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Archive for May, 2016

Three years ago, the Pew Research Center conducted a public opinion survey regarding how Americans viewed various professions in terms of how much they contributed to society.

As a group, journalists came in seventh out of 10 professions — ahead of only business executives and lawyers.

At the top, in order, were military personnel, teachers, medical doctors and scientists, followed by engineers, clergy members and artists.

Adding insult to injury, among all 10 groups, journalists had dropped the most in public esteem during the previous four years. The portion of the public saying that journalists contribute “a lot” to society was down from 38% in a 2009 survey to 28% in 2013. The drop was particularly pronounced among women, 17 percent of whom had a less favorable view of journalists than they did in 2009.

You might wonder why I went looking for statistics about the public’s view of journalists. Well, I was still scratching my head after having watched a recording of Donald Trump’s earlier news conference, in which he relentlessly flogged journalists for being “dishonest” and “not good people.”

The premise of the news conference was to reveal how much money Trump had raised for veterans groups. He did that (the amount was $5.6 million, according to Trump), but he spent almost as much time chewing on journalists as he did talking about his fund-raising for veterans. He seemed irritated because members of the media had questioned whether he had actually raised a significant amount of money, and they had been pressing him on where, specifically, the money was going to.

Here are a few samples of what he had to say about “the press.”

:: “The press should be ashamed of themselves…You make me look very bad. I have never received such bad publicity for doing such a good job.”

:: “You know my opinion of the media; it’s very low. I think the media is, frankly, made up of people that — in many cases, not all cases — are not good people.”

:: “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people I’ve ever met…I find the political press to be unbelievably dishonest.”

I’m in something of a state of disbelief myself. In all my years in and around journalism, I’ve never seen anyone in such a vaunted position as Trump go after the press so relentlessly and with such a broad brush…I mean, “not good people”??? It would be one thing if he said reports about him were “unfair” or “not objective.” But when he says journalists as a whole are “not good,” I get the distinct impression he thinks they’re evil. Or at least he wants his audience to think they’re evil.

Trump doesn’t hesitate to light into individual journalists, too. At today’s news conference, he called ABC’s Tom Llamas “a sleaze” and CNN’s Jim Acosta “a real beauty.”

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Maggie Haberman

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Ashley Parker

A few days ago, when New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Ashley Parker asked him for a comment on a story they were working on about his campaign team and its management, he sent them an email saying, “You two wouldn’t know how to write a good story about me if you tried — dream on.”

…So what is with these attacks? Trump, as we know, is crazy like a fox. My guess is he’s banking on the public’s low regard of journalists to help jack up his popularity. The theory being, I suppose, that if you put the hammer to a bunch of rats, a lot of people are going to cheer you on…Maybe he’s even aware that journalists have become less popular with women, among whom Trump is tremendously unpopular.

There’s another dimension of this story, though, and it goes like this: Never get in a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.

Do you think Llamas and Acosta and Haberman and Parker — and their editors — might go looking for unflattering stories about Trump?

Of course, they are smart enough that they will not blatantly attempt to tar him. They will make sure they can justify any stories they write — or air — as timely and “newsworthy.” They will also make the requisite calls for comment and do what is necessary to insure their stories reflect their best efforts to be objective and fair. But, my gosh, Trump has declared war on journalists, and I don’t think he realizes how badly he’s outnumbered and outgunned.

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After getting up this morning, with Memorial Day stretched out before me, my first inclination was to head for the golf course.

Pretty soon, though, feelings of pride (at being an American) and gratitude (for the millions of U.S. armed forces members who have died and been wounded for the sake of freedom) prompted me to put golf aside and head to the Liberty Memorial for Kansas City’s annual Memorial Day Ceremony.

I’m so glad I went. It was solemn, moving and gratifying.

Retired Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed it up best when he opened his keynote address by saying:
“Isn’t it great to be an American?”

It’s a cliche, but on this day, it is particularly meaningful, and the several hundred of us in attendance nodded and affirmed.

Another speaker, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, talked about how “messy” the nation is now, with the tremendous political strife and divisions we are experiencing. But as he spoke under a hot sun, he said that on this day said those fractures and fissures didn’t matter.

