Archive for February, 2013

Kansas City Mayor Sly James has been praised and criticized for his handling of the explosion at JJ’s.

There is no doubt that he was assertive, but was he more concerned with appearing to be in charge than making sure he was on the side of public health and welfare?

The problem with Sly’s initial response — we’re not going to play the blame game (paraphrasing), and the fire department “doesn’t do gas” — is that he didn’t think his comments all the way through.

Instead of a measured response — we will get to the bottom of this with all deliberate speed  (paraphrasing again) — he opted for an assertive, knee-jerk reaction that made him appear to be defending the fire department and beating back the press. (Oh, the press! Those turds in the punch bowl…always asking niggling questions and trying to make us public officials look like we’re picking our noses.)

…It didn’t help that Sly was wearing a fire-engine red, KCFD shirt at the news conference. Instead of trying on shirts before the news conference, he should have been sitting in a corner, or in his car, thinking about what he was going to say and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance.

But what’s done is done, and what was said has been consigned to Google.

So, what now?

A City Councilman I spoke with this week (he didn’t want to go on the record before the results of the fire department’s investigation has been released) noted that it’s easy for a public official to make a mistake and say something wrong in the midst of a crisis. The key, he said, is for public officials not to be afraid to reverse course once they analyze a crisis in hindsight and realize they erred.

If, after the fire department investigation is made public, James comes back and says that mistakes were made…and if he lays out a plan aimed at decreasing the chances of something like this happening again, then, yes, all is forgiven. The mayor will have reassured us that our safety is his top priority.

But if he sticks to “we don’t do gas,” he’s burying his head in the trench, and he will have used up a good measure of the trough of good will that every public official starts out with.

So far, Sly has taken only a baby step toward making amends with the public. In an interview with The Star’s Dave Helling last Friday, James said:

“If it turns out that something should be tweaked or done differently, that will certainly be something we will take a look at. But I’m not looking for somebody to blame… I’m not coming in with a preordained conclusion that somebody screwed up.”

Clearly, city procedures in the handling of gas leaks need to be more than “tweaked,” and blame must be assessed, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the mayor.

Unfortunately, Sly’s comments so far have put him in the position where he has to lead from behind in order to get back to the front.

The next time he talks about JJ’s, I want to see him playing mayor not fire fighter.

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The two posts in which I have held the city’s and the gas company’s feet to the fire for the way they handled (or didn’t) the JJ’s disaster last week have generated many comments and lots of interest.

A key person who just weighed in today, with two lengthy comments on the first post, was Mark McDonald, president of the North American Gas Workers Association.

Some of you will recall it was McDonald who told The Star:

“It should have taken three minutes (to shut off gas to the area), and the building wouldn’t have exploded.”

With those few words, McDonald voiced the frustration that thousands of Kansas Citians were feeling about Missouri Gas Energy’s response to the situation, as well as the failure of the gas company and the Kansas City Fire Department to evacuate people from the area before the blast.

People reported that a strong smell of gas permeated the area for an hour before the explosion, which killed one person, waitress Megan Cramer, and injured 15.


Mark McDonald, checking for gas leaks in Boston

In today’s comments (which you can see in their entirety at the bottom of my Feb. 21 post), McDonald responded to another commenter’s call for him to elaborate on his original statement. He also responded to a commenter who accused me of playing “the blame game.”

Below, I have culled what I consider the most interesting and pertinent quotes from his two comments.

:: Regarding the commenter’s call for elaboration on shutting off gas valves…

I agree with your points about my statement being somewhat confusing to the lay person/public…I explained in length (to the reporter) and extensively about what should be available to shut down a gas leak of this magnitude…The reporters-editors decide what to write, and to what extent they decide makes enough sense to the average reader. Space in the newspaper is (at) a premium.

I will elaborate here…The gas could have been turned off at what’s known as a “critical valve” or primary valve. These are required to be in place and inspected annually under state and federal regulations to ensure they are accessible…to prevent such a disaster at JJ’s.

My understanding is the crew decided to dig a vent hole to help the gas vent into the air, instead of shutting down the critical valve. After the explosion, it appears the company had to dig out one valve at one end of the street and dig down to the main and crimp off the other end.

