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Two and a half years ago, The Star proudly heralded the hiring of Colleen McCain Nelson as a company vice president and editor of the editorial page.

The lead of reporter Mark Davis’ story on Aug. 23, 2016 went like this…

“The Kansas City Star has hired Colleen McCain Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, to lead its editorial page — just as soon as she finishes covering the U.S. presidential race for The Wall Street Journal.”

Big stuff, indeed, and until late last month everything went as smoothly as possible for Nelson and her freshly scrubbed and expanded editorial page.

But then along came what will long be known down at 16th and McGee as “the Steve Rose column.”

The column where Rose, a weekly presence on the Op-Ed page, sent in a tortured and illogical account of why the Kansas Legislature had failed to expand Medicaid and blamed it all on state Sen. Jim Denning, the Kansas Senate president.

Rose tried to conduct the character assassination anonymously, by not using Denning’s name, but Nelson rightly informed Rose the column needed attribution.

Unfortunately, that’s the only thing Nelson did right in this journalistic debacle.

In what is certainly one of the most shocking and irresponsible editing jobs I have seen in all my years in and around journalism, Nelson edited the column ping-pong style via email. The column triggered a libel suit that has The Star’s lawyers working furiously to avoid an ignominious legal loss.

…My good friend Dan Margolies of KCUR-FM, laid out the editorial recklessness in a story on his station’s website today.

Here’s how Dan described the key elements of the editing job…

In a sworn affidavit, The Star’s editorial page editor, Colleen McCain Nelson, says that Rose’s original version of the column did not identify Denning by name, instead referring to him only as “(my) Kansas Senate friend.”

Nelson told Rose that, consistent with The Star’s Code of Ethics, he needed to identify the source of the statements in his column, according to her affidavit.

Rose then responded via email: “Ok, it’s State Sen. Jim Denning of Overland Park.”

Nelson emailed Rose back and asked: “So, I can attribute all of this to Denning? Add his name throughout?”

Rose responded: “He said it all, so, yes.”

**

Colleen Nelson

Astonishingly, Nelson apparently never bothered to pick up the phone and try to resolve some very serious questions. Moreover, she knew better than anyone that Rose did not like Denning and had skewered him in print just nine months earlier.

Nelson’s journalistic instincts failed her. I can understand that she might have sent an email asking, “Who’s the source.” But when Rose wrote back it was Denning, Nelson’s hand should have been on her phone instantly.

Had Nelson picked up the phone and probed, Rose’s “story” would have collapsed. She would have killed the column; would have seen Rose was trying to blow one by her; and probably would have ended up firing him. Instead, The Star is now on total defense and is paying lawyers tens of thousands of dollars to defend a libel suit.

**

I’ve said before how much I admire Nelson and what a good job she has done rebuilding that formerly decrepit editorial page. She will probably survive this, but I imagine she and Publisher Tony Berg have had some tough discussions recently.

No matter how good you are and how many Pulitzers you’ve won, getting stories and columns right is where a paper rises or falls. We’ve all seen the other parts of The Star deteriorating, and this debacle is going to cost the editorial board and Colleen Nelson some credibility.

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Knee replacement No. 2 (the left) is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. tomorrow. I had the right one done in July 2016, so I have a good idea of what to expect — which is basically three weeks of hell.

One of the things that irks me about surgeries is the early arrival times many doctors and hospitals set. I was told to arrive at 5:30 a.m. That means I’ll be getting up about 4:30.

I’ve concluded the only reason for the two-hour advance arrival is in case the surgeon has insomnia and decides to go in and do the first surgery at 6:30 instead of 7:30.

I wonder how often that happens…

**

You’ll want to know the latest developments in the David Jungerman murder case.

I wrote in December that Jungerman, charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of Kansas City lawyer Thomas Pickert, had requested a mental competency evaluation. I also said I suspected that would push back the scheduled Feb. 25 trial date.

