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Ever since the newspaper industry and TV began chasing the Internet Express, trying to catch up with the fast-changing way in which news was being gathered and reported, the news media’s credibility has sunk ever lower.

I don’t really know how it could have been avoided because if the old-line media organizations had not jumped on board — however awkwardly — they would have been left farther behind than they are. Still, this loss of credibility is just appalling to me and many other past and present members of the media.

What I’m talking about is the old media lowering the accuracy and editing bar that it had painstakingly established over generations. The first big belly dive into the mud occurred the night of the 2000 presidential election, when the major networks, including CNN and Fox, called Florida for Al Gore prematurely and later stamped George Bush as the winner of the presidential election — 19 days before the Florida vote count was certified and Bush declared the winner by 500 some votes.

As I recall, we at The Star were one of many news organizations that had Bush winning on our Web site. I believe that in the morning paper, we went with too close to call.

All in all, the media’s performance that night made the classic, 1948 Chicago Tribune headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” start to seem not so embarrassing in retrospect.

There have been many other erroneous, main-line-media Web site reports since the 2000 presidential election, but this week brought another new low: The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, CNN and Fox News all reported early Wednesday afternoon that an arrest had been made in the Boston bombings case, when, in fact, no arrest had been made.

A story by Bill Carter in yesterday’s New York Times said that CNN and Fox “spent about an hour discussing the news of an arrest with various correspondents and experts before backing off when they received further information.”

It was the same two networks that breathlessly reported — again erroneously — last June that the Supreme Court had overturned President Obama’s health-care-overhaul law.

I guess officials at some of these networks have come to the conclusion that if you don’t know for sure, run it anyway because it will seem to advance the story.

The last thing the network executives want, it seems, is anchors and reporters saying, “We’re waiting for new information.” The new credo at some networks and newspapers is There Can Be No Wait; It Must Be Now!

CNN’s John King was the first to set his network’s pants on fire when, at 12:45 p.m. Kansas City time, he reported that police had a bombing suspect in custody.

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In his NYT story, Carter said that about 1:45 p.m., “one of CNN’s law enforcement experts…appeared on the air and reported and reported that he had three sources who assured him no arrest had been made.”

And how did CNN explain its screw-up? It issued this statement:

“CNN had three credible sources on both local and federal levels. Based on this information we reported our findings.”

Their “findings” were nothing more than “phantom findings,” and CNN should have apologized.

The Associated Press also didn’t see fit to extend its regrets about its messy reporting. Carter wrote: “Paul Colford, a spokesman for The Associated Press, said later in the afternoon that the news service did not ‘pull back’ from its original reporting, but only ‘added other reporting.’ ”

Well, now, that’s a fine kettle of fish, isn’t it? “Added other reporting…”

As the reactions of CNN and the AP indicate, the worst part of this “it-could-be-right-or-it-could-be-wrong” approach to Internet-era reporting is that there’s no need to apologize, no need to be embarrassed, just keep rolling out whatever some ding-dong whispers to the stressed-out, over-caffeinated reporters in the field.

Culminating his story, Carter quoted Judy Muller, a former network news correspondent who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California. She said:

“The rush to be first has so thoroughly swallowed up the principal of being right and first that it seems a little egg on the face is now deemed worth the risk.”

Quite often, people ask me if I miss working as a journalist. I always say that I don’t miss it at all and that I am happy to be out.

I respect the vast majority of journalists, especially my former Star colleagues, but I’ve got to say that when we started chasing the Internet back in the late 1990s, our “quality control” system — based on verified reporting, careful copy editing and several sets of eyes on every story in line for publication — quickly went to hell.

I could not come to grips with throwing under-reported, poorly edited stories up on the Web just to try to keep up with the local TV stations.

As a result of the free-wheeling reporting that has supplanted careful, verified reporting, the reputation of American journalism has, sorrowfully, slipped into a huge sinkhole, and I don’t know how it’s going to get out. It looks like it could go the route of that guy in Florida who was swallowed up by the earth and never resurfaced.

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All that is not to say that some newspapers and networks have not done great things in opening new doors afforded by the Internet. For example, perhaps you saw that The New York Times won four Pulitzer prizes this week, for stories published in 2012, including John Branch’s spectacular feature “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” I wrote admiringly about that story in December, a few days after it was published. I quoted Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic Wire Web, who said that the project “makes multimedia feel natural and useful, not just tacked on.”

