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Archive for November, 2018

Wouldn’t you just love to see someone in the dominant party — maybe the President, maybe Mitch McConnell — stand up and say what is obvious about the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi?

That would sound like this…

“I don’t believe a word, not one word, of the ridiculous, contradictory stories the Saudis have put out about the murder of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. The truth is, in my opinion, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent a team of trusted agents to Istanbul with orders to summarily kill Khashoggi, and the team carried out the order with ruthless efficiency.”

I say the hell with billions of dollars of (mostly prospective) in arms sales; the hell with Saudi Arabia being allied with the West against Iran; and, finally, the hell with Saudi Arabia’s oil.

(In  total energy consumption, the U.S. was about 90 percent self-sufficient in 2016, and that self-sufficiency is increasing all the time. We don’t need their oil, and we don’t need them otherwise.)

How our government can stand by and allow bin Salman to puppeteer a long-range assassination inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey is mind boggling. I understand that world order and international relations are tricky matters, but when an ally exhibits utter, deadly immorality on the world stage, it is time to call it out, condemn it and cut ties.

…In case you haven’t kept up closely with developments, here’s how Saudi accounts of the Khashoggi matter have unfolded:

First: Khashoggi wasn’t killed; he left the consulate safe and sound on Oct. 2 shortly after he entered.

Second: A fistfight erupted inside the consulate and a Saudi agent put Khashoggi in a headlock and accidentally killed him.

Third: A single intelligence agent on the scene — a man acting without authorization from his superiors in Riyadh — decided Khashoggi had to die, and injected a deadly dose of tranquilizer.

The only consistent thing the Saudis have put out, since admitting Khashoggi was murdered, is that his body was dismembered. The latest account, though, is that dismemberment was a spur-of-the-moment decision to get the body out of the consulate. The remains have not been found. The Saudis say the remains were given to a “local cooperator.” The Turks say it was dissolved in acid…Which account sounds more plausible?

Now, in a desperate effort to give bin Salman cover, the Saudis — undoubtedly at the crown prince’s direction — say they’ve charged at least 11 people in connection with the killing and that five of the defendants could be executed. None of the defendants has been identified, however, other than that none is a member of the “royal court.”

Ironic, isn’t it? Some of the thugs who dutifully carried out the crown prince’s order could find themselves sacrificed for a job well done.

But the truth is out there in plain sight. Even President Trump called the first Saudi explanation (accidental strangulation) “one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.” Yet, he hasn’t done or said anything to hold bin Salman directly to account…And I doubt that he or the Republican-dominated Senate will.

The Washington Post hit it on the head today with an editorial titled “Saudi Arabia’s latest account of Khashoggi’s death is shocking in its audacity.”

The editorial concluded with this paragraph…

“Congress should not allow this travesty to continue. It should suspend all military sales and cooperation with Saudi Arabia until a credible international investigation of the Khashoggi killing is completed. The Saudi cover story is just one more instance of Mohammed bin Salman’s arrogant and reckless behavior. The true murderers of Jamal Khashoggi must be named and punished.”

If a valid investigation is undertaken, it won’t take a Sherlock Holmes, Columbo or Perry Mason to determine who the main murderer is. Just look for the smug, shady-looking, mustachioed guy with the checkered scarf over his head.

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After little more than a year, the Bill Turque “era” as KC Star City Hall reporter is over.

A Star story this week said Turque, a 40-plus-year veteran of journalism, is becoming The Star’s political editor.

Succeeding him at City Hall, one of the three most important “beats” at the newspaper (along with the Jefferson City and Topeka correspondents), is 24-year-old Allison Kite, who has been with The Star for nine months. Before that, she covered Kansas politics for the Associated Press and later the Topeka Capital Journal.

Allison Kite

Bill Turque

From what I have seen, Kite is a solid, up-and-coming reporter, and I feel sure she will do well at City Hall. At the same time, it is disappointing to see Turque, whose arrival as City Hall reporter was announced with much hoopla, moving out of the limelight. (I can tell you from experience editors are important, but once you leave reporting, you’d better prepare yourself for public anonymity.)

