she got divorced, she couldn’t get any dates, either.

I know another woman who lives there, and she’s across the street from a cemetery. Must be great fun on Halloween. (She doesn’t need any dates; she’s elderly and has a nice husband.)

By the way, the second woman — the divorcee — I actually dated her (as well as her sister)…before she got married and moved to Lenexa. And the Merengue instructor…I would consider dating her, if I wasn’t married and if she didn’t live in Lenexa. (Neither qualification appears likely to go away.)

Oh, and another thing. There’s a cop out there, a guy named Michael Bussell, who’s the biggest law enforcement jerk I’ve ever run across.

Here’s the story on him, briefly: In the course of writing a blog about Zach Myers, the 16-year-old Lenexa youth who was killed in an auto crash in Olathe last year, I called Zach’s parents and interviewed them. They later regretted having talked to me, so they called the Lenexa cops. Officer Bussell called me and told me that if I attempted to contact the Myers family again, I could be charged with harassment.

As I continued my reporting on the case, I ran into a young man who also had had a run-in with Bussell. At my mention of Bussell’s name, the young man shook his head and said, “What a dick.”

So, as you can see, I don’t particularly care for Lenexa. What a backwater.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the GAO has ruled in favor of the GSA, and the EPA will probably be moving to the former Applebee’s world headquarters building at 112th Street and Renner Road next summer.

The current EPA building

KCK still has one last chance, however. Recently, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., filed a lawsuit alleging that the proposal of UrbanAmerica, the EPA’s current landlord, was superior to that of the company that owns the Lenexa building. I don’t expect the UG to win that one, but it could delay the EPA’s move for months.

So, I thought you’d like to see what the new building looks like…Here it is, then, in all its glory.

I’d like to show you what’s around it but, unfortunately, there’s nothing to photograph.

Good luck, EPA!

Read Full Post »

A few musings while waiting for the Tour de France winner to be crowned tomorrow in Par-eee.


About that tour…This is the first year I’ve really paid close attention to it, watching several stages on Versus, starting at 7 a.m. every day except for days of rest.

Much of it has been amazing, like Thursday’s and Friday’s stages in the Alps, with the cyclists pedaling up steep grades for an hour or more at a time, often racing wheel to wheel. It’s an incredible exhibition of human willpower and strength.

And yet, the way the race finishes strikes me as incredibly dull and anticlimactic. Today, for example, the riders are engaging in time trials, where they start individually at two-minute intervals and ride/race along a 26-mile route.

Watching these riders proceed individually, even though they are extremely fast and powerful, is about as exciting as watching cyclists cruise along the Trolley Trail.

Then, tomorrow, the race culminates with a 59-mile, ceremonial ride into Paris, along the Champs Elysees. In nearly every other sport, the finish is designed to be the most exciting part of the event, but not the Tour. My wife Patty explains it this way, “It’s French!”

Come to think of it, the only exciting finishes in France are when the sexual affairs and escapades of powerful politicians and others (see Dominique Strauss-Kahn) are exposed and turn ugly.


I see in today’s sports section of The Star that columnist Sam Mellingers has worked himself into a tizzy over the failure of Los Angeles-based AEG to corral an NBA or NHL team for Kansas City.

“If you still hold out any hope for a team coming to the Sprint Center, you should know the company that bragged about making it all happen for us is no longer motivated to work on our behalf,” Mellinger wrote.

I say…so what? Last I heard, Sprint Center was one of the top three or four most successful arenas in the country. In tandem with the Power & Light District, the Sprint Center literally saved our downtown. We’re back as a destination city, competing for conventions, concerts and other events, and offering facilities and entertainment venues that we should all be very proud of.

As for pro hockey and basketball…Come on! Those are the worst of the four major sports. The NBA amounts to watching mostly uneducated, overpaid, heavily tattooed individuals showing off for a couple of hours, while the NHL is often little more than boxing on ice. And, of course, both events are ridiculously overpriced.