There’s been a flurry of activity since then, and, yep, a judge granted the motion for a mental exam and canceled the Feb. 25 trial date.

In addition, the Jackson County Circuit Court judge who had been handling the case, David Byrn, has handed the case off to another judge, John Torrence. I don’t know the reason for the change, but I hope it works out well for the prosecution. From what I saw of Byrn, he appeared very competent. I know nothing about Torrence. As usual, the judge will play a pivotal role. The defense’s best chance, as I see it, is prosecutorial or judicial error, that is, prevailing on a technicality. It’s extremely important, in this case especially, the trial be free of major error.

The change of judge came as a surprise to me. Another development did not. On Jan. 23, Jungerman filed a motion seeking to dismiss his attorney, Dan Ross. The next day, however, Ross filed a motion to withdraw that motion. To the best of my knowledge, Ross remains Jungerman’s attorney.

Jungerman has always had a short fuse when it comes to his attorneys, and his basic inclination is to represent himself, which he did in the case that resulted in a $5.75 million verdict against him for shooting a man he thought was stealing from his business. It was Pickert who represented the plaintiff and Pickert whom Jungerman held responsible for the loss of his money. Where Jungerman started out just being dumb, he moved on to being reckless and violent.

**

Tragedy has once again struck the Deffenbaugh family. An obituary ran in The Star today for Ronald D. Deffenbaugh Jr., son of Ronald Sr., who founded and developed Deffenbaugh Industries, one of the largest waste management companies in the country.

The obit said Ron Jr. died as a result of a house fire that burned much of his body. He lived in Lake Lotawana and was 59 years old. The fire is believed to have started because Deffenbaugh was smoking while on an in-home oxygen tank. Other people in the house, all of whom got out safely, heard a loud noise and found Deffenbaugh on fire.

Many of you will recall that Ron Sr. suffered a broken neck in a fall from a hospital X-ray table in 2007, when he was 66. The accident left him a quadriplegic. He died in 2014, at age 73, as a result of complications from the accident.

**

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is planning to abolish proposed payday-loan rules that would have offered much greater protection to borrowers. The new rules, announced during the Obama administration, were to have taken effect later this year. The course reversal was put in motion by Mick Mulvaney when he was director of the CFPB, before he became President Trump’s chief of staff.

Mulvaney

An Associated Press story said Mulvaney received tens of thousands of collars in political contributions from the payday lending industry when he was a congressman from South Carolina.

…The back scratching continues among the big boys, at the expense of the people Trump was able to convince needed his helping hand.

Fortunately, this shouldn’t affect the prison sentences of payday lending tycoon Scott Tucker and his attorney, Tim Muir, who were convicted in 2017 of assembling a $2 billion payday loan enterprise that charged borrowers illegal and outrageous interest rates. Tucker, of Leawood, was sentenced to more than 16 years in federal prison. Muir was sentenced to seven years.

That’s all I’ve got today…I’ll be back when the fog from the painkillers has lifted and I’m able to sit at my desk for a spell.

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An industry in disarray

News about the newspaper industry is swirling faster and choppier than ice cubes in a Waring Blender.

Let me give you the headlines…

:: The McClatchy Co., which owns The Star, is offering to buy out 450 staff members throughout its downward-spiraling, 29-paper “empire.”

Forman

:: At the same time, McClatchy CEO Craig Forman is getting an increase of $30,000 a month in his allowance for travel, housing, office and security. (Security, you say? Well, a guy who is getting raises while eliminating hundreds of jobs probably should be sleeping with one eye open.)

:: Gannett, the original strip-mining newspaper chain, has officially rejected the purchase offer tendered last month by another down-and-dirty chain, Media News Group (MNG), also known as Digital First Media. If Gannett and MNG end up together, God help the employees of each company.

Now, a closer look…

McClatchy buyouts

I only know two conditions of the buyouts: Employees must be at least 55, and applications must be submitted by Feb. 19.