Turque has had some ground-breaking stories, including a September story on extensive and questionable City Council travel, and he brought to The Star a deep and distinguished background. He had previously worked at The Washington Post, Newsweek and the Dallas Times Herald. He also was a familiar name to some Kansas Citians, having worked at The Star from 1977 to 1981 early in his career.

Not only was he a “big name” when he returned to Kansas City, he knocked out another big name at City Hall — Lynn Horsley, who had covered the city with distinction and determination for nearly 20 years.

After Turque’s return, The Star’s management moved Horsley to the Johnson County beat, where it appears she is now comfortable and getting accustomed to suburban reporting. (I can tell you from experience there, too, it’s a lot different than urban reporting. After I moved from the Wyandotte County bureau to the Johnson County bureau in 1995, I never could make the adjustment from being enmeshed in big-time political battles to scrounging around for “lifestyle” stories.)

Horsley’s displacement was awkward for The Star because management had hired Turque as part of a package deal and had to find a place for him. A year earlier, in 2016, The Star had hired Turque’s wife, Melinda Henneberger, to be part of the paper’s new editorial-page team, headed by Colleen McCain Nelson. I’m sure the deal was then, “Uh, yes, I’m prepared to take the job, but what about my hubby?”

Interestingly, Nelson’s hiring also had been a package deal: Her husband, Eric Nelson, was hired to lead The Star’s digital news operation.

**

Another change The Star announced in the story about Turque and Kite was that Jefferson City correspondent Jason Hancock will now cover Kansas politics as well as Missouri.

Jason Hancock

That’s a lot to bite off, and as good as Hancock is, I’m dubious about his ability to do spread his wings over Kansas and Missouri. Tapping him to handle politics in both states is another example of The Star trying to stretch its painfully reduced staff impossibly thin. It’s hard enough for one reporter to cover one big building, like City Hall, much less two states.

And, finally, The Star has thrown in the towel as far as having its own reporter covering state government out of Topeka. The paper is now shoveling that job off to Jonathan Shorman of The Wichita Eagle, another McClatchy paper.

Shorman is very good, but just as Hancock is going to have trouble extending his reach into Kansas, Shorman will find it extremely challenging to do justice to coverage of legislative developments revolving around Wyandotte, Johnson and Leavenworth counties. Residents in those counties who depend on The Star for legislative news may be sorely disappointed.

…In any event, good luck to these reporters as they try to bear up under back-breaking assignments I couldn’t have dreamed of handling when I was in my prime. I covered Jackson County government from 1971 to 1978 and City Hall from 1985 to 1995, and at both places I was one of three or four Kansas City Times and Kansas City Star reporters on those beats…I believe we also had at least two people in Jeff City and two in Topeka. My, how times have changed!

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Election Day is almost upon us, and although a lot of information has been put out, the Missouri ballot is going to confuse a lot of people going to the polls tomorrow.

In a phone call last week, Shawn Kieffer, a director at the Kansas City Election Board, described the 42-question Kansas City ballot as “horrifying” and said he expected some voters to spend 30 minutes or more poring over it.

But at least three sources of information can help you have a low-anxiety voting experience:

:: The League of Women Voters has an online voters guide that summarizes the issues and lets people print out their own “sample” ballots, which they can take to the polls and use to register votes on their official ballots.

:: I expect The Star to publish a list of its recommendations for both Missouri and Kansas at least by tomorrow morning…In my experience, The Star has the best interests of voters in mind, and I usually follow its recommendations.

:: Finally, you’ve got me. I’ve studied the ballot carefully and voted absentee last week, and I covered elections for most of my 36 year-career at The Star.

Here, then, are my recommendations on the major races and issues on the Kansas City ballot. (I believe the only place where my ballot and The Star’s will be at odds is on the proposed Jackson County Charter amendments. The Star is recommending some amendments be approved and some be rejected, but I’m recommending all seven be rejected.)