“On this day,” he said, “we come together as Americans and say ‘thank you’ to the men and women who served us well.”

Kansas City Mayor Sly James rightly called the ceremony “a reconnection with our values as a country.” Sometimes we take those values for granted, but James was reminding us that is a big mistake.

Alluding to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” theme, James, who served in the Marines, said: “I never realized it wasn’t great. To me it’s great every day.”

Myers, an area resident who lives on the Kansas side, spoke about the qualities he believes have made America great: courage, sacrifice and optimism.

A prime example of our nation’s optimism, he said, came during a period when Americans were losing several battles in the Revolutionary War and the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to compose the Declaration of Independence.

“We were losing the war but declaring independence!” Myers said.

As an example of courage and sacrifice, he cited a visit he and his wife had years ago with a 20-year-old soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The young man was going into surgery the next day to have a leg amputated. Myers said he and his wife teared up as they talked to the troop about his plight. But the young man put an end to the commiserating, saying, “Oh, no. I was prepared to give my life for my nation; I only have to give my leg.”

In closing, Myers followed up his opening question (“Isn’t it great to be an American?”) with another rhetorical question:

“Aren’t we lucky to live in this country?”

Amen, General Myers, amen…

**

Now, here are some photos…

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The crowd,on the Liberty Memorial deck

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Placing a memorial wreath

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A mother and daughter take it in

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The American Legion Band, under the direction of Heather Picket

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Retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers

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Taps

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U.S. Rep. Emanuel cleaver (right) and Jackson County Executive Frank White

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Our soaring Liberty Memorial

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The incomparable view of the south lawn, Union Station and the skyline

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Looking out at the Mall, toward the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and the iconic KCTV tower

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We honor, and we remember…

 

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If you want graphic illustrations of the perverse power of society’s two main ills — drugs and guns — all you have to do is watch a few episodes of the long-running A&E cable show “The First 48.”

I love that show. I can watch it hour after hour — but only recordings, otherwise there’s about five minutes of ads for every 10 minutes of actual show.

I like to see how the homicide detectives piece things together; how they use their wits to get suspects and witnesses to talk; and how they occasionally put themselves in harm’s way pursuing suspects.

At the same time, it’s depressing because time after time — probably 90 percent of the time — the real-life stories revolve around young people, mostly inner-city youths and men, dealing in drugs and getting in deep trouble with guns.

One episode I watched recently, “Brutal Business,” struck me as emblematic of not just guns and drugs, but parents failing to monitor their children and raise them to be responsible and law abiding. For example, one of the “perps” in “Brutal Business,” 18-year-old Nathan Scott of Dallas, used this delightful telephone greeting before he was arrested in connection with the murder of two other young men:

“Hey, it’s your boy Nate. If I ain’t answerin’ the phone right now, I’m probably gettin’ to the money. I’m probably doing shit you would never do. I’m probably seeing shit you would never see. Do you hear me?”

I wonder if that message bothered his mother or stepfather…If ever there was a message that indicted the speaker was headed toward prison, that’s it.

So, here’s the story of “Brutal Business.” Nate and two other young men — 19-year-old Daryl Dotson and 17-year-old Debanair Wynn — preside over a drug “trap” — an abandoned house where they buy and sell drugs. Two other young men are on the way to the house to sell the three marijuana and ecstasy pills, and the drug-house operators plan to kill them. “They’re going to die regardless,” one of the trap operators says.

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Steven Govan

The most upsetting part of the situation is that the principal seller of the drugs — 20-year-old Steven Govan — is a college student and former high school basketball star whose stated goal is to become a basketball coach. Out on the streets, though, his goals aren’t quite as clear.

When Steven and a buddy arrive at the “trap,” Daryl Dotson opens fire with an AK-47 — a “chopper” — and Nathan with a .380 Ruger. Then, the assailants stuff the two bodies in the trunk of one of the victim’s cars, take the car to an isolated area and torch it. The fire is so devastating it melts everything plastic, leaving a charred, metal hulk.