Here’s my suggestion for making hockey a decent “game” and taking the boxing out of it: Anyone who starts or engages in a fight is thrown out of the game and is suspended for the following game. That would essentially put an end to it.

Here’s my suggestion for making NBA basketball a decent game….Let all the players go to Turkey, where they can show off for Istanbul’s 13 million people every night.


Some things never change at City Hall. One is the firefighters getting their way.

The headline on today’s lead editorial in today’s Star says, “Taxpayers simply got burned by pay pact.”

On Thursday, the City Council, under terms of an agreement reached with Local 42 two years ago, approved raises averaging 4.2 percent by next April 30. Lower-paid firefighters will get increases as high as 18 percent, while the highest-paid firefighters will get raises of 2.5 percent.

Backed into a corner by the overly generous 2009 agreement, some council members blamed former City Manager Wayne Cauthen for the situation.

Fourth District Councilwoman Jan Marcason, who has been on the council since 2007, was paraphrased in a Thursday Star story as saying the council would be more cautious in future negotiations with Local 42.

“We’re a little wiser,” she said.

Uh, huh. Sure…Here’s the deal with Local 42. Their leadership, i.e. Louie Wright, stays the same year after year after year. And they never waver from their goal of improving the lot of their members. They’re in it for the long haul, and their willpower and political clout is phenomenal.

Unlike many citizens, they understand the significance of elections and the importance of each and every  vote.

City officials, on the other hand, come and go, and many just can’t match the endurance and tenacity of the firefighters. Cauthen’s long gone, and seven members of the current council were not around when the council approved the 2009 agreement.

Coupled with that, the council members who are most likely to win seats are those supported by Local 42. Aren’t they inclined, then, to give the union what it wants when they get in office? Of course, it’s all part of city politics and has been for at least 40 years.

So, for Marcason to say, “We’re a little wiser” is downright laughable.

Read Full Post »

An extraordinary correction popped up in Wednesday’s Kansas City Star.

Usually, when you see a correction, a single fact is corrected. Occasionally, you see a double-barreled correction. But not often does it occur that a correction addresses three or four facts in a story.

That’s what happened Wednesday — a grand slam correction; four in one.

It all stemmed from a July 10 story by Jason Noble, The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent. The story, which led the front page, was a “gotcha” on state Sen. Rob Schaaf, who, in the last legislative session, apparently steered a bill he didn’t like to a committee where he is vice chairman.

There, the bill — which would have more strictly regulated Missouri’s medical-malpractice insurance industry — died.

And why was Schaaf dead-set against the bill? In his story, Noble reported that Schaaf, a Republican from St. Joseph, is “co-owner of the Missouri Doctors Mutual Insurance Co., known as MoDocs.” The bill that died in Schaaf’s committee, Noble wrote, “would have required his company to substantially increase its cash surplus and rewrite its policies for charging customers.”

One of the pivotal, substantiating points that Noble made to help demonstrate Schaaf’s keen interest in getting the bill assigned to his committee was this:

“When Senate Bill 302 was read into the record on Feb. 21, lawmakers recalled that Schaaf rushed to the office of Senate leader Rob Mayer, who is responsible for assigning bills to committee.” (Note that Noble said “lawmakers,” plural.)

As you can see, this is a story that made Schaaf look very bad. The senator did his best to defend himself in the story, saying the bill was “a bad idea,” but at the same time asserting that “I doubt I had much influence on the trajectory of the bill.”

It was after the story appeared, however, that Schaaf apparently mounted his strongest counter attack.

From the looks of this seven-column-inch correction, I would guess that Schaaf might have had the help of a lawyer. Schaaf obviously lit into Noble and his editors very aggressively.

This is the type of situation a reporter absolutely hates to get into, especially when you’ve screwed up key parts of a story. You go from being on the offensive to completely on the defensive.

Working through Schaaf’s counter allegations and Noble’s self-defense must have taken several hours over several days inside the newsroom. The fact that the correction appeared 10 days after the story was published tells you it was a very sticky situation.