U.S. Senator — Claire McCaskill (God spare us from the dangerous geek running against her.)

State Auditor — Nicole Galloway (No reason I know of not to give her a second term.)

U.S. Rep. — Emanuel Cleaver II (He’s flawed, but he’s ours. Plus, never forget he snapped KC out of the inferiority complex that had settled in during the 12 years Dick Berkley was mayor.)

Jackson County Executive — Frank White (He’s bad but there’s no viable alternative.)

Jackson County Sheriff — Darryl Forte (Guess we’ve gotta give this guy a few more years in office so he can get two public pensions.)

Jackson County Circuit and Associate Circuit Court judges“Yes” to retain every judge. (Judicial retentions always confuse people because they don’t know who the judges are and if they’re making the right move when they vote “yes.” Don’t worry; none of these judges has done anything remotely scandalous.) 

Constitutional Amendment No. 1 — “Yes” to placing limits on campaign contributions for state legislative candidates and to limit gifts that legislators and their employees can accept from individuals or entities. (It’s about time.)

Constitutional Amendment No. 2“Yes” to legalizing medical marijuana and imposing a 4-percent tax on sales, with the revenue to be used to provide care for military veterans and to administer and regulate marijuana retail facilities. (Of the three marijuana proposals on the ballot, this one has the backing of longtime legalization activists; trust them.)

Constitutional Amendment No. 3“No” to legalizing medical marijuana and imposing a 15-percent tax on sales to fund a cancer research institute headed by Brad Bradshaw, a Springfield lawyer and physician. (This is a power grab by Bradshaw, who likes to put up big billboards of himself.)  

Constitutional Amendment No. 4“Yes” to removing language from the Constitution that limits bingo-game advertising. A court has ruled the prohibition unenforceable. (If lottery advertising hasn’t killed us, we can live with bingo advertising.) 

Missouri Proposition B“Yes” to raising the minimum wage to $8.60 an hour, with an 85-cent-per-hour increase each year to 2023, when the minimum wage would be $12 an hour. (Investment in low-end workers will lead to long-term economic growth.)  

Missouri Proposition C“No” to legalizing medical marijuana and imposing a 2-percent tax on sales, with the proceeds going for veterans’ services, early childhood education and public safety in cities with medical marijuana stores. (Consider the source: This proposal is brought to you by the Missouri General Assembly.)

Missouri Proposition D“Yes” to raising the 17-cent-per-gallon gas tax by 2 1/2 cents per year for four years — 10 cents over the four years — with most of the proceeds going for highway and road and bridge construction and maintenance. The ballot says $288 million a year would go for “Missouri state law enforcement” and $123 million a year would go for road construction, but that is misleading because the Missouri Transportation Department finances the Highway Patrol. Revenue from the higher gas tax would free up the money that has been going to the Highway Patrol and would redirect it to roads and bridges. (Finally, a road-improvement tax increase to be paid by those who use the roads, including those damned truckers.)

Jackson County Charter amendments (Questions 1 through 7)“No” on all. (As you will see, the ballot language is maddeningly vague on proposed pay increases for county officials. In addition, several of the questions are aimed at increasing the County Legislature’s power and reducing that of the County Executive…I believe it is best to continue centralizing power with the County Executive so voters can ultimately hold one person accountable for the county’s overall direction.)

Kansas City Public Library question — “Yes” to increasing the property tax levy by eight cents, from about 47 cents to 55 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. It would be the first such increase in 22 years. (Not only is this a meritorious proposal, its backers came up with the best political yard sign of the 2018 general election campaign. Tilting one book against the others was a stroke of genius.)

 

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News reports have been floating around the last few months about the possibility of McClatchy, The Star’s deeply indebted owner, buying another newspaper chain, Tribune Publishing, which owns The Chicago Tribune and several other large papers, including the Orlando Sentinel and the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Times.

On Friday, Bloomberg reported McClatchy was one of three companies that had submitted bids for Tribune, and that Tribune’s board is scheduled to meet early next week, possibly to consider the bids. I’ve seen estimates of a sale bringing $640 million to $700 million.