The Times, with pockets deep enough to hire experts in every dimension of news gathering and presentation, has done the best job of melding newsprint journalism and electronic journalism. It also has resisted the urge, for the most part, to go with unverified reports in the race to be first on big stories. But, alas, even The Times got sucked in on the Bush “victory” on election night 2000.

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Three things in particular have cropped up in the news in recent days that call out for closer inspection under the JimmyC microscope:

Charlie Wheeler’s financial dilemma

The amazing parallel between the Rutgers and Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese scandals

The Star’s telling story about why MGE didn’t shut off the gas valve to JJ’s

***

I’m proud to call Charlie Wheeler a good friend. I admired him and wrote a few stories about him during his years as mayor, from 1971-1979. Since retiring in 2005, I have worked as a volunteer in two of his last three political campaigns: county executive in 2006 and state treasurer in 2008. In the 2011 mayoral race, while working as a volunteer for Mike Burke, I helped arrange for Wheeler, who was also in the race, to throw his support to Burke shortly before the primary election. Burke, in one of the slickest political moves I’ve ever seen, also managed to reel in former mayors Dick Berkley and Kay Barnes. It wasn’t enough, of course, as Sly James, with his big personality and big head start, went on to beat Burke handily.

I learned several years ago that Charlie didn’t pay close attention to his finances, preferring instead to roam about town as an ambassador at large and dispenser of witty and insightful political observations.

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Photo by JimmyCsays

As far as I can tell, while Charlie helped quite a few people get rich (or richer) while he was mayor, such as the late Frank Morgan and lawyer I.I. (Double I) Ozar, he never made a dime off politics, other than his salary. He’s similar, in that respect, to the late, great House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who was one of the two or three most powerful men in politics for years but died with about $25,000 to his name.

So, last week, out comes the story on page A4 of The Star, saying that Wheeler is facing the loss of his home on 53rd Street, just west of Loose Park. He has fallen way behind on his house payments, particularly taxes and homeowner’s insurance, and the house is scheduled to be sold on the courthouse steps this week.

He and his wife, Marjorie, who is an invalid, are supposedly moving into a duplex on Pennsylvania, which, I understand, might be owned by a friend.

My arm’s length observation on the situation is that regardless of how beloved a person is or how clean his reputation is, he’s still gotta write the checks for what he owes. My less-than-arm’s-length observation is that I sure hope this turns out OK for Charlie and Marjorie and that we don’t see a photo in The Star of their personal property stacked up on the curb of West 53rd Street.

Charlie, if you’re reading this, listen to me: One story is enough.

***

I trust that most of you are aware of the situation at Rutgers University, where the athletic director, Tim Pernetti, failed last year to fire basketball coach Mike Rice after he was made aware of videos that showed Rice physically and verbally abusing players during practices. The Rutgers president, Robert Barchi, subsequently went along with Pernetti’s decision to fine Rice $75,000 and suspend him for three games. The key thing here is that Barchi did not view the videos, or at least says he didn’t.

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Robert Barchi

The shit hit the fan last week, however, after ESPN got ahold of the videos. The clips prompted an immediate outcry, and late last week Pernetti resigned and Barchi was clinging to his job. He was apparently spared because he had not actually seen the videos. (It should be noted that some faculty members are continuing to call for his head.)

I was in Philadelphia over the weekend — Rutgers is close by in New Jersey — and I read everything I could get my hands on about the scandal. In Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, a sports columnist named Bob Ford explained in a single sentence how Barchi managed to slip the noose:

“One does not become a university president without cultivating a close relationship with deniability.”

I had already been thinking how closely the Barchi-Pernetti situation mirrored the scandal surrounding Bishop Robert Finn last year.  After it surfaced that the Rev. Shawn Ratigan had surreptitiously taken pornographic photos of elementary school girls at the parish where he was pastor in Kansas City, North, Finn attempted to shift the blame to Vicar General Robert Murphy, saying that he himself never saw the photos and that he relied on Murphy’s assessment that the photos were not pornographic.

In other words, Finn gave himself deniability.

That didn’t fly with a Jackson County Circuit Court judge, of course, who found Finn guilty of a misdemeanor charge of failing to report child abuse. Now, Finn, who is on probation for two years, stands as the most senior Catholic official convicted in the church’s long-running child sex-abuse scandal.