Ah, but these criminal interns (the two older ones have no felony convictions and the 17-year-old has a closed juvenile record) make a couple of major mistakes. So intense is the eruption of flames from the car that Nate drops and leaves behind a cellphone he had borrowed from a woman at the drug trap. Also, they’re in such a hurry to clear out of the trap they forget the AK-47.

Police quickly run down the young woman through phone records. She gives up the names of the perps, and the manhunt begins. In the course of that, Detective Dwayne Thompson summons Daryl Dotson’s mother and stepfather to police headquarters and tells them about Daryl’s leading role in the plot. The mother expresses surprise at her son’s involvement in drug dealing, saying: “He don’t need no money. I gave him money every month.”

That raises a red flag, but yet she indicates she wants to do the right thing, assuring Thompson she and other family members are trying to locate Daryl. The unspoken implication is that if she finds him, she will urge him to turn himself in.

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Detective Dwayne Thompson of the Dallas Police Department

Debanair is apprehended first, then Nate, and both admit participating in the killing or disposition of the bodies. Returning to his desk after interviewing Nate, Detective Thompson launches into a soliloquy, saying: “This is the kind of business that’s unforgiving. You have to expect bad things to happen in the dope trap. That’s why they call it a trap. Nothing good happens in the trap. Nothing.”

It takes police a month or two to capture Daryl Dotson, who left town for several weeks but is apprehended upon his return.

Turns out he was able to elude police so long because his mother — the one who had been giving him money every month — was wiring money to him through the people he was staying with.

Incensed, Detective Thompson decides to bring charges against her, as well as the three men involved in the killings. Each of the three is convicted and gets a long prison sentence, and Daryl’s mother gets five years’ probation for hindering the apprehension of a felon.

The closing, heart-wrenching scene takes place in Steven’s bedroom. His mother is surrounded by trophies and ribbons he earned in his athletic career. And there’s a high-school-graduation picture of Steven, handsome and smiling in cap and gown. Dabbing at tears, his mother says, “I miss my baby.”

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After the last few days’ weather, I’m starting to identify with one of the great lines from a 1933 W.C. Fields movie The Fatal Glass of Beer. Living in a cabin in the Yukon, Fields’ character, Mr. Snavely, opens the front door several times and after getting a blast of snow in the face says, “It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast.”

It certainly ain’t fit for navigating the golf course today, but fortunately, there’s plenty of news to focus and reflect on. For example…

:: How about that Hillary? If it weren’t for the emails, she would be gliding toward victory in November. But isn’t there always an “if” with the Clintons?

When news of her flouting federal rules email practices surfaced about a year ago, I said I was washing my hands of her. But I came back around after seeing the Republicans would not be fielding a credible candidate.

I’ll surely end up voting for her in November, but here are the most recent, galling developments.

First, not only did she never request State Department permission to use a private email server, she refused to be interviewed by Inspector General Steve A. Linick or his staff. Stone-walled him. To me, that’s as damning as defendants who plead not guilty in criminal cases but refuse to take the witness stand.

Second, I was dismayed when she said, before the Kentucky primary, that as president she’d be putting husband Bill in charge of boosting the economy. Holy shit! Hasn’t everybody had enough of that guy? It’s distasteful enough to see news clips of him making speeches here and there and wagging that index finger when he’s not in a seat of power. But for God’s sake he’s the last person I want to be reading about in tandem with Hillary the next eight years.

I’ve said for years I would have much more respect for her if, after Bill’s White House weenie-wagging, she would have divorced Bill and charted her own course politically and personally.

And on the subject of her personal life, conservative columnist David Brooks had an insightful column the other day when he said the key to Hillary’s unpopularity is that people see her as strictly one-dimensional. While we know Barack Obama likes to play golf, watch basketball and vacation in Hawaii, we know very little about Hillary, other than that she dons her political face and lipstick every morning.

As Brooks said: “…(I)t’s hard to think of any non-career or pre-career aspect to her life. Except for a few grandma references, she presents herself as a resume and policy brief.”

With that observation, I think Brooks goes a long way toward explaining people’s reservations about her: Not only is she too slick for her own good but we know very little about here wants and needs, likes and dislikes, other than she wants power and needs public adulation.