I hope that helps a bit. I also must point out that my comments are based on industry standards and requirements/regulations and what information I can confirm from the incident itself. I am not on-site or involved in the direct investigation, but I believe my comments were accurate in this case.

Keep in mind, when something like this happens, the media is full of questions without many answers. When asked, I try to educate the reporter on the technical basics of natural gas and what I believe are the possibilities, based on dozens of other gas explosions around the nation.

My overall goal is to ensure that information that is as accurate as possible gets out to the public — sooner than a year or so from now…when the PSC  (Missouri Public Service Commission) releases its final report of its findings.

Questions need to be asked and answered soon after the explosion. The public and the loved ones of those lost and injured deserve at least that.


:: Regarding another commenter’s assertion about “the blame game” and the location of shut-off valves…

If you read the state and federal regulations, it does state the location of such valves shall be positioned for a shutdown in case of an emergency, and it also states the “pressure” is one of the things to be considered when spacing these valves.

If it (the shut-off valve) is blocks away from the leak…it sounds like the company may not have placed the valve correctly in terms of safely shutting down a high pressure system.

The other factor here is (that) “main” valves used (to) be located at the end of each street (or every few blocks on longer streets)…and maintained. In my opinion, since de-regulation the gas companies have reduced their staffing by over 20 percent, while gas customers have grown by more than 20 percent.

The companies looking to cut back on costs could not maintain the main valves, nor were they directly required to by regulation. So, they were often paved over and not installed in newer installations.

Placing hundreds or even thousands of customers on one “critical/primary” valve is quite dangerous…The PSC (Public Service Commission) does take an extra step on the federal regulation requiring critical valves (to) be spaced so that a shutdown can be re-lit within eight hours.

Based on this incident and some comments here, it (the PSC) needs to go much further, especially on high-pressure gas, since it sounds like the company can’t control their own gas when it leaks.


Many thanks to Mark McDonald for elaborating on his understanding of the situation at JJ’s.

Everything he has said, as well as a strong feeling in my gut, has convinced me that the JJ’s explosion could have been avoided and that, at the very least, the area should have been evacuated.

If JJ’s would had exploded without any injuries or loss of life, most of us would have said, “That was a big fire.” Few people, except maybe Jimmy and David Frantze, would have questioned so strongly what responders were doing during the hour before that horrible explosion.

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With the passage of several days and the surfacing of more information, the human error that led to the fatal explosion at JJ’s restaurant last week has become clear:

For more than an hour, as gas poured out of a broken line before the explosion, NO ONE WAS IN CHARGE.

I hate to say emergency responders were standing around with their hands in their pockets, but it’s pretty clear that nobody was doing much, for a long time, to protect citizens in the bar and in the immediate area. Evacuation didn’t start until a few minutes before the explosion, and apparently no one shut off the nearest gas valve.

(I would love to find out that was not the case, but in the absence of an assertion that gas was cut off, we’re left to assume it wasn’t.)

We all know by now that the Fire Department unwisely deferred to workers with Missouri Gas Energy.

Whoever the ranking fire fighter at the scene was…he failed to take charge.

Same for any of at least three MGE workers who arrived at the scene, separately, before the explosion. The fact that they arrived separately may well have contributed to a “who’s-in-charge-here” attitude.

The MGE workers told fire fighters that they had the situation under control. That’s a lot different, of course, than someone actually being in control.

The other main people on the scene — besides customers who smelled gas but didn’t go anywhere, partly because they weren’t told to — were the workers who pierced the gas line while digging in preparation to lay fiber optic cable.

None of them was in charge, of course. They work for a company that does work for Time Warner. They were trained in digging and running lines, probably not in organizing an evacuation and maybe not even in shutting off gas valves.

It was a most regrettable case, then, of a public agency and a private company being on the scene but neither knowing for sure which was in charge or what steps should be taken to protect the public.

In the absence of a clear process on what to do, the only hope that JJ’s patrons and workers had was that someone would step forward to fill the void. Unfortunately, no one picked up the hero’s mantle, and one person died and 15 were injured.