Nevertheless, Finn has refused to resign, even after ruining the reputation of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese. Like Barchi, he’d rather carry on tattooed with shame than bow out gracefully and allow his organization to start afresh with new leadership.

***

The Star’s “Mr. Energy,” reporter Steve Everly, confirmed for readers on Sunday why MGE did not shut off the gas valve to JJ’s restaurant before the Feb. 19 explosion that killed server Megan Cramer and injured several others. The reason? It would have been costly and time consuming to restore service to customers in the area.

Restoring service involves utility employees going around from house to house, business to business, relighting pilot lights.

Everly wrote:

“Instead of shutting the valves when the smell of gas was in the air before the February blast that leveled JJ’s restaurant, Missouri Gas Energy waited for a backhoe to arrive from Raymore — more than 20 miles away — in a failed attempt to vent the leak.”

God help us…We’re on our own, aren’t we?

MGE employees tell a fire department crew that they have the situation “under control” — meaning they’re sitting on their hands waiting for a backhoe — and the firefighters get on the truck and drive off. All the while, several sitting ducks, mostly JJ’s employees, go about their business having no idea what’s in store for them.

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As many of you probably suspect (or know), I don’t have a smartphone, a laptop or an iPad. Many times when I’m away, as a result, I don’t have regular access to the Internet and don’t get my full quotient of news.

So, what I sometimes do is have someone save all our home-delivered copies of The Star and The New York Times. Then, when I get back, I go through them at my leisure.

And so it went with last week’s trip to the Bay Area: A big stack of orange (The Star) and blue (NYT) bags were perched on the kitchen counter when we returned Sunday night, and I’ve spent parts of the last few days leafing through the papers. I focused on The Star because the national and international news are more readily available on the road.

As I read, I made note of several stories that caught my attention for one reason or another.

Here, then, are few JimmyC-tagged stories from editions of last week’s KC  Star:

Monday, March 18: “As red-light citations drop, speeders may be next target.”

The gist of this story, written by City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley was that the red-light-camera system installed at various intersections over the last several years has been so successful at reducing red-light running and T-bone crashes that city officials are thinking about deploying cameras aimed at catching people speeding.

The irony of this story is that in January 2012, The Star let itself get swept up in an effort by the Police Department to undercut the red-light-camera program. The Star ran — as an A-1, centerpiece — a story in which police officials essentially contended that the program was a failure because it had triggered an increase in rear-end crashes because of people supposedly jamming on the brakes to avoid running lights.

The story was way off base, and The Star was forced to clarify it in a follow-up a day or two after the first story…And what, you ask, could have motivated the Police Department to try to jettison the program? Simple, it takes department employees a lot of time to process the images and send out the thousands of citations the system generates. In other words, it’s a big inconvenience.

Now, the whole truth and nothing but has come out: The system has worked and people driving the streets of Kansas City are a lot safer than they were before the program began.

Tuesday, March 19: “Brookside Berbiglia”

This subhead appeared above a story that is more about the evolving tenor of the Brookside shops than it is about changes at the Berbiglia store a block west of 63rd and Main.

Here’s the scoop, as brought to us by The Star’s Joyce Smith: Joe Zwillenberg, owner of the Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill, has purchased the Berbiglia building. After renovation, Berbiglia will move to the south part of the building, and a Jimmy John’s will open on the north side of the building.

Do you remember about 10 years ago when Brookside residents raised a hue and cry when reports surfaced that a Starbucks might open on Brookside Boulevard just north of 63rd Street? The locals managed to beat back the threat, and a Roasterie coffee store moved in instead.

But then, a year or two ago, a Panera was erected on the corner of 63rd and Brookside Plaza, tripping the wire for the invasion of the franchises.

So now we get a nice, black and red Jimmy John’s, which produces the worst sandwiches in the nation, in my opinion. If you take away the shredded lettuce, all you have is a thin layer of salami (or whatever), a thin slice of cheese and a slice of mealy tomato — all wedged into a disemboweled sandwich roll.

Friday, March 22: “Two Jump Off Bond Bridge”

A man in his 50s and his 29-year-old daughter committed suicide by jumping off the Bond Bridge over the Missouri River. They were holding hands. In her other arm, the daughter cradled the family’s Chihuahua.