:: The Kansas City Fire Department’s unvarnished assessment of the handling of the October fire that took the lives firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio struck me as having an indirect parallel to the 1988 explosion off Bruce Watkins Drive that took the lives of six Kansas City firefighters.

Although the new report focuses on mistakes by incident commanders — specifically, taking their time about getting Mesh and Leggio out of the alley off Independence Boulevard — the report also explores the department’s culture of aggressively fighting fires, even when lives are not at stake. The report says, in part, “cultural norms that work against the safety of firefighters are and can potentially be disastrous and should not be tolerated.”

On that fateful, unforgettable morning more than 25 years ago, it was over-aggressiveness that took the lives of firefighters James H. Kilventon Jr., Michael R. Oldham, Robert D. McKarnin, Gerald C. Halloran, Luther Eugene Hurd and Thomas Fry. 

The big difference in the 1988 explosion and the October fire on Independence Boulevard was that, in 1988, two fire companies headed by captains were following their own instincts. A battalion chief was on the way but not there when the captains made critical decisions. The companies chose to pour the water on at close range while a trailer full of explosives burned.

The two companies didn’t know for sure that the trailer contained explosives — back then exterior chemical markings were only mandatory while explosive containers were in transit — but dispatchers had warned that explosives were involved. A member of one of the two fire companies even asked the dispatcher to tell the other company to keep its distance. After extinguishing a nearby truck fire, however, that company joined the other company near the trailer.

I remember reading back then that flames coming from the trailer had a bluish hue, rather than the usual bright orange. Several of the firefighters on the scene had received hazmat training and should have recognized the fire as alarmingly unusual, but their adrenalin apparently overrode any reservations they might have had.

The most tragic part, of course, was that as Battalion Chief Marion Germann and his driver pulled up at the scene and saw the spectacle, Germann reached for his radio to tell the companies to pull back. He was seconds too late: Right then, the trailer exploded, gouging a crater at least 80 feet in diameter and 8 feet deep.

…You would think that incredibly painful lesson would have prompted the department to alter its approach to property fires. Maybe the new report will get the job done. As it points out, the firefighters on Independence Boulevard lost track of the fact that only property was at risk; it was just a building.

The most memorable line in the report should be posted on the wall of every fire station in Kansas City:

“When there is little to save, we should risk little.”

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I barely left the house yesterday, but I still managed to procure a winning mutuel ticket on the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

If you read my Derby post two weeks ago, you know I was unhappy about Nyquist winning the Derby — not because I don’t like the horse but because his owner is in the payday loan business and his trainer has more than a dozen medication violations on his record.

One of the horses I liked in the Derby was Exaggerator, who finished second (although I didn’t bet him to place). In April, he had won the Santa Anita Derby, making a huge move on the home turn, on a sloppy track. He loves the slop.

When I saw earlier this week that the Baltimore forecast called for 100 percent chance of rain yesterday, I figured Exaggerator would have a great shot at turning the tables on Nyquist today. On Friday, then, I deposited $100 in son Charlie’s checking account and asked him to bet $100 to win for me today on Exaggerator.

Charlie, as some of you know, is a graduate student at UNLV. He just completed his class work for a master’s in environmental health physics, which basically involves measuring and controlling radiation levels in a variety of workplaces.

Early Saturday afternoon Charlie went to the Green Valley Ranch Casino’s sports book — where bettors wager on all kinds of sporting events — and placed the bet. He even took a photo (below) with his cellphone.

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After the horses broke from the starting gate, Nyquist got caught up in a front-end speed duel on the sloppy track, while Exaggerator stayed back and saved ground along the inside. On the backstretch, Exaggerator, still on the rail, made up a lot of ground, and then, turning for home, jockey Kent Desormeaux swung Exaggerator to the outside. He easily passed two tiring front-runners, including Nyquist and sailed on to a three-length victory.

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Kent Desormeaux (green cap) moves Exaggerator past Nyquist in the stretch at Pimlico Race Course in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.

Exaggerator paid $7.20 on a $2 bet, so my total return was $360, with a $260 profit.

Not long after the race, Charlie sent me a text, saying, “I forgot to mention there’s a 10 percent bookie fee.”