Spreading the 450 across nearly 30 newspapers would mean an average of 15 employees. With The Kansas City Star as the chain’s flagship holding, however, I would think it could lose as many as 50 employees company wide. The Star has gone from more than 2,000 employees in 2006 to about 250 now. With these buyouts, The Star could end up with fewer than 200 employees bouncing off the walls of the sorry green giant at 1601 McGee.

I envision a stampede to submit the paperwork. Reporters who would likely qualify include Judy Thomas, Laura Bauer, Rick Montgomery, Mark Davis, Glenn Rice, Tony Rizzo, Eric Adler, Lynn Horsley, Mara Rose Williams, Mike Hendricks and Matt Campbell. (I apologize to any longtime reporters I overlooked.) Those are all familiar names, and they comprise the backbone of the reporting corps. If you think the paper is in bad shape now, wait ’til after this buyout. The cancellation rate of the print edition — which, I feel confident, continues to produce a majority of the revenue — will probably double.

Craig Forman’s pay

A story posted Tuesday on the Columbia Journalism Review’s website said Forman’s take-home pay in 2017 was $1.7 million, excluding restricted stock. The story goes on to say…

“His newest contract with the company, dated January 25, 2019, includes a base pay of $1 million, a bonus of $1 million, and an additional $35,000 monthly stipend…This monthly stipend alone, which is up from $5,000 in his previous contract, could fund several reporters’ salaries every year.”

Mary Ellen Klas

A gutsy McClatchy employee, Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau chief, was quoted in the story as saying, “These decisions about layoffs lead me to question: ‘What other choices do you have? What sacrifices are others making at the highest parts of the chain?’ “

I don’t know what former KC Star publisher Mark Zieman’s contract calls for this year, but for 2017 his total McClatchy compensation was $1,120,112, including a bonus of $218,781.

…Forman, Zieman and the handful of other McClatchy executives holed up in Sacramento should be ashamed of themselves. They should offer to take salary cuts and should offer to make their bonuses contingent on McClatchy’s financial performance: As long as company revenue and profits are falling, their compensation should follow suit. Of course, that’s not how it has gone in any industry the last decade or two.

…This company is more of a disaster every day. Those who are eligible for buyouts should take them, and young employees should start looking elsewhere as soon as they get a year or two of experience under their belts.

Gannett rejects MNG

Last month, MNG/Digital First offered $12 a share to purchase Gannett, which publishes USA Today, the Louisville Courier-Journal, The Tennessean and about 100 other daily papers. Gannett is vulnerable partly because it lost about 18 percent of its market value during 2018. It, too, has been trying to cut its way to profitability, and it will be going through a leadership change in the spring, when CEO Robert Dickey is stepping down.

MNG’s co-founder was a scrounger named William Dean Singleton, who gobbled up dozens of smaller papers in California in the 1980s and 1990s. Following the Gannett model, he proceeded to cut staffing and wring as much revenue as possible out of his papers. The company bought four McClatchy papers and the Denver Post before going into bankruptcy in 2010. After emerging from bankruptcy, a hedge fund named Alden Global Capital bought a major stake in MNG and maneuvered Singleton out of the picture. Alden now owns slightly more than 50 percent of the stock.

Alden is even more ruthless than Singleton. If MBG should succeed with a hostile takeover, the media landscape would be littered with even more bodies.

**

Where will all this activity lead?

Four major newspaper companies are now in play for sale, consolidation or, possibly, bankruptcy. They are McClatchy, Gannett, MNG and Tribune Publishing, which owns the Chicago Tribune and several other large daily papers.

Any of those companies could end up combined…and not one combination looks good for the long-term viability of newspapers.

The best scenario, from my perspective, pertains to Tribune. A former hedge fund executive named Will Wyatt is leading a bid to take over Tribune with the aim of breaking up the chain and selling its parts.

If that happened, we could see some Tribune papers like the Orlando Sentinel, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant up for grabs by local investors. It could prove to be a smart move by Wyatt because recent history has shown some investors have been willing to pay a premium for their hometown papers.