But as far as McClatchy is concerned, allow me to put this story in perspective…Ha! Ha! Ha!

(I could have added several more exclamation points, but it would have taken up valuable digital space.)

Not only can a newspaper chain with an $800 million debt not buy another newspaper chain, it can’t afford new office furniture.

Here are a couple of facts that illustrate the point:

— McClatchy has a stock market capitalization (total value of all outstanding shares) of about $57 million; Tribune’s market capitalization is about $570 million. So, we’re talking about one company buying another 10 times its size in terms of valuation.

— This is not the first time McClatchy’s eyes have been bigger than its stomach. Remember what happened after relatively small McClatchy bought the much larger Knight Ridder newspaper chain back in 2006? That was a move one industry analyst likened to “a dolphin swallowing a small whale.” The result was McClatchy saddling itself with the massive debt it has been laboring under ever since.

That being said, it’s still possible that we’ll see a headline saying, “Tribune agrees to be purchased by McClatchy.”

But what that would amount to, according to a friend who is an investment banker, would be McClatchy reorganizing without going through bankruptcy. And it wouldn’t be McClatchy money on the table; it would be somebody else’s.

There are at least two ways McClatchy could nominally buy Tribune.

:: This year, McClatchy has consolidated much of its debt with a hedge fund called Chatham Asset Management, based in Chatham, NJ. Chatham is now McClatchy’s largest shareholder, as well as its biggest creditor. Institutional Investor magazine has described Chatham as a firm that invests in companies with “distressed debt.” So, McClatchy would be little more than a stalking horse for Chatham. In addition, the New York Post reported that McClatchy had approached Apollo Global Management, a public equity firm, “to shore up its bid for Tribune Publishing.”

:: Five months ago, a Los Angeles surgeon, entrepreneur and philanthropist named Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune from Tribune Publishing for $500 million. Soon-Shiong also happens to be the largest shareholder in Tribune (a 25-percent share), and it’s possible he could end up controlling McClatchy by striking a deal with Chatham. Soon-Shiong is believed to be interested in McClatchy largely because of its string of California papers. If Soon-Shiong emerged as top dog, he could establish a 500-mile-long newspaper juggernaut from Sacramento (McClatchy’s home base) to San Diego.

**

Now let’s take a look at the other two companies that Bloomberg says have submitted bids for Tribune.

One is Donerail, an investment firm founded this year by a man named Will Wyatt, a veteran investor in media companies. Newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor wrote on the Nieman Lab website in August that if Donerail succeeded in buying Tribune, it would take the company private “and then most likely sell the papers off to individual buyers — some of whom it already has lined up.” A Reuters story, also published in August, said that if Donerail succeeded, Tribune “would become the latest U.S. newspaper publisher to fall in the hands of a private equity firm or a hedge fund, as regional papers struggle with declining circulation amid the proliferation of online media.”

Halbreich

The other company reportedly in contention for Tribune is AIM Media, a fast-growing, private company that owns papers in at least four states — Texas, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia. The chairman and money man behind AIM is Jeremy Halbreich, former president and general manager of The Dallas Morning News and former chairman and CEO of of Sun-Times Media. Among other things, Halbreich helped resuscitate the Chicago Sun-Times, a tabloid that had gone into bankruptcy in 2009 under previous ownership.

One thing you need to know about Tribune is it’s a certifiable disaster as a company. Since 2000, when it acquired the Times Mirror company (which owned The Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, among others), it has suffered under terrible management, as well as experiencing the steep advertising and circulation losses that have left many metropolitan dailies shells of their former selves.

In my opinion, Tribune would have its best chance to survive and rebound under AIM, the only one of the three suitors led by a person (Halbreich) with a proven record of successful newspaper management.

I don’t believe McClatchy is going to end up with Tribune. It shouldn’t. It would be a farce. Like Tribune, McClatchy is an awful company. It shouldn’t be given a chance to swallow a second whale after puking up the first.

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