The kid is a notorious deal maker, always finding a way to get a piece of the action. Naturally, I agreed to his terms because, as I told him, I wouldn’t have won anything if it hadn’t been for him.

So we both made out pretty well…But one last thing: Before you start thinking I must be a shrewd horse player, you should know I lost about $300 on Derby Day and that over the course of 40-plus years of playing the horses — most of it in my bachelor days — I’m probably down more than 10 grand. I’m not one of those gamblers who contends he wins nine out of 10 times. No, I lose most of the time. I can count on two hands the number of Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners I’ve had over the last 35 years. But I was reminded again yesterday how much fun it is to notch a big score on a Triple Crown race.

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As much as possible, I try to ignore Kansas. It’s a dull disaster of a state, and Sam Brownback is unequivocally one of the worst administrators to ever inhabit in a governor’s mansion. (It’s a small miracle he was re-elected in 2014 — and he wouldn’t have if the Democratic nominee, Paul Davis of Lawrence, could have demonstrated he had a pulse.)

And yet I can’t entirely ignore the damn state. I live a block from State Line Road; I frequently shop at the Hy-Vee at 77th and State Line; we occasionally go to restaurants there; and, most important, a minor but valued part of my income hinges on secondary-education funding in Kansas.

After retiring from The Star in 2006, I enrolled in Avila’s teacher certification program, and since 2008 — when I got my certification — I’ve been a substitute teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District. I teach Language Arts, usually in high schools. It’s a great job, paying $135 a day. The assignments are handled by phone and computer, and I can make myself unavailable for any days or periods of time that I choose. The substitute coordinator doesn’t hold it against you if you make yourself unavailable for weeks at a time; she’s just glad to have you whenever you can jump in and fill a void.

As a result,  when I read about each round of cutbacks in government funding in Kansas — the latest was yesterday — I cringe because I envision secondary education taking a big hit and SMSD subsequently announcing it is either cutting the number of subs or slicing their pay.

So, I was relieved when I read in today’s Star that the latest round of budget cuts hits higher education but not secondary. Too bad for the universities but, frankly, I’m more concerned about my extra piece of bacon at the breakfast table.

…But I’m not completely selfish. In the bigger picture, the most maddening thing, once again, is a new round of cuts for Medicaid funding. Those on Medicaid — the poorest Kansans — aren’t thinking about an extra piece of bacon; they’re worried how they’re going to get treatment for such things as pneumonia, flu and accidental injuries and how they’re going to get needed surgical procedures.

By refusing to expand Medicaid (of course Missouri did the same thing), Kansas has already turned its back on more than $1 billion in federal funding, and after yesterday’s cuts, Medicaid funding will be reduced by another $50 million or so. How that will trickle down is that doctors and hospitals will receive less on the front end, and then they will either refuse or not be able to treat as many Medicaid patients.

As former Kansas governor (and former U.S. Health and Human Services secretary) Kathleen Sebelius told The Star, “I think the result is likely to be that more doctors will just refuse to take Medicaid patients. In the long run I think it is a very shortsighted way to save money.”

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Here’s Brownback yesterday, proudly signing the new budget bill involving $97 million in state spending cuts.

This fellow Brownback has got to be one of the cruelest, most callous people to ever run a government. He has simply decided, in effect, “to hell with the poor.” He figures they don’t vote (unfortunately he’s right), and they’re mostly out of sight and irrelevant. Brownback wants to lend a helping hand not to the poor but to those who run corporations, those who have proprietorships and LLC’s (like Kansas basketball coach Bill Self), and people who work as independent contractors. Yeah, the people who make a lot of money and can always use a little more and then might turn around and up their political contributions to the good Republicans who put a lot more bacon on their tables.

…One night back in the mid-2000s, when Sebelius was governor of Kansas and Matt Blunt (another stuffed-shirt Republican) was governor of Missouri, we saw Sebelius and her husband Gary at Knuckleheads Saloon in northeast Kansas City. There they were, out on the dance floor with us regular folks, laughing and drinking and dancing. Between songs, the band leader introduced Sebelius as “the good governor,” distinguishing her from Blunt. The line got a big laugh, and the crowd applauded her.