That, of course, is where I’d like to see McClatchy end up — broken apart, with some of its major pieces (particularly The Star) bought by local people who value the role of newspapers and believe that with proper nurturing they can be returned to local favor and profitability. It’s not out of the question; it’s just hard to pull into focus at this point.

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Even though I lived part of my life in the era before African-Americans were afforded equal rights under federal law (the 1964 Civil rights Act), I am continually amazed and appalled when I read stories and books about the outrageous inequities that took place before and after that.

How could that have happened in America in my lifetime? I ask myself.

I’m sure most of you have asked yourselves the same question from time to time, as you’ve read or heard about atrocities committed against African-Americans.

Serrano

Rick Serrano, who worked at The Star from 1972 to 1987 and then went on to have an outstanding career at the Los Angeles Times, has written a shocking and dramatic book about events that took place in our area in the 1950s and 1960s.

The book is Summoned at Midnight: A Story of Race and the Last Military Executions at Fort Leavenworth. Published by Beacon Press, Boston, it will be available starting tomorrow and can be pre-ordered now. (Rainy Day Books in Fairway ordered four copies initially.)

The precise “scene of the crimes” was Fort Leavenworth’s United State Disciplinary Barracks (U.S.D.B.), where male members of the U.S. Armed Forces convicted of serious crimes have been incarcerated for more than a century.

Between 1955 and 1961, the Army hanged eight black soldiers at the disciplinary barracks. During the same period, each of the eight white soldiers condemned to death were spared by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Army or the federal courts. And eventually all were paroled and set free.

As Serrano described the inherent unfairness in his book…

“Black soldiers around the nation were treated to a different system of army justice. That simply was how army life had always been, how all the black recruits imagined it would be. The long arm of the law swung heavily against them; the scales of justice tipped the other way. And sometimes that reality could have devastating consequences.”

The macrocosmic story unfolds in the course of the microcosmic story of a young black soldier from Virginia named John Arthur Bennett. While stationed in Austria after World War II, Bennett, then 18, raped an 11-year-old Austrian girl, threw her in a creek and left her for dead. He was summarily convicted of rape and attempted murder at a court martial and sent to Fort Leavenworth to be executed…No matter that the girl survived, that Austria had no death penalty (its maximum sentence for rape was 20 years) or that the girl and her parents were contacted and did not object to Bennett’s sentence being commuted.

Bennett

Serrano intersperses Bennett’s story with condensed versions of other condemned soldiers’ experiences, but Bennett’s dilemma is never far from mind. As the book progresses, a gut-wrenching tension develops: Will his sentence be commuted, or will he hang? The case dragged through Eisenhower’s second term and into the start of John F. Kennedy’s.

It was Kennedy who had the final say.

**

Serrano, a Kansas City native, spent about two years researching and writing the book. In writing the book, he relied mostly on interviews, transcripts and archived material. Among the archived material were “voluminous” U.S.D.B. documents chronicling Bennett’s years on death row. The seeds for the book were planted decades before Serrano began writing, however. In an interview, he recalled how he listened with fascination to a longtime Star editor and reporter telling him in the 1970s about having witnessed an execution at Fort Leavenworth.

“The Castle,” as the old U.S.D.B. was known

Of particular interest to residents in our area, the book contains rich history about the founding of Fort Leavenworth and the development of the disciplinary barracks, known as “The Castle” before it was replaced by a new prison in 2004.

Serrano opens the chapter about the fort’s establishment with this captivating line, “The man who gave his name to the old fort died chasing a small buffalo.”

That man was Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth, whom the Army dispatched in 1827 to find a location for a new army encampment in the fast-opening West. He settled on a spot high above the west bank of the Missouri River just before, as Serrano describes it, the river “makes its mighty swerve east.”