The Star’s Dave Helling reported yesterday that Kansas City’s generic emergency response plan calls for public safety officials — that is, police or fire fighters — to decide “if threats such as gas leaks warrant evacuations.”

That means the fire department should have taken the reins…Ah, but it’s not that simple.

The document goes on to say that “incident commanders” are in charge of “routine evacuations” —  which, clearly, this should have been.

Strictly speaking, however, there was no “incident commander,” partly because, for some crazy reason, the fire department routinely takes a back seat to the gas company in the case of leaks.

Helling also wrote about another document that should help the city deal with similar situations in the future. It’s called the National Incident Management System. It’s produced by the federal government, and the fire department follows its guidelines.

The telling line in the document, as far as the JJ’s explosion is concerned, says that at the scene of a dangerous situation or a disaster, the command function “must be clearly established from the beginning of incident operations.”

Makes all the sense in the world…So, let’s make sure that happens in the future.

Our very self-assured mayor — who sank from from mayor mode to lawyer mode that fateful day (and the next) — should step forward, soon, and hand down common-sense guidelines to govern dangerous situations where multiple agencies are involved.

kcfdlogoI’ll even give him the first two paragraphs of the new policy:

“When an incident arises where public health and safety is at risk — and where more than one agency or entity is involved — the Kansas City Fire Department or the Kansas City Police Department — whichever is appropriate — will be in charge of the incident and will take immediate steps to protect the public.

“The highest-ranking officer at the scene will assume command, and he or she will organize and direct the response of whatever agencies are involved in the incident.”

Never again should we Kansas Citians see our well-paid, well-trained fire fighters (or police officers) standing down to some gas energy guys running around in jeans, T-shirts and hard hats.

And those guys…let’s make sure they know where the shutoff valves are and how to switch them to the off position.

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The Kansas City Star assigned a team of four outstanding reporters to the JJ’s explosion story Wednesday, and they established facts that pointed fingers of blame at two companies, a city agency and one big-city mayor.

Let’s be clear: These are maddening, infuriating fingers of blame.

Waitress Megan Cramer should not be dead; more than a dozen other people should not have been injured; JJ’s should still be intact.

Clearly, this was a disaster and tragedy that occurred because no one, NO ONE, made COMMON-SENSE decisions in the presence of a strong smell of gas…a smell that permeated the immediate area for MORE THAN AN HOUR before Tuesday’s explosion.

OK, so which individuals and entities shoulder the blame and why?

Investigative reporters Judy Thomas and Mike McGraw, energy reporter Steve Everly and City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley laid out the prosecution’s case in their story, and the four defendants seem to have little defense.

Let’s consider the defendants in the order that they screwed up…

1) Heartland Midwest LLC.  Shall we just call them The Mad Diggers?

Using a trenchless, horizontal boring machine, the Time Warner subcontractor managed to bore into a two-inch gas line that serviced JJ’s.

The Star’s story said that before digging, Heartland officials called Missouri One-Call, a nonprofit organization set up by utilities to help excavators and utilities dig in compliance with safety laws. The story doesn’t say what, if anything, Missouri One-Call did in response to the Heartland call, so that part of the story remains up in the air. Missouri One-Call could end up sharing blame.

2) Missouri Gas Energy. It will be a long, long time before this company regains any credibility.

How could MGE workers not recognize this was an extremely dangerous situation?



With damning impact, The Star interviewed the president of the North American Gas Workers Association, a safety advocacy group based in Massachusetts.

The official, Mark McDonald, told The Star, “It should have taken three minutes (to shut off gas to the area), and the building wouldn’t have exploded.” He said a shutoff valve to the restaurant could have been closed soon after utility workers arrived, which was nearly an hour before the explosion.

3) The Kansas City Fire Department. Asleep at the wheel.

A truck arrived on the scene at 5:04 p.m., about 10 minutes after Heartland reported the leak.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi said that firefighters conferred with MGE workers and that the workers assured the fire crew that they had the situation under control.

“We left the situation in their hands,” Berardi said, “We have to leave that up to the experts at the scene.”

What? WHAT? Like the fire department doesn’t know anything about the hazards of natural gas?