The deputy managing editor for Metro, Anne Spenner, was undoubtedly involved, and I’m sure Managing Editor Steve Shirk was involved, too. Editor Mike Fannin was probably alerted.

So, here are the points that needed to be corrected:

— It was just one lawmaker, not two or more, who told Noble that Schaaf  “rushed to the office” of the senate leader…When you’re doing a “hit” story, you have to be very careful and precise, and in this case Noble overreached, sliding from the singular to the plural. That goes beyond soppy; it’s intellectually dishonest.

— Noble said Schaaf is “co-owner” of MoDocs. He’s not. He is co-founder, secretary, treasurer and chairman of the board. A nonprofit, MoDocs is owned by the members it insures…That mistake was the result of sloppiness, laziness and being in a hurry to close in for the kill.

— Noble’s story indicated that all previous medical-malpractice insurance reform bills had been referred to another committee, never Schaaf’s. It turns out, though, that at least one other such bill had been assigned to Schaaf’s committee…More laziness.

— Finally, in an accompanying, or “sidebar,” story, Noble screwed something up regarding a holding company that Schaaf co-owns. Because of the way the correction is worded, however, it’s impossible to tell exactly what the problem was.

Another interesting part of this correction is that it exposed the weakness and inherent silliness of The Star’s longstanding policy of not repeating, in corrections, the erroneous parts of original stories.

Usually, all you get is head-scratching corrections that give you new information but don’t put it in the context of what was wrong in the first place.

In this case, however, the policy came back to bite The Star right in the ass.

In the first three parts of the correction, The Star had to repeat the erroneous items in order for the correction to make any sense at all. I mean, can you imagine the correction simply saying, “The story should have said a lawmaker recalled that Schaaf rushed to the office of Senate leader Rob Mayer.” It would have left the readers completely befuddled.

But, then, in the fourth and final part of the correction, The Star stupidly reverted to its policy of not repeating the original error, and the reader was left to try to figure this out:

“An accompanying story…should have said that a holding company co-owned by Schaaf that provided management services to the insurance firm collected a maximum 10-percent surcharge on the firm’s employee payroll expenses.”

What the hell does that mean? What’s the context? Unfortunately, the sidebar is no longer available online, so the reader can’t possibly tell where it was wrong or lacked clarity.

Oh, and one more thing: As of late Wednesday night, the online version of the story had not been altered, and no correction was appended.

There are two lessons here:

Jason Noble needs to be watched very closely. (He probably faces some disciplinary action, perhaps a suspension.)

The Star needs to get out of the Dark Ages with its corrections policy and acknowledge, each and every time, exactly how it screwed up. That’s what The New York Times does, and there’s no shame in following the lead of the nation’s best paper.

Read Full Post »

When a scandal is broken open, like the one with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and, closer to home, the one involving the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, you expect to see certain developments.

Those developments usually include firings, resignations and sometimes criminal charges.

In the case of Murdoch’s News Corp. and its employees’ phone hacking, paying off police and compromising politicians who were intimidated by the powerful Murdoch dynasty, we’ve seen just that.

Two top Scotland Yard officials have resigned, including the Metropolitan police commissioner; two of News Corp.’s top executives — Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton — have resigned; and 10 people, including Brooks, have been arrested.

Today, New York Times’ media reporter David Carr wrote in his column that  “the flames of the scandal edge closer to Mr. Murdoch’s door.”

The dominoes are falling even though Murdoch hurried over to England from the U.S. and began apologizing all over the place. In a letter that was published in all British papers over the weekend, Murdoch said his company and its English subsidiary, News International, had not come to grips with its excesses promptly. “We are sorry,” his letter began.

It’s fitting, of course, that apologies are not enough. Murderers and corrupt executives apologize all the time, but most still go to prison, and some are ordered to compensate their victims.

But look at how it goes in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Bishop Robert Finnochio (I’d love to take credit for the name, but that goes to a friend who shall be unnamed) has apologized several times for failing to report to police, for many months, the fact that a parish priest had taken and electronically stored upskirt photos of little girls at a parish school in the Northland.