A Chihuahua, not the Chihuahua

A Chihuahua, not the Chihuahua

Now I understand how depression can push people into such a state that they want to take their own lives. But why in the world would someone want to take the family dog with them? Was the dog suffering from terminal cancer? I doubt it. I wish that dog could have swum to shore and lived out his life with a new, more appreciative owner.

Friday, March 22: “Man gave tainted gum to women, police say.”

Uhhh, tainted…How shall I say this in a primarily family friendly blog? OK, the guy jerked off and spread his cum over pieces of chewing gum and then distributed them — on a platter — to female co-workers at a Northland grocery.

Now there’s a novel way of exerting control over women, eh?

Oh, yeah, and, like me, he’s a blogger. He goes by the handle “BlueMidnighter.” Blue, as in dirty, filthy, nasty.

No further comment.

Saturday, March 23: “Suit filed in JJ’s explosion”

A Jackson County Circuit Court lawsuit filed on behalf of six JJ’s employees named five defendants:

Missouri Gas Energy, whose workers assured Kansas City fire fighters an hour before the explosion that they had the gas leak “under control”

Heartland Midwest, the contractor that was digging in the area and punctured the gas line

Time Warner Cable, which had contracted Heartland Midwest to install fiber optic cable to the new Plaza Vista project across the street from JJ’s

— Missouri One Call, a utility-sponsored service that anyone planning to dig in the vicinity of gas lines must call before proceeding

— USIC Locating Services, a company that does the marking for most of the utilities in the Kansas City area.

Obviously, the plaintiffs are casting a broad net, as City Councilman Jim Glover told me would happen a few weeks ago.

The surprise, at least to me, is that neither the city nor the Fire Department was named. What that tells me is that the plaintiffs’ attorney, Grant L. Davis, concluded that the Fire Department was not legally culpable, even though a fire fighting crew left the scene after MGE workers assured the crew that everything was A-OK.

I’ll bet city officials emitted a communal sigh of relief after they heard the news of the filing.

I don’t think that means, however, that the city is completely off the hook: I imagine that any of the named defendants could attempt to bring the city into the lawsuit as a defendant.

It promises to be an interesting legal case to follow, so stay awake, readers!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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I and many other former Kansas City Star employees got a surprise on Tuesday when we reached the end of The Star’s excellent news story about Adele Hall’s death and found that first reporter credited with providing information was former society editor Laura Rollins Hockaday.

The surprise was not that Laura was involved. She would have been a natural for involvement in the obit, except for the fact she retired 13 years ago, after 38 years with the paper.

I jumped to the conclusion, as some other people did, that Laura had heard the news, pulled her boots on and made a beeline for the newsroom. Had that been the case, the appropriate headline for the back story would be Former society editor to the rescue!

That’s not how it unfolded, however. Today I got the story behind the story from Hockaday and Darryl Levings, who edited and assembled the A-1 story.

Hockaday said Star reporter Lisa Guttierez called her about 4:30 Monday afternoon, telling her that Hallmark had just released the news of Adele Hall’s death on Sunday in Hawaii, where she and her husband Don Hall own a home.

I can assure you that getting a call at 4:30 p.m. on a story of that magnitude is challenging and often frustrating for reporters and editors because, first, they know they’re going to be working late and, second, they know they’re going to have trouble reaching sources after business hours.

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Laura Rollins Hockaday

Hockaday said Gutierrez asked her for the names and numbers of people the reporters could try to contact. Hockaday said she provided contact information for several people, including Mary Shaw “Shawsie” Branton, a close friend of Adele, and Irvine O. Hockaday Jr., another longtime Hall family friend and the only non-Hall family member to ever serve as Hallmark CEO.

Oh, and did I mention that Laura and Irvine are first cousins?

He’s a tough man to reach…for the average person, anyway.  I know that from experience, although I once had his personal number at Hallmark and got through to him on it one time.

Getting ahold of Irvine is not difficult for Laura, however. “I gave them every phone number I had for him,” she said.

As a result, Irvine Hockaday was quoted at length. Branton also was quoted.

In addition, Laura told Gutierrez it was imperative that The Star get ahold of someone in administration at Children’s Mercy Hospital, which was the top beneficiary of Adele’s charitable and fund-raising endeavors. Thus, high in the story, The Star quoted CMH board chairman Jack Ovel as saying of Adele:

“She was quick to give others credit. She was always telling other people, ‘You are the wind beneath my wings.”