And when, by the way, does the fire department defer to anyone? When there’s distinct danger in the air, the fire department has a responsibility to act.

On Tuesday, KCFD was the public’s strongest representative at the scene. The crew captain or battalion chief — whoever was in charge when that first truck arrived — could have, should have, said, “This doesn’t smell good to me…Let’s check this out a little further.”

4. Mayor Sly James. Like the fire department, he abdicated his duty to the public on Wednesday.

In a morning news conference, James deflected questions about who might be to blame, saying that simply that an investigation was underway.

“Now I understand everybody wants to know what happened, wants to blame somebody,” James said. “Everybody wants to know these details, but let me just assure you that’s not going to happen today.”


Mayor Slay James and Fire Chief Paul Berardi

That statement was OK, as far as it went. But the situation begged for much, much more.

What he should have added, emphatically, is something like this: “I assure you we are going to get to the bottom of this. This tragedy has raised plenty of questions, and I am going to make sure that every question is answered. We will let the chips fall where they may.”

Remember when the skywalks at the Hyatt collapsed, killing 113 people?

The day after it occurred (maybe the second day), Mayor Richard Berkley stood up to Don Hall, Hallmark and other deep-pocketed, vested interests and called for a federal investigation. Then-Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton got involved and a full-scale investigation got underway almost immediately.

Berkley didn’t say, “Let me assure you that (the search for answers) is not going to happen today.”


James’s attitude is going to have to change, and quickly. The public will demand it. What James didn’t seem to take into account yesterday was the anger that was, and is, coming to a boil.

The Star reporters showed us exactly what that looks like when they quoted the executive director of a foundation that has offices immediately north of JJ’s.

“I’m really, really angry,” said Gayla Brockman. “I honestly don’t get it.”

She smelled the gas slightly more than an hour before the explosion, and it was so strong that it nauseated her.

People with Heartland Midwest, MGE and the fire department smelled gas, too…Why didn’t any of them act quickly, in the interests of public safety? 

And why wasn’t Mayor James demanding answers the day after a tragedy that will not soon be forgotten?

I want to know. And my fellow Kansas Citians want to know.

And there must be accountability.

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Like the locker room of the World Series champions or the Super Bowl winners, the second-floor mezzanine of The Kansas City Star probably was the scene last night of champagne corks flying and reporters and editors spraying each other with the traditional celebratory beverage.

If it wasn’t, it should have been: The Sports Department learned yesterday that it was one of three papers to win sports journalism’s biggest award for its work in 2012.

The Associated Press Sports Editors voted The Star as a winner of its “Grand Slam” competition. That is, The Star was named one of the top 10, large-circulation newspapers in each of four main categories: daily sports section, Sunday section, special sections and website content and presentation.

It is a tremendous triumph for the paper, especially considering that the only other two papers to gain Grand Slam status last year were the Washington Post and The New York Times. The air is mighty thin at the top, and that’s where The Star’s Sports Department has stood for the last 15-plus years.

In a sports-section story today, sports editor Jeff Rosen said, “We’re not in this business to win awards, but it’s a tremendous honor to score The Star’s first Grand Slam.”

The quality of the sports section is something that, I’m sure, a lot of readers take for granted. The sports section’s rise to the top has been gradual, for the most part, and it’s worth taking a look at the modern history of the sports section and how it climbed into the top ranks nationally.

In most cases, the stature of a paper’s sports section coincides with the caliber of its columnists. For the most part, that is the case with The Star.

When I was hired as a general assignment reporter at The Star in 1969, Joe McGuff was sports editor and sports columnist, and his name was uttered with reverence. He was a clear-headed thinker and straightforward writer whose honesty and dedication to Kansas City and its betterment were unquestioned.


Joe McGuff

His greatest hour came in 1968-69 when he played a huge role in convincing the executives at Major League Baseball to locate an expansion team in Kansas City. That, of course, came on the heels of the late Charles O. Finley owner of the Kansas City Athletics, moving the team to Oakland.

Not since then, and probably not before, has a sports writer or columnist stepped so far beyond the customary trappings of his job. As far as Kansas City was concerned, McGuff might as well have been “St. Joe” after that.