Bolstering the computerized evidence was the statement (more than a year ago) of a school principal who said that a parent had reported finding a pair of girl’s panties inside a planter in the priest’s back yard.

As I have said before, this is a true scandal — even though The Kansas City Star has not had the courage to tag it so.

Many Catholics in the diocese, particularly the parents of children who have been “exposed” to the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, the offending priest, are seething. A chorus of calls has come for the bishop to be prosecuted and to resign.

The bishop has apologized:

“I deeply regret that we didn’t ask the police earlier to conduct a full investigation.”

“I must acknowledge my own failings…As bishop I owe it to people to say things must change.”

“As bishop, I take full responsibility for these failures and sincerely apologize…for them. Clearly, we have to do more.”

Fine, but what about the loss of confidence in his leadership? How can he possibly be trusted to do the right thing in the future?

And, in the larger picture, what about the Catholic Church’s proven habit of overlooking priest sexual abuse in the hopes of salvaging clerical careers?

In his column, Carr, of The Times, quoted a lawyer for the family of a phone hacking victim as saying, “This is not just about one individual but about the culture of an organization.”

It seems to me that the lawyer could just as easily have been describing the Catholic Church in general and the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese in particular.

And, still, life at the Vatican in Rome and at 20 W. Ninth Street in Kansas City go on the same as ever.

At the 20 W. Ninth building, which the diocese purchased last year, workers are finishing up Bishop Finnochio’s spacious and elegant living quarters on the third floor. He’s obviously not planning on going anywhere soon and not too worried about being kicked out of his job, which only the Pope can do.

Since he’s going to be with us for a while, I think he should direct the construction workers to install a very wide mirror in his bathroom so he can check out the end of his nose when he gets up every morning and before he goes to bed every night.

Read Full Post »

On the evening of July 17, 1981, I was in the Kansas City Star newsroom when word came in that a skywalk (later clarified to two skywalks) had collapsed in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Crown Center.

I spent the next several hours taking phone calls from reporters at the scene and fashioning what they gave me into one of at least two front-page stories we had on the disaster the next morning.

Even though I was just four blocks north of the scene of the chaos, I could just as well have been a thousand miles away. I felt completely disconnected. But I had been assigned to a very important job — the editors had enough confidence in me to pull a multifaceted story together — and so I did the best I could.

Looking back, however, I wish that on that night I hadn’t been a reporter but, instead, a citizen who happened to be there and who was fortunate enough to survive. I would like to have been a part of what Councilwoman Jan Marcason described at a memorial service today as “a defining moment in our city.”

If you’re a Kansas Citian, it is impossible to forget that day. One hundred fourteen people killed and more than 200 injured. A simple tea dance. How could it turn into a nightmare? How could a major element of a nearly brand new hotel lobby come crashing down, crushing people gathered underneath?

Everyone — young and old — should carry the memory of the Hyatt Regency skywalks collapse in their hearts for the rest of their lives. It is a powerful connecting point among us, and succeeding generations need to carry the link and the memory forward.

Some of those attending today's Hyatt skywalks memorial ceremony

Toward that end, about 150 people gathered this afternoon under a tent at 22nd and Gillham — all intent on remembering and seeing a lasting memorial built across the street, just east of the deadly scene.

Speaker after speaker, including Marcason, went to the microphone to talk about the importance of a lasting memorial.

John Sullivan, a board member of the Skywalk Memorial Foundation, said, “If we don’t do this now, I can assure you nobody else will do it. This is our job…It’s our moral responsibility to finish this.”

Sullivan’s mother died in the collapse, and he said that when his daughter — his mother’s namesake — was born seven years ago, he determined that a permanent memorial was needed.

The memorial foundation is now well on its way toward reaching its goal: It has a site (the north end of Hospital Hill Park, across from the Hyatt);  a detailed plan and design; and $350,000 of the approximately $800,000 it will take to build and maintain the memorial.