As for the rest of her contributions to the story, Laura said that the reporters used some material from an interview she had done with Adele many years ago.

In short, Laura asserted that her contributions were minimal..no big deal.

“I don’t deserve any credit at all…I was very honored to be called,” she said. Jokingly, she added, “I’m surprised they remembered that I had worked there.”

Now, here’s the other side of the back story, from Levings, the KC Star editor who assembled the 40-inch story.

Levings said The Star had in its files what is called an “advance obit” on Adele. Laura had prepared and filed it many years ago, and it sat around waiting for the inevitable day.

In an e-mail, Levings said:

“Laura’s prepared, two-page obit, sitting in our files since before she retired a decade ago, was the blueprint and safety net for our efforts. Lisa Gutierrez and Lee Kavanaugh (another reporter on the story) had it when we started. Lisa, I believe, called Laura for potential sources. Hallmark sent their three-page version, which we used to fill in some material.

“The reporters did an excellent job zeroing in on excellent sources quickly, to the point that I had more than I could use.”

So, why did Levings decide to put Hockaday’s name before the names of the three full-time reporters who were included in the credit box?

“I wanted to honor her earlier work,” Levings said.

That placement was a great and much-deserved tribute to Laura, who is a friend of mine and a loyal reader of this blog.

My take on this is that there is no substitute for institutional knowledge on stories involving notable people and major developments with links to the past. Calling Laura was a brilliant, if logical, thing to do. She had what The Star needed — longstanding civic, social and personal connections to Adele.

Bravo, then, Laura; you deserve a lot of credit.

And bravo, Kansas City Star; you gave a great lady a thorough and well-written news obituary.

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I missed President Obama’s inaugural address yesterday, but I caught the last part of the event and was excited and uplifted.

Indulge me in a few reflections and observations, if you will:

:: One of my foremost impressions of the inauguration was that it probably will be a long, long time before the nation sees a couple as handsome and appealing (appealing from the standpoint of vigor and well being) as Barack and Michelle Obama.

The day’s events were a photographer’s dream.

And how about Michelle? Wow, that woman knows how to dress! A fashion critic was quoted by CNN as saying her style is “ladylike with a twist.” The twist is that she always adds her own distinctive touch to her outfits.

My favorite photo, which appeared on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times, was this one by Times photographer Doug Mills

Barack

It perfectly captured the joy and celebration of the day.

…I know. You Republican readers are probably curling your upper lips and muttering uncharitable things about now. But how could anyone say that the first couple and their daughters Malia and Sasha did not emanate vigor and electricity?

:: Unfortunately, the inauguration wasn’t authentic from start to finish. I was shocked and appalled to learn Tuesday that a performing artist committed felony fraud.

I can almost always tell when a performer is lip-syncing, but I’ll be damned if Beyonce (accent aigu over the final “e”) didn’t slip one by me. And by almost all other viewers, I’m willing to bet.

At the end of her stirring rendition of the National Anthem, I was on my feet singing with her, just not quite as beautifully.

And then I learned today that she did, indeed, lip-sync.

What a chicken shit!

Kudos, however, to Kelly Clarkson, “American Idol” star, for her outstanding rendition — SUNG LIVE — of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  Her performance prompted Sen. Chuck Schumer, master of ceremonies, to say, “WOW!”

(Also, who can forget Aretha Franklin’s rendition of the same song four years ago at Obama’s first inauguration? And, yes, she sang it LIVE.)

As for Beyonce (accent aigu over the final “e”), I never heard her sing and never paid any attention to her before yesterday, and she’s now won a spot in my personal trash bin of overhyped musical artists.

:: I’ve got to give credit to our hometown Kansas City Star, too, for the way it played the inauguration. A photo of a smiling and ramrod straight President Obama taking the oath of office, with Michelle holding two historic Bibles in her gloved hands, swept across the front page, down to the fold.

Good call at 18th and Grand. Surely, a lot of Democrats who don’t subscribe bought copies when they saw it in the newspaper stands.

:: A couple of weeks ago, a commenter to my blog predicted that Obama would go down as “the most hated President ever.”

I replied, “More hated than Nixon???”

And now, as the nation embarks on four more years under Barack Obama, I’m going to predict that he will be long remembered for, among other things, his achievements, his even temperament, his judicious choice of words, his humanness and, finally, for bringing us the finest first lady we could possibly ask for.