Another great Star sports columnist in the 1960s and 70s was Dick Mackey. Another not afraid to leave the comfort zone of sports, Mackey set sports aside the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 4, 1968) and wrote about King and the nation’s shock.

Metaphorically, Mackey later drove himself into the ground: In a state of exhaustion and with an ulcerated stomach, he collapsed in the back of a cab in Memphis and died. That was in the late 70s.


Jon Rand

In the 1980s and 1990s, the featured columnist was Jon Rand, another straight shooter, who came to The Star from the Miami Herald. He wasn’t a flashy writer, but readers could rely on him to give them informed opinions. The most memorable line that I recall of Rand’s was a year or so before The Chiefs hired Carl Peterson as general manager and Marty Schottenheimer as coach. The front office was led by Lamar Hunt’s old buddy, Jack Steadman, who was never popular with the fans.

“This fish stinks from the head down,” Rand wrote one day, capturing the sentiment of the entire city.

Gib Twyman was another outstanding columnist. A born-again christian, he was genuinely empathetic with people who were experiencing difficulties, and he frequently digressed from the sports scene. He wrote several extremely touching columns, I recall, about the Thompson family after a Thompson daughter, Amy Thompson, was shot in the neck and paralyzed in a botched robbery on Halloween night 1986. Some friends organized the first Amy Thompson Run in 1988, and over the years it has raised more than $1.5 million to help people with brain injuries.

On Christmas night, 1989, Amy died of complications from her injuries.

Twyman, unfortunately, had a big problem making deadlines, and that resulted in him getting fired for plagiarism in 1994. He later redeemed himself as a reporter and columnist at a paper in Salt Lake City, before dying of a heart attack in 2001.

In the long run, though, it was not a columnist but an editor who took the sports section to new and spectacular heights.

In 1996, then editor Art Brisbane and managing editor Mark Zieman brought in a guy named Dinn Mann, who, at 31 years old, already had some notches on his journalistic belt. He came to The Star from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he was associate sports editor. Before that he had been sports editor at the Houston Post before it folded in 1995.

Mann also had a high-propane personality and some estimable blood lines: His grandfather was Judge Roy Hofheinz, a former Houston mayor, who built the Astrodome.


Dinn Mann (right) with Louisville, KY, sports commission director Karl Schmitt

Mann only stayed at The Star for five years, but he brought the sports section into the 21st Century before the 21st Century arrived. It was he who introduced the snappy, funny headlines on the lead sports story of the day. It was he who pushed for award-winning special sections, and he who introduced many features that are still cornerstones of today’s sports section, such as the Five-Game Planner and expanded “On the Air” listings of sports on TV.

In addition, Mann hired columnist Joe Posnanski, who became the counterbalance for Jason Whitlock, whom Mann’s predecessor, Dale Bye, had hired in about 1994. It was at The Star that Whitlock and Posnanski found their voices and established their launching pads to bigger jobs. At The Star, Whitlock wielded the hammer, while Posnanski supplied the poetry.

Mann himself went on to an extremely big job in 2001 — founding editor-in-chief of MLB.com, baseball’s official website. Mann is still with MLB.com, which has grown to more than 100 employees.

When Mann left, his top assistant, Mike Fannin, became editor and kept the momentum going. After Fannin was named editor of The Star in 2008, the sports section went through a bumpy period. Fannin’s top assistant in the department, Holly Lawton, took the reins, but she left two years later, after allegations surfaced that she and Fannin had had an affair. About the same time, Whitlock left the paper after a blow-up with Fannin and perhaps Lawton.


Jeff Rosen

The ship got righted late in 2010, however, after The Star hired Rosen as sports editor. For six years, Rosen had been deputy sports editor at the Houston Chronicle.

For the last couple of years, the public face of the sports section has been columnist Sam Mellinger, who combines Whitlock’s hammer with Posnanski’s poetry.

Already, Mellinger has established himself as a “destination columnist,” that is, someone who draws readers to the paper just for what he brings to the paper.

Headed by the team of Rosen and Mellinger, and buttressed by fine reporters like Blair Kerkhoff, Adam Teicher and Bob Dutton, The Star’s sports section should be solid for the near future.