Several doves were released during today's ceremony

The movement for a memorial began five years ago when Frank Freeman, who was himself injured and lost his partner in the collapse, stood outside the Hyatt on the 25th anniversary of the disaster and brandished a sign calling for a memorial.

Now president, founder and director of the memorial foundation, he is convinced that success is well within reach. And next year, on the 31st anniversary of the collapse, he intends to see the completed memorial dedicated.

I, too, am confident it’s going to happen.

Rising to the challenge, The Kansas City Star is perhaps the most galvanizing and influential force behind the movement. This morning’s editorial page featured an editorial headlined “Time is now for tribute.”

“…the disaster…left deep scars in this metropolitan area,” the editorial said. “We have a responsibility 30 years later to mount a sincere effort to pay tribute to all those affected by it.”

Several people wrote notes for a time capsule to be part of the memorial

Even more impressive was a compelling, beautifully crafted front-page story by general assignment reporter Matt Campbell, who artfully interspersed people’s memories and experiences from that night with the story of the push for the memorial.

Accompanying the story was a clear and dramatic, two-panel illustration showing exactly what happened that night. That was the work of Dave Eames, head of The Star’s art department. As a rule, I don’t normally push the paper’s financial interests, but in this case, I urge all of you — if you don’t get the paper — to go out and buy one so you can see this story in its full context. The web doesn’t do it justice. This is one of those days when you need the printed product in your hands.

As a result of today’s story and editorial — and in concert with the powerful tribute at Hospital Hill Park — I believe that money will start pouring in for the memorial. I think Freeman and his Skywalk Memorial Foundation will have the needed $400,000 within weeks. Even executives with the Hyatt corporation, I believe, will come to their senses donate to the memorial.

And next year on July 17, we’ll cry for joy as well as in pain.

Editor’s Note: Kevin Murphy, a former Star reporter, said that a good way people can contribute toward the memorial is by purchasing a new book about the Hyatt disaster, “The Last Dance: The Skywalks Disaster and a City Changed.” Murphy was the book’s chief writer.

The book, published by The Star’s book division, sells for $29.95. Doug Weaver, head of the book division, said that all royalties — the part that normally would go to the author — will go to the memorial foundation. The book is available at The Kansas City Store at Union Station and online at thekansascitystore.com. Also, it should be in local book stores soon.

Read Full Post »

What a terrible day at The Kansas City Star.

For the editors to have to cut loose a longtime, reliable columnist and employee is crushing. I wholeheartedly believe editor Mike Fannin when he said, “We value Steve’s many years of service to The Star.”

He was talking about Steve Penn, longtime Metro columnist who got the axe Thursday.

It’s even more crushing for Penn; he’s finished as a big-time journalist.


First, let me explain why I’m a bit late weighing in on this. I was very busy today, and while I brought the paper in the house this morning, I didn’t open it until late this afternoon. I was out of e-mail contact, too, and when I finally got into it, I had three e-mails about Penn’s firing, including one from the ever-curious Mike Waller, a former Star executive editor, who is now retired and living in South Carolina.

At that point, I grabbed the paper…and my heart just sank.

After reading the story, however, (Page A5), it was abundantly clear that Penn gave the editors no choice: He was guilty of blatant plagiarism.

It was interesting to me, however, that the story didn’t use the “p” word — the last word any writer wants attached to their name. In that regard, the story went easy on Penn, who, I’m almost certain, is The Star’s first and only black Metro-front columnist at The Star.

One of the three e-mails I received about Penn came from a retired Star reporter who chastised The Star for subjecting Penn to “public humiliation” by detailing three specific plagiarism incidents.

However, a current reporter at The Star told me that in a case like this, with a high-profile columnist being let go, it was essential for The Star to lay out the reasons “chapter and verse.”

One reason for taking that route is that Penn almost certainly has a big following in the black community, and if The Star failed to lay out exactly how Penn had screwed up, The Star could have been (and still might be) subjected to the thing that strikes absolute terror into Star management — a black boycott. It happened one other time, way back, and ever since then, The Star has tread ever so lightly when it comes to the treatment of high-profile black people’s public transgressions.