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Last week, I recounted some of my favorite stories about a former KC Star Publisher Jim Hale, who died in 2003. (Here’s the link, in case you missed it.)

The post drew a lot of readers and a lot of comments. When I wrote that piece, however, I knew of at least one person in Kansas City who was a lot closer to Hale than I. And that is Mike T. White, development attorney with White Goss Bowers March Schulte & Weisenfels. Shortly after Hale arrived in Kansas City in 1977, he hired White to represent The Star in most business matters. White held the job for many years, and he developed a close personal, as well as business, relationship with Hale.

At the time I posted the blog, I sent Mike an e-mail, asking him to comment on the Hale post. He said he would, and yesterday, Christmas Day, he pulled together some of his recollections and sent them on to me as a “comment” at the end of my Hale story.

Well, it didn’t take a genius to see that Mike’s recollections deserved much higher billing than the comments section of a week-old post, so I’m taking the liberty of publishing them as a “guest blog” for your reading pleasure.

With that, Heeeeere’s Mike!

***

I met Hale in 1977, when Capital Cities Inc. brought him here from The Fort Worth Star Telegram (from which Wesley Turner, another former Star publisher, recently retired as publisher). He brought Gerald Garcia with him to serve as executive editor. Garcia’s main role was to trim excess people from the payroll to make the papers lean and mean. (Editor’s note: In one bloody day alone, Garcia herded 20 or more long-time Star editorial employees into a room and fired them. They didn’t need sympathy, though, because most left The Star as millionaires, having scored big when Cap Cities paid $2 for every $1 of Star stock they owned.)

mikeyI started representing The Star in 1979. One of my first assignments was to defend a regulatory action by the EPA against The Star because it was discovered that we (the paper) had polychlorinated biphenyls (a banned carcinogen) in some of the electrical transformers in the building.  While this was going on, I was surprised to open the paper one morning to read a story about it in which an enterprising reporter simply went around the building interviewing anyone who knew anything about it. I complained to Hale, saying “Good Lord, when you are in litigation, it’s not a good idea to have your employees talking to the other side.” He told me there was not a damned he could do about it. “If I tried to tell a reporter what to write, they’ll all quit,” he said. “You’ll just have to live with it the best you can.”

We settled the case.

When the society editor, Elsye Allison was fired, she sued for age discrimination. We tried the case to a jury in federal court. Elsye’s lawyer tried to intimate that Hale was having an affair with a young, attractive anchorwoman at one of the local television stations. She was married to another young, attractive anchorman who looked like a movie star.

I had Hale sit on the front row while she testified. That killed their theory. All I had to say about that in closing was “Really?” Afterward, Hale told me that he thought that was the first jury trial The Star had won in the last 40 years. I guess their losing streak started with the WDAF antitrust case in the 1950s. Hale always felt bad about firing Elsie, and she literally, but unintentionally, haunted him: After that trial, he said he ran into her everywhere he went and that he would see her driving down the street in her beat up, old Thunderbird.

I remember the episode that you recounted about O.J. Nelson getting fired. Actually, O.J. tells this story better than anyone, and with a great deal of self-deprecation. There was another person (I can’t remember who) involved, and both were sitting in Hale’s office when Hale said to Executive Editor Mike Waller, “And these two assholes should be fired!”

I think O.J. just kept coming to work until Hale started to speak to him again, as if nothing had happened.

I think the guy that asked you to leave the Chamber of Commerce Board meeting was Dino Agnos. Hale hated going to those meetings anyway and absolutely detested attending the dinners because everyone read their speeches. He thought if they were going to write the speeches out word for word ahead of time, they should just send them to him and he could read them in his spare time. The final straw was when they sent him a list of Chamber of Commerce members who were delinquent on their dues. He said, “They want me to call some guy that owns a body shop and tell him to pay his dues. Not gonna happen.”

He would much rather sit around and drink Usher’s Green Stripe Scotch with Charlie Price (the late Charles H. Price II, who was a former U.S. ambassador to England) and the late John Latshaw (a Kansas City investment banker and businessman who died in 2010). That went on until Hale got a little put out with Latshaw after Latshaw called to tell him that he had just bought the prize steer at the American Royal and that Hale owed him half.