Leavenworth

After being promoted to brigadier general, Leavenworth set out with 400 soldiers in 1834 to subdue native warriors in the Southwest. It was his final assignment. Many of his men took fever, and when he showed up in a hospital wagon it appeared he himself had contracted malaria. But as he was dying (at age 50), he said his horse had tripped in a gopher hole as he was attempting to lasso a calf. “I have killed myself in running down that devilish calf,” he said.

In addition to absorbing the reader with the stories about the disciplinary barracks and the black/white disparity, Serrano’s descriptive, punchy writing often delights the ear and disturbs the mind. Consider this paragraph about the conditions on death row, deep in the bowels of the disciplinary barracks…

“On death row, they wrestled with daily fears. Floor rats scurried under their beds. Night thunder and bolts of lightning banged against the windows. Food was cold and the Kansas summers scorching. News from home was fleeting. The next execution hovered constantly at the edge of their thoughts. Whenever a hanging date arrived, army boots came stomping down the death row hallway.”

And this…

“Bennett took months to adjust to the routine of life on death row. Six years later, he would be the last prisoner still there, white or black. And in all that time, prisoners and guards alike long remembered Bennett’s first night in his cell near the green door that offered death or salvation. The other prisoners stayed up late, listening quietly. They could hear him sobbing for hours. By morning, when the sun peeked in the windows and the peacocks shrieked, Bennett had chewed his pillow in half.”

Those sentences are straight out of the Hemingway school of writing.

**

Serrano is one of many KC Star reporters who have gone on to have great success at larger papers. Before retiring from the LA Times in 2015, Serrano covered the FBI and the Department of Justice. Big stories he covered included the Rodney King beating and riots, the Oklahoma City and Sept. 11 terror attacks and school shootings in Colorado, Virginia and Connecticut. He shared in three Pulitzer prizes, including one the Times won for coverage of the Rodney King-related stories.

Summoned at Midnight is Serrano’s fifth book. The others are…

— One of Ours: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing

— Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War

— American Endurance: Buffalo Bill, the Great Cowboy Race of 1893, and the Vanishing Wild West

— My Grandfather’s Prison: A Story of Death and Deceit in 1940s Kansas City

Serrano lives in Fairfax, VA, with his wife Elise. They have three grown children, who all live in the D.C. area.

**

Congratulations to my former colleague on his latest book. It deserves to sell well, and I hope it does. It’s a great read and a strong reminder that we have to be diligent, now and always, about equity in race relations. The injustices that have been perpetrated on so many fronts — the lynchings, the exorbitant prison sentences, the church bombings, the hurtful and hateful language — have been horrendous. We can never forget. We must do better.

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Well, Happy Super Bowl Sunday, everybody!

As you saw from this morning’s Kansas City Star, it’s a great day to be a Chiefs’ fan — even if the Chiefs aren’t in the big game in Atlanta.

Funny thing, though…you’d hardly know the Super Bowl was being played today if you were just relying on The Star.

The front pages of the last remaining “live” sections of the paper were, uh, papered over with images of Chiefs’ Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who was voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player yesterday.

In case you’re among the two million area residents who DO NOT get the print subscription, check it out…

Pretty exciting stuff, for sure…But more in the nature of blockbuster news to me was this announcement well back inside the “A” section…

As of Monday, The Kansas City Star will be changing its name to The Kansas City Sporting Star. In these challenging economic times, we have decided to bulk up our sports coverage and believe the name change, while significant, is appropriate. Specifically, we will now give you day-to-day, year-round coverage of the Chiefs. (For example, look for our story soon about Pat Mahomes buying a $2 million house in the Ward Parkway area. We’ll have exclusive, interior photos!) At the same time, we pledge that our end-zone-to-end-zone coverage of Missouri and Kansas news will not diminish one iota. In fact, we are considering hiring a new local reporter in 2020. Finally, we thank you for your loyal support and hope you will call us and let us know how you like the change. Call takers in India are standing by.