As a prime example, I cite an infamous case involving former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver. Less than six months after being elected mayor in 1991, Cleaver took his family to Disney World on city funds, claiming it was a city-related business trip. The Star’s Kevin Murphy and Marty Connolly (both are no longer with the paper) exposed it as a sham. What did Cleaver do? Blamed his secretary!

We (The Star) could have and should have hammered Cleaver so hard that he’d never see the light of another election day. Connolly and Murphy certainly did their part, but the editors watered down the story and played it very low and light on the front page…Editors have many ways to take the air out of a sensitive story, and they really slashed the tire on that one. Murphy and I, City Hall reporters at the time, never felt quite as confident about the paper’s motives and mission after that.

Cleaver, caught red-handed, was essentially let off the hook and went on, of course, to be re-elected in 1995 and later was elected U.S. representative, the post he still holds.

In the Penn case, then, the editors knew they had to be very, very careful to do all they could to avoid upsetting black readers.

In my opinion, The Star didn’t go far enough. It got the chapters right but not the verses.

Here’s my beef: The story included, word for word, two long paragraphs that Penn used in separate columns within the last four months. The story said that, in both cases, the words Penn used were “nearly identical” to the wording of two press releases he had received.

The story failed, however, to include the exact wording from the press releases. I believe the story should have included the press-release wording so that readers could judge for themselves the extent of the plagiarism.

I don’t doubt that it was “nearly identical,” I’d just like to see the variations side by side, or one after the other.

But here’s the saddest part of this, in my opinion: Penn’s journalism career is shot at 53. Oh, he might be able to scrape something up at the Pitch or The Call, but he’ll get nothing at a major metropolitan daily (not that he’d consider leaving Kansas City at this stage, anyway).

To some degree, I can understand how the debacle unfolded, but however it happened, it’s inexcusable.

My understanding comes from watching many a columnist grapple with the twice-weekly (in Penn’s case, I believe) or thrice-weekly deadline. The challenge is to come up with fresh, interesting material time after time, and the deadlines never stop. You finish one column, and it’s time to start thinking about the next one.

That’s one reason I was too much of a coward to ever seek a Metro-front column job; I didn’t want that much pressure. I wanted to write a lot of stories — I was extremely prolific — but I felt a lot more comfortable covering news developments rather than having to start with nothing and build a sand castle two or three times a week…Even with the blog, while I love to write frequently, I’m not under the gun to produce a certain number of posts every week or even entry month; I write when I feel like it and when I have something I think is substantive.

The pressure on columnists, then, is tremendous, and frequently the temptation arises to cut corners, use some readily available material that lands in your lap. Some of you will recall the late Gib Twyman, a sports columnist for The Star back in the 70s and possibly the early 80s. He, too, plagiarized and paid for it with his neck.

I don’t say this to detract from columnists in general, but some, as they get older (like Twyman and Penn) tend to get lazy. They push the deadline and push the deadline, and then they’re up against the wall; it’s 8 p.m., and the column has to be in by 9. What to do? Well, there was that press release about the Duke Ellington family stepping forward to help U.S. military veterans…


One day in the newsroom years ago, I was chatting once with Jim Fisher, one of the best reporters and columnists The Star ever had. We were talking about our longevity at the paper and how we expected things to unfold for us. I remember him asking me what my goals were at The Star. I didn’t immediately answer, and he said, “Keep your powder dry?”

I nodded, realizing he had hit it on the head. That’s exactly what I wanted to do; like any reporter or journalist who has been at the game a long, I wanted to make a career in journalism and leave on my own terms.

As time passed, I wasn’t able to keep my powder completely dry, but dry enough, and I was able to hold on for a 37-year career at The Star. I retired five years ago, at 60, on my own terms (although I have my critics out there who get their kicks asserting — always anonymously — that I was forced out).

I’m very sorry that Steve Penn, whom I like a lot and enjoyed working with, couldn’t make a career of it.