What are the chances, do you think, of seeing Brownback at Knuckleheads some night? And what do you think the crowd reaction would be if he did show up? I would hope the band leader would have the spunk to call him “the bad governor,” to distinguish him from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who isn’t all that good, but at least isn’t the asshole Brownback is.

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Back in the days of The Kansas City Star’s rapid and successful expansion into Johnson County — operating a big bureau on College Boulevard and publishing more than a dozen “neighborhood news” sections — the assistant managing editor for Johnson County used to say “the center of gravity” of Kansas City area journalism was shifting from downtown Kansas City to the southwestern suburbs.

That was in the early 2000s. And the editor, now-retired Michael “O.J.” Nelson couldn’t have been more wrong. By the late 2000s, the big bureau on College Boulevard was closed, along with all the other suburban bureaus; the far-flung neighborhood news operation had been disassembled; and scores of editorial employees had been bought out or laid off.

The plunge of print was — and continues to be — a humbling experience for The Star and most other major metropolitan dailies.

The center of gravity did, indeed, shift. But instead of revolving around the growth of the suburbs, it had to do with the shift away from print journalism and toward digital and other electronic formats.

…If ever there was an in-your-face-sign of how that shift is playing out locally, it occurred yesterday when KCUR-FM, the local public radio station, came out with a blockbuster story revealing that the highest-paid state employee in Kansas, KU basketball coach Bill Self, and perhaps the second-highest paid employee, KU football coach David Beatty, do not pay state income taxes on the bulk of their income because of the disastrous 2012 tax cuts in Kansas.

The reason is Self and Beatty receive the bulk of their incomes through limited liability corporations (LLC’s) they have created. LLC’s were among the many categories of “businesses” — along with partnerships, sole proprietorships and independent contractors, among others — that got a pass on state income taxes as a result of the 2012 tax-cut law.

The KCUR story says:

Before Gov. Sam Brownback signed the tax cuts, the top tax bracket was 6.45 percent. At that rate, Self would have owed up to $177,375 annually in Kansas income taxes. Even under the current reduced top rate of 4.6 percent, he’d have owed up to $126,500.

Under his contract with KU, Self receives a salary of $230,000 a year. But he gets at least another $2.75 million — channeled to the LLC — for “educational, public relations and promotional duties as assigned by the athletics director.”

The significance of the story is that, in the most dramatic way imaginable, it explodes the myth that the Brownback tax cuts were designed to create jobs. Like hundreds of thousands of others who benefited from the tax cuts, Bill Self and David Beatty do not create jobs; they just accumulate oodles of money in their various bank, trust and “wealth management” accounts.   

The story was a pure and breath-taking scoop for KCUR, which has quietly been assembling a powerhouse team of reporters and editors in recent years.

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Margolies

Adding to the  indignity for The Star, the lead reporter on the KCUR story is none other than former KC Star business reporter Dan Margolies, who left The Star in 2009 to take a media job on the East Coast but returned a year later after that job didn’t work out. Margolies joined KCUR two years ago as Heartland Health Monitor editor, but his reporting goes well beyond health care. The other reporter on the story is Sam Zeff, who covered health and education for KCPT-TV before joining KCUR in August 2014.

On Steve Kraske’s “Up to Date” radio show this morning, Zeff said he was watching a Royals game on TV when he was reviewing the nuances of the tax-cut law and suddenly realized Self’s LLC income was exempt from state income taxes. He and Margolies ran with it from there.

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Zeff

Another former KC Star staffer now with KCUR is Donna Vestal, KCUR’s director of content strategy. In addition, Kevin Collison, The Star’s former development reporter, is freelancing for the station. And, of course, Kraske now divides his time between KCUR and The Star, as well as teaching at UMKC.

Shortly after Margolies accepted the job at KCUR in 2014, I wrote a post about him. When I asked how he felt about getting back into journalism in Kansas City, he replied, in part: “Here we have a news organization, KCUR, that not only is not shrinking but is expanding its news operation. That appealed to me.”

Two years later, it continues to expand — while The Star keeps shrinking. Ah, that center of gravity…yes, it is shifting.

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