That certainly is some big news, eh? But I’ll let you in on something, there’s more. My kick-ass sources (who will never be named and who have proved to be right about 60 percent of the time) have told me five other changes will be taking place at 1601 McGee in the coming months and years:

:: Former Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is in line to be named director of audience development. (That’s circulation, for those of you still living in the pre-Internet era.) At a party, Sutton was overheard to say, “I don’t see a down side to taking this job.”

:: Former Chiefs’ place kicker and Mission Hills resident Jan Stenerud will replace the recently departed Steve Rose as Kansas-side “guest columnist.” (I understand that where Rose was getting $100 a column, Jan will be bumped up to $125.)

:: During the off seasons, Chiefs’ linebacker Dee Ford will be in charge of aligning bi-state coverage of Missouri and Kansas athletics.

:: Also during the off seasons, Kansas City Star Editor Mike Fannin and Chiefs’ General Manager Brett Veitch will be swapping jobs. (This is an especially good fit for Fannin, who was sports editor before becoming editor.)

:: The Star’s corporate owner, McClatchy Co., has secured a pledge from Chiefs’ Coach Andy Reid to become publisher of the paper upon his retirement from football. After a handshake deal was concluded, Reid was reported to have said, “Listen, it’s hard to get to the top in any business, but I’m going to get there with one Kansas City company or another.”

…Meanwhile, out at Mount Washington Cemetery, the ground was reported to be rocking under the Gothic Tutor mausoleum where KC Star founder William Rockhill Nelson’s body is entombed.

Hang on, Rocky, the times they are a changin’.

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Officers of the unlawful

I wrote last month about the Kansas City Police Department’s embarrassment at the abject breakdown a few years ago in the children’s unit, where many investigators basically stopped working, with then-Chief Darryl Forte apparently turning a blind eye.

Well, as bad as that was, we can be thankful we haven’t experienced some of the problems the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has encountered.

Most recently, a 29-year-old officer shot and killed a 24-year-old female officer during a variation of a Russian roulette game.

This situation defies logic and imagination…

While Officer Nathaniel R. Hendren was at home but on duty early on Jan. 24, he and an off-duty officer named Katlyn Alix got to “playing with a gun,” as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it.

“According to the statement of probable cause, Hendren and Alix were playing with firearms. Hendren took all the bullets out of a revolver and then put one back in. He spun the cylinder, pointed it away and pulled the trigger.

“The gun did not fire, court records say. Alix then took the gun, pointed it at Hendren and pulled the trigger. Hendren then took the gun again and pulled the trigger. This time it fired, striking Alix in the chest.”    

Katlyn Alix

Hendren is now charged with involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action. In addition, police say Hendren and his partner, who had left the room just before the fatal shot was fired, had consumed alcoholic beverages while on-duty.

Alix’s funeral was held Wednesday.

Other St. Louis police problems in recent years, according to the Post-Dispatch…

:: Four officers were indicted on federal charges in connection with the beating of an undercover officer during protests in St. Louis in 2017 and were alleged to have mistreated protesters.

:: Four former officers were charged with taking bribes from a chiropractor’s wife in return for nonpublic accident reports the chiropractor used to solicit new patients.

:: The St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office blacklisted 28 officers in 2018, banning them from bringing cases to the office for charges.

…Protect and serve? Not much.

**

There was a touch of irony in The Star’s story Thursday about Stark Pharmacy being ordered to pay $9.5 million to settle a federal health care fraud lawsuit.

Star reporter Andy Marso didn’t note the irony, probably because he didn’t know about it or didn’t have space. In any event, Stark — now under different ownership — was the pharmacy that bought out pharmacist Robert Courtney after Courtney was convicted of diluting cancer drugs and, in the process, making millions of dollars and contributing to the deaths of some patients.

Robert Courtney

He began diluting drugs in 1992 and was exposed by a pharmaceutical company salesman in 2001. Courtney was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. He’s incarcerated in Texas, and his earliest possible release date, according to Wikipedia, is November 2027, when he will be 75 years old.