Don’t be surprised if you hear about more “Grand Slams” down at 18th and Grand.

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On a whim, I went over to Lawrence last night to attend the Kansas-Kansas State basketball game.

I’m much more likely to be found at KU women’s games, but with the Kansas men having lost three in a row, I thought a close, interesting game might be in the offing.

I arrived a few minutes after 8, the scheduled tip-off time and stationed myself in front of Allen Fieldhouse to see what was available. Within two minutes, I was able to get a $100 face-value ticket for $50. In addition, I got a chance to be a Good Samaritan: A KU student who had not exercised his option to buy athletic tickets as part of his tuition, was trying anxiously to buy a ticket from the guy who sold me one.

The young man told the seller that he had only $22 with him. The seller wanted $30. Turning to me, the seller said, “Can you help him out?” I peeled a ten from my quickly thinning layer of bills and handed it to the student, who promptly bought the ticket.

“Thank you,” he said, beaming, as we walked to the front door. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”

Seeing the joy on his face was reward enough for me. “Have a great time,” I said, as we parted ways.


Naturally, I didn’t sit in my assigned seat, which an usher told me was on the third level.

Instead, I went to a corner of the court, behind the K-State bench, and took an empty bleacher seat in about the 10th row. I noticed that another seat was empty behind me. At that point, the teams were just being introduced, about 15 minutes later than scheduled. (The delay probably had something to do with TV; Brent Musburger and an ESPN crew were there to broadcast.)

Just before tip-off, two guys came along, and one motioned to me that I was in their seats. The seat behind me was still open, and I deposited myself there.

I said that the guy motioned to me…That’s because it was so loud in the fieldhouse, even during the introduction of the KU players, that I couldn’t hear a word he said to me.

At that point, I knew it was time for me to break out the earplugs. I learned after attending a men’s game last year that, for me, earplugs are a necessity. I was glad I had brought them, too. I think that without them last night I probably would have lost about one percent of what hearing I have left.

KU took control of the game from the outset, and Bruce Weber, the K-State coach, crossed his arms tightly in front of his chest and adopted an expression of frustration, which he maintained most of the game.

As KU went up by 10, then 15 and then 20, KU Coach Bill Self countered Weber’s frustration with a rigid-jawed, fiery-eyed look of intensity. It was evident that he wanted his guys to not let off the gas for a minute.


Off to my right was an end-zone section full of arm-waving, leather-lunged KU students. Many of them spent a lot of time looking at the video board, hoping for an opportunity to get on camera. A student not too far from me waved a sign that said “Pope Jeff Withey V.” I’m sure that got on TV.

Another person who caught my eye was Sheahon Zenger, KU’s athletic director. Two years ago, Zenger succeeded Lew Perkins, who I consider one of the worst big-time collegiate athletic directors of all time. It was under his watch that a bunch of Okies who ran the KU ticket operation made off with at least $2 million in a ticket scalping scandal. Several of the Okies are now in prison, and Lew got himself a big, fat buyout on the way out the door…So what else is new, eh?

Anyway, Zenger, who came to KU from Illinois State University, is a clean-cut, earnest-looking guy who always sits at the end of a floor-level table that appears to be reserved for Athletic Department employees.

At one or two of the women’s games I’ve attended this season, I noticed that Zenger spent most of his time texting. Once in a while he’d look up for a few seconds, without changing expression, and then direct his eyes back at his phone.

I wondered if it would be the same last night. Well, your faithful reporter can tell you that he spent part of the time texting, but much less than he did at the women’s games.

Just from looking at the guy, I don’t care for him. He strikes me as a cold fish. Maybe he will be successful — his biggest hire so far has been Charlie Weis as head football coach — but it’s hard for me to see how he’s personally going to win anyone over…And, hey, Sheahon, how about getting off that fuckin’ phone and paying attention to what’s going on before your eyes????


When the game was over, Holly Rowe of ESPN first interviewed Bill Self and then Ben McLemore, the freshman star, who scored 30 points. After a while, Brent Musburger packed up and made his way out of the gym, smiling and exchanging a few words with people as he went along.