Hale thought very highly of Arthur Brisbane. In 2000, when discussions began about the new production plant, Art asked me to handle the legal side. It was very clear that the paper could have saved $10 million to $15 million by building the plant in Lenexa, and Tony Ridder (Knight Ridder c.e.o.), couldn’t understand why, from a business perspective, that wasn’t a no-brainer. Art stuck doggedly to his guns, reasoning that the paper had editorialized against urban sprawl and excessive economic incentives and that it would’ve been hypocritical in the extreme to just look at the bottom line. Furthermore, the incentive package that we finally negotiated was just enough to pay for the excessive costs for building the plant where it is today — which was very difficult. I told Art I could have negotiated a better deal, but he turned it down.

I agree with you that Hale was a character and a reporter’s publisher. That comes as no surprise given that he had about every job in the newspaper business as he rose through the ranks. He was also very successful. But let’s not forget that he took over the papers at a very opportune time, when profits could be increased by adopting modern technology; eliminating The Times (the morning edition of The Star); and raising the price. Brisbane, on the other hand, had the misfortune of being at the helm when the Internet really began to take off.

Hale did two things that, while simple, exemplified his style: He had the first paper off the press delivered to his door every morning, and he signed every non-payroll check.

More later, when I get time.

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If you’re sitting around today with some time on your hands, having taken at least a day off from the usual hurly-burly of life, I recommend that you plant yourself behind a computer — or go to a grocery store that’s open and get a copy of Sunday’s New York Times — and read “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.”

It’s a sensational story, written by sports features writer John Branch, about a group of experienced and top-flight skiers and snowboarders who, early this year, let the prospect of an exciting and challenging ski run override good sense; they ended up getting caught in an avalanche that killed three of them a mountain in Washington state.

The story was months in the making, and here’s the twist: It was done, first and foremost, with the Web in mind. It started on the Web site last Thursday and concluded a day later, I believe.

The story integrates video, photos, graphics and personal profiles of the main players like that has never been done before by a newspaper. Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic Wire Web said the project “makes multimedia feel natural and useful, not just tacked on.”

I saw the story on The Times’ home page last Thursday and realized from a glance at the title and a full-screen video of snow blowing off a mountain side that it was probably going to be very captivating. I resisted the urge, however, to jump into the Web version because I simply don’t like to read extremely lengthy stories online, while sitting at my desk.

On Sunday, The Times published a 14-page, special section with the story and accompanying photos and graphics. When opened, the entire front and back pages of the section depicted the back side of Cowboy Mountain — a so-called “backcountry” skiing area — where the disaster took place. A teaser at the bottom right-hand side of the front page said, “A group of world-class skiers and snowboarders set out to ski Tunnel Creek. Then the mountain moved.”

It took me at least a couple of hours to read and absorb the story and accompanying features, but the time flew by. Like a good writer can do, Branch transported me to Cowboy Mountain and I wanted to stay there until the drama had played all the way out.

johnbranch

John Branch

I couldn’t remember having read anything by Branch, but when I ran him through Google, I found that late last year he had written another in-depth feature called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” That story, which ran over four days, tracked the career and related death of hockey player named Derek Boogaard. (I remember the series clearly, but I didn’t read it.)

Telling one interviewer how he got Boogard’s family to cooperate with him in doing the story, Branch said: “I committed to doing it right, taking time, and I told them we would probably put more resources into this than any other sports story this year.”

That was 2011…Well, he did it again this year — in an even bigger way — and the readers are the beneficiaries.

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Last week, I mentioned that the late Jim Hale was the last truly high-profile publisher of The Star. (Apologies to Art Brisbane, who entered the publisher’s job with a profile that he had molded during his days as a columnist.)

If you knew Hale, you know he was quite a character. When he retired from The Star in 1992, after 15 years as publisher, he left a lot of friends and a trail of stories behind. One the things that endeared people to Hale was his easy-going, loose manner, if you will. Also, he had an endearing southern drawl that he brought with him from his native east Texas.

Hale wasn’t a bit stuffy, his door was open to everyone, and he always had time to chat, when approached. As his slow gait indicated, he never seemed to be in a hurry. You knew he had everything under control, and he delegated exceptionally well. He appointed good people to upper management jobs, and he mostly stayed out of their way.

I was lucky enough to have established a relationship, of sorts, with Hale. Whenever I felt the need or the urge, I’d go up to his third-floor office and take up with him whatever issue was on my mind. He was always receptive.

jimhaleWith that, I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite memories of Hale, who died in 2003.