He came close, but the dreaded “p” word laid him low.

Read Full Post »

While waiting for Congress to raise the debt ceiling, Rupert Murdoch to open a Sunday edition of the Sun (replacing his folded News of the World), and Greece to drag the Euro into the abyss…

A few tidbits:

Speaking of Greece, in this week’s edition of The New Yorker, financial writer James Surowiecki lays out one of the major reasons that the country is waiting on a handout from the other countries in the Euro zone.


“According to a remarkable presentation that a member of Greece’s central bank gave last fall,” Surowiecki said, “the gap between what Greek taxpayers owed last year and what they paid was about a third of total tax revenue, roughly the size of the country’s budget deficit.”

The reason? “A culture of tax evasion” afflicts Greece.

“Greece, it seems, has struggled with the first rule of a healthy tax system: enforce the law. People are more likely to be honest if they feel there’s a reasonable chance that dishonesty will be detected and punished. But Greek tax officials were notoriously easy to bribe with a fakelaki (small envelope) of cash. There was little political pressure for tougher enforcement. On the contrary: a recent study showed that enforcement of the tax laws loosened in the months leading up to elections, because incumbents didn’t want to annoy voters and contributors. Even when the system did track down evaders, it was next to impossible to get them to pay up, because the tax courts typically took seven to ten years to resolve a case. As of last February, they had a backlog of three hundred thousand cases.”

Three hundred thousand…

Surowiecki went on to say that the new Greek government is trying hard to change things, but it’s going to be a tough slog. A successful transformation, he said, would require not only a policy shift but a cultural shift.

“Pulling that off would be quite a feat,” he concluded. “But the future of the European Union may depend on it.”

After reading that, I say thank God for the IRS and the willingness of a majority of Americans to pay their fair share of taxes. 


Speaking of The News of the World closing (Sunday was its last edition), Alan D. Mutter, a newspaper industry guru in San Francisco, had an interesting blog on July 5 titled “Why newspapers can’t stop the presses.”

“Fifteen years after the commercial debut of the Internet,” Mutter wrote, “publishers on average still depend on print advertising and circulation for 90 percent of their revenues. Stop the presses and newspaper companies are out of business. It’s just that simple.”

Noting that the Gannett newspaper chain laid off 700 employees last month, Mutter said the move was an indication not that the company was preparing to phase out any of its newspapers but that Gannett is “aimed at staying healthy long enough to build truly robust and sustainable digital publishing businesses.”

To succeed in the digital world, Mutter said, “publishers know they have to find bold, new ways to leverage the power of their brands, content-creation capabilities and large local sales teams…

“”Until those new initiatives achieve critical mass, however, print will continue to be the lifeblood of the newspaper business.”

Thin as the weekday paper is, I hope The Star keeps publishing every day for a long time.


Continuing with The News of the World saga, I’m sure you’ve read about the outrage over News of the World reporters and private investigators hired by the paper “hacking” into the cellphone voice mailboxes of relatives of terrorist-attack victims, a murdered 13-year-old girl (before her body was found) and others.

You may have wondered, like I did…Just how is that done?

On Thursday, The New York Times had a “sidebar” story explaining the techniques.

Hackers, wrote reporter Ravi Somaiya, “took advantage of default codes — like 1111 or 4444 — that cellphone providers in Britain gave users to retrieve their voice mail. Many customers did not change this standard number to a more secure code, allowing hackers to use it in one of two ways.”

In one method, a reporter would call the intended victim’s phone, engaging the line. Then, a second reporter, or person, would call simultaneously and would be directed to the voice mail system, where he would enter the default code, allowing access to the messages.

In the case of the missing girl, Milly Dowler, reporters or others went so far as to delete some messages when her cellphone mailbox was full to allow more messages, giving the reporters fodder for more stories and, more important, giving her relatives false hope that she was still alive.

Somaiya said that if any of the intended victims had changed their codes,” the hackers would resort to what they called ‘blagging’ — calling cellphone companies, pretending to be authorized users or company insiders, and requesting that the access code be reset to the default.”

