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.