I hung around because I was waiting for my favorite part of KU home games. After each one, the KU Pep Band (or Marching Band during football season) waits ’til things have settled down and then eases into a rendition of “Home on the Range,” the official state song.

Last night, I positioned myself several rows below and facing the band, led by Sharon Toulouse, assistant director of KU bands. Several people standing close to the band put their arms around each other’s waists, as is the tradition, and swayed slowly back and forth as the horn section led the way into and through that beautiful, soul-soothing song.

I’m not a KU graduate, not even a Kansas resident, and am only a casual fan. But when the KU band plays “Home on the Range,” I feel myself being pulled gently, steadily westward for a few minutes, out onto the open range land, where the sky is high and mostly clear blue…and where our country separated itself from all other nations.

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All too often the print edition of The Kansas City Star makes me wonder what’s going through the minds of the editors.

The latest puzzlement was on Sunday, when the editors relegated a timely, can’t-put-it-down story about the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and its shirttail cousins to the bottom left corner of the front page.


Darryl Levings

Below a one-column headline, only slightly more than three inches of text appeared on the front page before the story “jumped” inside. On Page 12, the reader was greeted by, or I should say treated to, an additional 82 inches of text. The writer was Darryl Levings, a highly respected senior editor and writer.

The AR-15, or variations thereof, have been used in several of the nation’s mass shootings in recent years, including the Aurora, CO, killings last July. In addition, the weapon is one of the chief objects of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s gun-control bill, which she recently introduced before the Senate.

I emphasize that the story could not be more timely and it was incredibly informative, especially for the thousands of Star readers, including me, who probably know very little about guns, other than .22-caliber pistols and 12-gauge shotguns. The story was chock-full of details, such as that the weapon had its “breakthrough” after Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay saw its promise more than 50 years ago.

Why then, was this story not the “centerpiece” of the Sunday paper?

The centerpiece, for those not attuned to newspaper lingo, is the story that, each day, gets the biggest play on the front page. The centerpiece is always at least three columns wide and is accompanied by at least one large photograph, illustration or, infrequently, a graphic.

The editors chose instead to feature a story about charitable organizations — like The Salvation Army and Uplift — that provide meals for people who live on the streets, in the parks, under bridges and elsewhere without four walls around them.

The gist of the story was that while the agencies are rendering an important service, they probably are contributing indirectly to the trashing of neighborhoods and theft and vandalism.

This was, by no means, an unimportant story. To me, however, it paled beside the weapons story, which is probably the biggest story in the country right now.

I’ve been racking my brain, trying to figure out why the editors made the choice they did.

I’ve developed a theory…Hang with me now.

I think that one thing that boosted the “Help or Hindrance” story about the homeless was that it had four good photos with it — three of them taken on the night-time streets and featuring heavily bundled people receiving or eating recently dispensed meals.

On the other hand, the AR-15 story was accompanied by an excellent 4 1/2-column photo showing an intense gun-store manager firing a rifle that was emitting a sunburst-like muzzle flash. But that photo, which I think would have made for an outstanding centerpiece, appeared on Page 12, not on Page 1.

The more I thought about that photo the more I tended to think that the muzzle flash held the key to the story’s back-seat placement.

From my 36-plus years at the paper, I know how the editors think and the idea comparing that they go through while deciding what is appropriate and what is inappropriate for front-page display.

It’s my opinion — based solely on experience and instinct — that the editors decided that many readers would see the AR-15 photo, with that splash of orangish-yellow erupting from the rifle tip, as menacing and sensationalistic.

Certainly, the photo would have drawn some reaction from people on both sides of the gun-control issue:

Some of those in favor would have said the photo glamorized the AR-15 and its power, and some of those against would have contended that The Star was trying to demonize the weapon.

So, the editors went milquetoast, in my opinion, and opted for the innocuous, no-risk photos of the homeless and the Salvation Army trucks.

Too bad, eh? The editors had, right in their hands, an edgy, compelling story that was well illustrated and would have been read by thousands and thousands of more readers than it was. It’s a story that would have made a splash and would have been talked about at the water coolers on Monday.

Let’s strip away all subtleties, then:

This was a pitiful, gutless decision that showed, once again, why The Star is losing subscribers.

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