Brooks and Murdoch

(As an aside, Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of News of the World, says she knew nothing about the hacking. Uh-huh. Despite a chorus of calls for her ouster, she has managed, through her good offices with Murdoch, to hang on as chief executive of News International, Murdoch’s British subsidiary.)

On the positive side, Somaiya said that Britain’s major cellphone companies have tightened their  voice mail access procedures since the early 2000s, “the heyday for phone hacking.”

This is a huge black eye for journalism worldwide; it gives the “dead-tree-journalism” cynics lots of fresh ammo.

Read Full Post »

What a scandal in Britain.

Here’s the gist of it, in case you haven’t been following it closely. (And there’s a good reason that Kansas City area residents might not be following it closely. More on that in a minute.)

The revelations of cellphone hacking and police payoffs by reporters and editors at The News of the World, Britain’s top-selling newspaper, are probably going to bring down Prime Minister David Cameron.


Cameron is chummy with media baron Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. holdings provide a significant portion of the world’s flow of information, print and electronic.

Today, Andy Coulson, former editor of The News of the World (which is printed only on Sunday), was arrested in connection with allegations of phone hacking and paying police for sensitive information when he was editor of the paper.

The problem for the government’s Conservative Party, which is in power now, is that Coulson had most recently worked as chief spokesman for Cameron, the prime minister.

Anticipating Coulson’s arrest, a front-page New York Times story today said: “His arrest…would be a huge blow not just to Mr. Murdoch, but to the government and to Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party. The prime minister has always vouched for Mr. Coulson’s  integrity and said he believed Mr. Coulson’s assurances that he had cone nothing wrong (at The News of the World).”

This story is one that cries out for wall-to-wall coverage, and The Times is delivering. Today, it had five stories that covered more than two full pages.

The story has it all: corruption, outrage, political entanglement and, yes, an attractive and bodacious woman.


The bodacity comes in with Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, the British subsidiary of Murdoch’s News Corp. Yesterday, rather than heed calls to fire Brooks, who was editor at The News of the World when a lot of the phone hacking was taking place, Murdoch and his son, James Murdoch, opted to close The News of the World.

(Sunday will be its final edition; its 200 employees have been cut loose to try to find jobs at other Murdoch papers or elsewhere.)

The Times’ coverage today of the scandal included a 48-column-inch story on Page A8 about Brooks. The story says, in part:

“Her closeness to Mr. Murdoch, who is said to regard her as a kind of favorite daughter (although he has four actual daughters), has protected her during the recent scandal engulfing the company, even as legislators called on her to resign.”

The story quoted an unnamed source as saying, “Rupert Murdoch adores her — he’s just very, very attached to her. To be frank, the most sensible thing that News Corp. could do would be to dump Rebekah Brooks, but he won’t.”

So, yesterday, when Brooks called a staff meeting in offices of The News of the World, many staff members assumed Brooks would be announcing her resignation.

“Instead,” the front-page Times story said, “she announced that she was to stay and they were to go.”


I mentioned at the top that there was a good reason that many Kansas City area residents might not be following this explosive story closely.

Today’s Kansas City Star devoted exactly one paragraph to the story, on Page A3. Here it is:

“Paper Folds: The Murdoch media empire abruptly killed off the muckraking News of the World tabloid Thursday after a public backlash over the illegal tactics used by Britain’s best-selling weekly newspaper to expose celebrities.”

Oh, my. Oh, my. I am ashamed for my former paper, which I still love in spite of its downhill spiral.

Is it any wonder people have been dropping the paper by the thousands for several years?

As a side note, I couldn’t tell what kind of coverage Thursday’s print edition gave the story because my paper was absolutely soaked from the morning rain, even though the paper was in a thin plastic bag.

Yesterday morning I went online to report a wet paper and was informed that I would get a replacement today, along with today’s paper.

Well, I got today’s paper, but yesterday’s was nowhere to be found…Patiently, I wait.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »