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Archive for February, 2015

I am in shock.

I was getting ready to go to bed when I made one last check of The New York Times website and saw, to my utter disbelief, that David Carr, the nation’s foremost observer of the media, collapsed and died tonight in The Times’ newsroom.

He died about 8 p.m. Kansas City time. He was 58.

Earlier in the evening he moderated a panel discussion about the film “Citizenfour,” a 2014 documentary film about Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal. Participating in the panel discussion was none other than Snowden, as well as the film’s director, Laura Poitras.

Dean Baquet, New York Times executive editor, said of Carr, “He was the finest media reporter of his generation, a remarkable and funny man who was one of the leaders of our newsroom.”

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David Carr

For the past several years, the first thing I went to in the Monday morning Times was Carr’s column, “The Media Equation,” where he dissected a media matter that had been on his mind or the simmering media issue of the day.

His last “Media Equation” column, published Monday, was about NBC’s Brian Williams having lied about riding in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket propelled grenade during the Iraq War. The story was utter balderdash, and Carr began his column like this:

“For some time now, there have been two versions of Brian Williams. One is an Emmy-winning, sober, talented anchor on the “NBC Nightly News” and the other is a funny, urbane celebrity who hosts “Saturday Night Live,” slow-jams the news with Jimmy Fallon and crushes it in every speech and public appearance he makes.

“Each of those personas benefited the other, and his fame and appeal grew accordingly, past the anchor chair he occupied every weeknight and into a realm of celebrity that reaches all demographics and platforms. Even young people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the evening news know who Mr. Williams is.

“Which is good until it isn’t.”

And doesn’t that just about sum up the Brian Williams saga — the story of a TV anchor who got so caught up in his celebrity status that sticking to the facts was no longer enough to satisfy the ego?

Carr wasn’t shy about pointing out his own shortcomings. I recall, especially, a column a few months ago about Bill Cosby. Carr wrote:

“In 2011, I did a Q. and A. with Mr. Cosby for Hemispheres magazine, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, and never found the space or the time to ask him why so many women had accused him of drugging and then assaulting them.

“We all have our excuses, but in ignoring these claims, we let down the women who were brave enough to speak out publicly against a powerful entertainer.”

**

Adding to his mystique — and, more important, a credit to his genius and his ability to pull himself from the depths — Carr was a former drug addict.

In his 2008 memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” he related that he became addicted to crack cocaine and lived with a woman who was both a drug dealer and the mother of his twin daughters. He told about a night when the girls were infants that he left them in a car while he went into a house to score some coke from a dealer named Kenny.

“I decided that my teeny twin girls would be safe, that God would look after them while I did not,” he wrote.

In a 2008 article called “Me and My Girls” in the Times Sunday Magazine, Carr wrote that being an addict is being “a cognitive acrobat.”

He explained:

“You spread versions of yourself around, giving each person the truth he or she needs — you need, actually — to keep them at a remove. Let’s stipulate that I do not have a good memory, having recklessly sautéed my brain in fistfuls of pharmaceutical spices. Beyond impairment, there may be no more unreliable narrator than an addict. Recovered or not, I am someone who used my mouth to constantly create one more opportunity to get high.

“Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death.

“Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses.”

**

Carr joined The Times in 2002 as a business reporter, covering magazine publishing.

Earlier, he was a contributing writer for The Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine. He also served as editor of the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly in Washington, D.C., and before that he was editor of a Minneapolis-based alternative weekly called The Twin Cities Reader.

…In other words, Carr went from editing a paper like the Pitch in Kansas City to being the top media writer for the nation’s foremost paper.

I think about the best way I can describe Carr is that he was a clear-thinking, intelligible version of the late Hunter Thompson, the prominent Rolling Stone magazine writer.

Damn, he was good! I am really, really going to miss him.

Survivors include his wife, Jill Rooney Carr, an event planner, and their daughter Maddie. His twins, by an earlier relationship, are named Erin and Meagan.

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Quite a few bones to chew on today. Try these:

:: It continues to mystify me why people and institutions are so reluctant to admit wrongdoing when caught lying or cheating at the expense of their personal credibility or that of the organizations they represent.

We’ve got two such cases going on now, one local and one national.

The local case, of course, is UMKC and the scandal surrounding the Bloch business school’s falsification of data to get inflated academic rankings for the business school.

UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton’s first response was to take responsibility for problems in three very narrow areas but not for the whole megillah: Oh, no, we didn’t do all that!

As a result, Morton looked foolish in the face of The Kansas City Star’s expose, which first broke seven months ago and was recently confirmed by an accounting firm’s investigation.

Inevitably, though, Morton had to give more ground, and he chose to do it yesterday on KCUR’s “Up to Date” program, with Steve Kraske, who now teaches at UMKC.

“This is very serious to me because this is not what we are about, and I want everyone to know that we are addressing it in a very serious way,” he said.

…Well, I’m glad Morton is finally getting serious about this serious situation, but I think his institution has lost an awful lot of credibility, not only by cheating but also failing to accept full responsibility until well past the point that all the cards were face up on the table.

By extension, the fiasco hurts Kansas City, too. It’s our university, our state-supported, higher-learning institution. As a proud Kansas Citian, I don’t like it when cheaters get one of our institutions unwelcome headlines. And it bothers me even more when the people in charge refuse to stand up and take full responsibility for wrongdoing.

:: The second case, of course, is NBC’s Brian Williams, who today was suspended without pay for six months for creating and perpetuating a false story about being on a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.

His first explanation was just as lame as Morton’s. He said he “conflated” the helicopter he was on with one that was really hit. That one was traveling an hour ahead of the helicopter Williams was in.

Before he was outed by troops who were on the helicopter that came under fire, Williams ranked as the 23rd most-trusted person in the country, according to Marketing Arm, a research firm that tracks celebrity perception through online polls of consumers.

On Monday, however, Williams plummeted to No. 835, which puts him on the same level as the main duck on “Duck Dynasty.”

…I’m glad to see that NBC executives acted relatively swiftly and brought the hammer down hard. I’m also not sure that Williams will be back in the anchor chair after his suspension. That’s a long time to be out of the public view. It’s also a long time for Lester Holt, acting anchor — or someone else — to make people forget Williams. That might be what NBC executives had in mind with this long-term suspension — marginalize Williams and see how things unfold, keeping their options open.

:: While I’m in a complaining mood, I want to drop this discussion down a few notches and tell you one of my personal peeves.

In obituaries, mostly, you’ll see this once in a while: “He (she) was a devout Catholic.”

That goofy term was in an obituary today for Michele Theresa Gould, a 54-year-old Leawood woman who died Sunday. Here’s the term in the context of a full sentence of the obit:

“Michele was a was a devout Catholic and was an active parishioner at Nativity Parish School and Church.”

Now, I’m not taking anything at all away from Mrs. Gould or the family member or members who wrote the obituary.

But just what the hell does it mean being a devout Catholic?

Is a devout Catholic a couple of tiers above someone who is just “a Catholic”?

Does being a devout Catholic mean you get a press pass to heaven without a stop in purgatory?

And where does that leave lowly Protestants?

Or somebody like me, who was a Catholic but flew the coop after becoming disillusioned with the “we-are-the-chosen, we’ve-got-all-the-answers” attitude that permeates some of the rank and file and much of the church hierarchy.

So, here’s how I want that part of my obituary to read. (Patty, are you paying attention? Patty? Patty?)

“…Jim was a member of Saint Andrew Christian Church, Olathe, and a devout member of the Disciples of Christ denomination. He didn’t rank up there with devout Catholics but, by God, he gave them a run for their money.”

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One of the things I love about The New York Times is the special, unexpected, innovative features it periodically offers.

A case in point, today, is “The Sounds of the Downhill,” an interactive post that is the “centerpiece” of the paper’s home page. Through a body- or helmet-mounted camera fixed to a world-class skier, the two-plus minute feature takes you on an entire downhill run on a competitive ski course. It’s like you are riding piggyback with the skier as he whooshes along, tilting and turning past red course markers that come and go in the flash of an eye. You hear the sounds of rushing wind; the low-crushing skis on ice; and the skier’s voice, describing what he’s feeling and hearing.

It is an amazing piece of video. It took at least four people — those named in the credits — to put it together.

This is where The Times stands head and shoulders above other papers. It invests in technology and integrates it into its coverage of news and feature stories. It does not cut corners, and it is willing to spend whatever it takes to stay on top.

:: If you like “NBC Nightly News” and anchor Brian Williams, you might want to grab a freeze frame of Brian because he might not be occupying the anchor chair much longer.

That’s the way I see it, anyway, after news surfaced yesterday that Williams’ longstanding claim that he was in a helicopter that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in 2003 is untrue.

This story has been all over the news yesterday and today.

Williams, whose newscast has led the network ratings for most of the last decade, has said several times in recent years that he was aboard a U.S. Army helicopter when it was hit by an RPG on one of the first days of the Iraq War in 2003.

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As recently as last Friday, while honoring a veteran on “NBC Nightly News,” Williams recounted how his helicopter was “forced down after being hit by an RPG.”

He was actually aboard a different helicopter.

Williams’ fabrication came to light when Flight Engineer Lance Reynolds, who really was on the helicopter that was hit with an RPG, posted a comment on the “NBC Nightly News” Facebook page. Reynolds wrote:

“Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened. Then I remember you guys taking back off in a different flight of Chinooks from another unit and heading to Kuwait to report your ‘war story’ to the Nightly News. The whole time we were still stuck in Iraq trying to repair the aircraft…”

Reynolds told Stars and Stripes: “It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I’ve know how lucky I was to survive it. It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”

Williams then fessed up in a Facebook post of his own, saying:

“I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy.  I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp.  Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”

Interesting, don’t you think?

:: “I have no desire to dramatize events as they actually happened.” Really? No desire whatsoever to make yourself seem a little larger in life than you actually are?

:: “…the fog of memory…made me conflate the two.” Conflation? Fog of memory? Nope. The euphemistic word he should have used was “mislead,” as in, “I don’t know what prompted me to mislead.”

CNN reported today that the network “stood by Williams’ apology and had nothing further to say.”

CNN went on to say that others within the news division had said off the record that “shock and disbelief about Williams’ foggy-memory explanation” was widespread.

…My guess is NBC executives will hold their collective finger in the air and see how strongly the wind blows. The network would love to keep Williams, but if the blowback gets too strong, with falling ratings, he’ll be ushered out.

You already know what I think — and I hope most of you agree: He should be fired today. How can a news organization — any news organization — that prides itself on going after “the truth” and getting to the bottom of stories keep a liar as the face of its operation?

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While waiting for UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton to acknowledge that ethics ran completely aground at the Henry W. Bloch School of Management as administrators pursued undeservedly high national rankings, here are a few things flapping at the margins.

:: One of our “good Catholic boys” who smelled quick money and jumped into the payday loan business several years ago has got more trouble on his hands.

A few months ago, federal authorities froze Tim Coppinger’s bank accounts and assets so that if he’s found culpable in civil court, some money will be around to be refunded to people he cheated.

Earlier, a U.S. District Court judge freed up $40,000 of Coppinger’s money so he could pay his attorney, Patrick McInerney. But a story in the Pitch last week said that McInerney had asked to withdraw from the case because the money for payment of legal bills has dried up.

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Coppinger, in a 2010 photo, holding a trophy he won in a poker tournament at St. Ann’s Catholic Church.

Coppinger owes McInerney and his firm more than $90,000, and McInerney’s motion went on to say “the broad scope and comprehensive nature of the asset freeze…present very little if any prospect for future payment.”

Among other things, the Federal Trade Commission alleges that Coppinger, who grew up in Visitation Parish and is now a member of St. Ann’s Church in Prairie Village, conned consumers out of millions of dollars by “trapping them into loans they never authorized and then using the supposed ‘loans’ as a pretext to take money from their bank accounts.”

…The idea that Coppinger and some associates turned to taking advantage of mostly poor people in financial trouble is mind-boggling to me. It’s good to see Coppinger experiencing a measure of the pain and upheaval he dished out to others.

David Hudnall has done a fantastic job of tracking the payday loan story for the Pitch. He’s way ahead of The Star, and this story alone has helped raise the Pitch’s profile and credibility. It’s the kind of reporting we need as we watch The Star continue to diminish.

:: You’ll recall the December 2013 case in which a now-26-year-old Independence man named Joshua Bradley allegedly beat Kyle Van Winkle to death after the 30-year-old Van Winkle mistakenly got into the wrong vehicle in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot. The case against Bradley is creeping along.

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Joshua Bradley

Early last year, the Jackson County prosecutor’s office charged Bradley with involuntary manslaughter. The case was initially assigned to Circuit Judge Justine Del Muro, but in the last six weeks it has been transferred two more times. A hearing or trial had been scheduled for Jan. 15, but when that day Bradley’s attorney Patrick Peters requested a continuance, and it was granted. The trial is now scheduled for early September.

Mike Mansur, communications director for the prosecutor’s office, told me there have been no issues in the case that prompted the multiple change of judges; it was simply a matter of judges rotating assignments.

Mansur also said the case is very complicated and that he expected both the prosecution and the defense to have an expert medical witness. “In a case this complex, this is not an unusual schedule,” he said.

Bradley is free on bail.

:: Ever since President Obama got re-elected in 2012, I’ve been saying I felt good about the Democrats chances of holding the presidency at least through 2024 with Hillary Clinton. But I’m started to get worried about one possible Republican candidate — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

I was hoping that all the potential Republican candidates would rush forward, like Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Paul Rand, have done and made harebrained statements about the wisdom of getting children vaccinated against measles. (Example, from Rand Paul: “The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children.”)

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Scott Walker

But I read in today’s New York Times that the Democrats aren’t going to be that lucky. On a Sunday morning talk show this week, Walker said: “Study after study has shown that there are no negative long-term consequences. And the more kids who are not vaccinated, the more they’re at risk and the more they put their neighbors’ kids at risk as well.”

This fellow is dangerously logical.

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The most gratifying stories that reporters get involved in, hands down, are those that expose significant wrongdoing and subsequently prompt corrective action, affirming the validity of the reporters’ work.

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Mike Hendricks

Today, Mike Hendricks and Mara Rose Williams of The Star can be rightfully proud. As a result of their stories exposing administrative cheating at the UMKC Bloch School of Management, the Princeton Review has removed UMKC from its 2014, top-25 list of best entrepreneurship education programs in the country.

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Mara Rose Williams

Hendricks’ and Williams’ initial expose was published last July. On Sunday, they followed it up with a report on an accounting firm’s confirmation of their findings.

Today, they posted on The Star’s website a story that says:

“It’s the first time in its 34-year history that the Princeton Review has taken away a school’s rankings. The move came two days after an independent university audit reported that officials…knowingly submitted inflated data in applying for rankings in 2011, 2012 and 2013.”

A huge, nasty stream of egg white and yolk is now streaming down the face of UMKC, the Bloch school and the individual faces of the three people most responsible for this debacle. They are:

:: Former Bloch school dean Teng-Kee Tan, who pushed business school administrators to raise the school’s standing in the Princeton Review rankings. Tan was drawing a base salary of $410,000 before he stepped down for health reasons before The Star published its expose. (Yes, I’ll bet he’s pretty darn sick.)

:: Professor Michael Song, who formerly headed the school’s innovation management research department. Among other things, Song offered up false data that went into the school’s application for an entrepreneurship-program ranking in the Princeton Review. The phony data included the names and numbers of student clubs and mentorship programs and enrollment figures for the entrepreneurship program. Most of the clubs that Song identified didn’t even exist. (Somehow, Song has managed to remain on the Bloch school faculty.) 

:: Henry Bloch, who gave UMKC $32 million for a new business school building in 2011 and subsequently leaned on administrators to get high rankings. In their original story, Hendricks and Williams wrote the following: “As Henry Bloch neared his 90th birthday, he was growing impatient at how long it was taking the school that bore his name to gain national prominence…He was willing to keep writing checks, but he wanted progress in the rankings as proof that he was making a wise investment.

**

Hendricks and Williams interviewed dozens of people inside and outside UMKC for their original story. They also reviewed thousands of pages of internal UMKC documents obtained through an open-records request.

In the wake of that story, the MU Board of Curators commissioned an investigative audit, which was conducted by the international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. That report, released last week, not only supported the reporters’ original story but also said the cheating was worse than it first appeared. 

For its part, UMKC has been in virtual denial. The first story said that UMKC denied it had engaged in a “patterns of exaggerations” or that it took “short cuts” to gain undeserved rankings.

Last week, in response to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton would only make a limited and grudging acknowledgment, saying:

“I take seriously the report’s conclusions on the three areas of flawed data in the Princeton Review application.”

**

I’ve got three things to say about this:

1) Morton needs to change his tune and offer an unequivocal acknowledgment of the wrongdoing and, at the same time, offer an unequivocal apology. His stone walling is ridiculous, and he’s embarrassing himself and UMKC. If he doesn’t make a clean breast of things, he should be fired.

2) UMKC needs to initiate steps to fire Song. It boggles the mind that he’s still walking around the campus and teaching courses.

3) I hope Hendricks and Williams get some major journalistic awards for this story. They deserve it. It took a lot of guts for them — and their editors — to take on UMKC as an institution and Leo Morton, Henry Bloch and other powerful individuals. But they got ’em; the scalps are on the wall.

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