— One or our top editors was Michael (O.J.) Nelson, who recently retired as editor of the Lincoln Journal Star in Lincoln, Neb. O.J. admired Hale so much that he patterned himself after Hale, right down to walking with shoulders hunched forward, his head slightly preceding the rest of his body. It looked odd, because where Hale was kind of dumpy and had a beer gut, O.J. was slender and had no excuse for bad posture.

At any rate, O.J. was a nervous, smothering type of editor who was always worried that he might be exposed as dispensable, so he worked very hard at seeming to be indispensable. On one occasion, there was a big screw-up in the features department, which O.J. headed, and Hale blew his top. He did that occasionally, but it was hard to tell when he was really mad and when he was just blowing smoke for effect.

As I recall, Hale either told O.J. he was fired or that he was going to be fired. That put O.J. into a frenzy. However, executive editor Mike Waller then stepped in — he knew Hale front and backward and was his equal in histrionics — and went into Hale’s office to talk him down. “If you’re going to fire O.J. you’re going to fire me, too,” he told Hale.

With that, Hale became quiet and turned his attention to other matters…And O.J. was able to continue his very successful career at The Star.

—   One time when I was City Hall reporter (’85-’95), an editor either sent me to cover a board meeting of the Chamber of Commerce or I went on my own because they were taking up an issue that was on my radar. I walked into the meeting in one of the downtown office buildings and got myself a nice, leather-upholstered chair at the big table. About 20 civic big shots were gathered around, and one was Hale, who was on the board. I gave him a smile and a wave, he reciprocated.

Shortly after the meeting got underway, I notice that a few people were engaged in some whispered conversations with one of the board members, who was the manager at KMBC-TV, Channel 9, I believe.

Pretty soon, the station manager came around and asked me to step outside. In the lobby, he apologized for the interruption but told me that board meetings were closed to the press and that, unfortunately, I’d have to leave. I was taken aback but not totally surprised because I’d never been to a Chamber board meeting and didn’t know the drill.

As I recall, I was still in the elevator lobby when Hale emerged from the meeting and came up to me and said something like, “I’m leaving, too. If the place isn’t good enough for you, it’s not good enough for me, either.”

Of course, I was thrilled that the publisher had backed me up. It had to take some courage to get up and walk out of a meeting with some of the most powerful c.e.o.’s in Kansas City. Later, Hale wrote a letter to the Chamber expressing his chagrin at my ouster. I’ll never forget, too, that in the letter he referred to me as “one of our most competent reporters.”

Again, I appreciated the back-up, but from that point on, I thought that perhaps I wasn’t the hotshot that I envisioned myself. I was just competent.

— Around the same period, as I would return to The Star building at 18th and Grand from City Hall, I saw that our dark-brick building was looking very shabby because the green paint on the big window frames had faded and was peeling. I always took pride in our building and wanted it to look first class, in keeping with the paper’s standing in the community.

I marched up to Hale’s office one day, sat down and said, “Jim, our building looks like hell; the windows need painting.”

He laughed and said he’d see what he could do. It was no small project, of course, because it’s a large, three-story building with probably 100 or more windows, each of which is about six feet tall and three or four feet wide.

Within weeks, work crews were out there scraping and painting, and the building regained its eminent appearance.

A few weeks later, I was chatting with Scott Whiteside, who was our in-house attorney and sort of Haley’s right-hand man. Laughing, Whiteside remarked that I was “the most powerful reporter” at The Star because I had been able to initiate a job, not budgeted, that cost the company thousands of dollars.

— One more quickie. Back in the late 80s, I think it was, we had what would have been the first offer of buyouts. Of course, I was many years from being eligible, but it caught my attention because I heard that our architecture critic (yes, we had one back then), Donald Hoffmann — a brilliant writer and critic — intended to take the buyout, while another, much inferior, arts department writer — also eligible — meant to stay.

Once again I marched into Hale’s office. “If Donald Hoffmann leaves and so-and-so stays,” I said, “it’s a miscarriage of journalism.”

Hale leaned back and laughed and said: “There’s nothing I can do about it, Fitz. The offer is out there for anyone who is eligible, and legally we can’t pick and choose.”

As it came to pass, Hoffmann retired and the other writer stayed on.

I didn’t win that battle, but I dearly wished Hoffmann had stayed. For, to me, that was the day The Star started to go downhill.

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