Pharmacist Howard Stark stepped in, bought out Courtney and ran the operation until 2000, when he sold it. The current managing partners — the ones who will have to pay up — are Steven Baraban, Gary Gray and Steven Schafer.

The development has left Howard Stark fighting to keep his good name. Marso quoted him as saying, “I am in no way connected, financially or anything, since 2000.”

**

The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, ran an interesting interview last week with Jill Abramson, who, in 2011, became the first woman executive editor of The New York Times. She was fired three years later, primarily because she turned out to be a poor manager. She now has a book out titled Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution, in which she writes about the newspaper industry being turned upside down in the last decade or so.

One of the questions the Guardian put to Abramson was whether President Trump was “the savior of news.”

Abramson responded: “The trouble is that not every news organization has witnessed a Trump bump. He has been a bonanza for cable and the best national newspapers. But the bleak part of the picture is the death of local papers. The fact that there are state capitals with very few or no watchdogs directed at them is a terrible development for citizens. It weakens our democracy.”

Regarding the shift away from giving “equal weight” to both sides of stories relating to Trump, Abramson said…

“(T)hat’s been torn away. I think the willingness to call him (Trump) out – the Times has used the word “lie” – is a healthy thing. The duty of journalism is to supply readers with the truth.”

…With Trump’s constant bloviating, that’s hard to do. The wall of shame that the nation’s best papers — The Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — have built around Trump is one he’d like to knock down. So far, he’s losing that wall battle, too.

Jill Abramson

Note: Thanks to Jim North, my good friend and longtime neighbor (on the last street we lived one and the current one), for sending along the link to The Guardian story.

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Back when I was fingering David Jungerman as the likely killer of Kansas City lawyer Thomas Pickert — months before Jungerman was arrested and charged — a former Kansas City Star reporter was going around telling people I was open to being sued for libel.

The former reporter, with whom I worked during my forgettable 16-month stint in The Star’s former Johnson County bureau, was right about only one thing: I was open to being sued. Anybody is open to being sued. But there’s no way in hell Jungerman could have won.

Same is true in the case of Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, who on Monday sued former part-time, Kansas City Star columnist Steve Rose for libel.

I say former columnist because Rose resigned faster than it takes to write, “I’m sorry.”

The speed of Rose’s resignation might lead some people to think Denning might be able to prevail in a libel suit…That and the facts The Star is not defending the column and has now pulled it from its online inventory.

(The Star first published a relatively short Associated Press story about the lawsuit on its website and later published a more fleshed-out version by Jonathan Shorman of the Wichita Eagle. Neither story is played prominently, however; I had to search by name to find the first one; the second is well down in the drop-down list of local news stories.)

But, no…Denning, mainly because he is a public figure, has virtually no chance to prevail if the lawsuit goes forward. I’m sure he knows it, and I’m sure his attorney, Michael J. Kuckelman of Overland Park, also knows it.

In filing the suit Denning probably wanted two things: Rose’s resignation and a public apology from Rose and The Star.

He’s already got the first part, and the speed with which this is developing indicates he’ll very likely get the second.

In the column, which ran online and in Saturday’s print edition, Rose said Denning had “finally confessed to me” a few reasons that he has opposed Medicaid expansion in Kansas.

Among other things, Rose wrote: “The senator said he resents able-bodied Kansans, regardless of their income, who abuse the system by accepting free medical care when they refuse to work.”

Kind of condescending and snarky, right, if he said that?

In his lawsuit, Denning alleges two things: He did not make any of the statements Rose attributed to him and he and Rose had not spoken in two and a half years.

Rose admitted to Shorman — who wrote the more recent KC Star story — that he had not spoken to Denning since April 2018 and that it was even before then that Denning had made the statements he attributed to Denning in Saturday’s column…So much for “finally” confessing, eh? 

Denning’s lawsuit indicates he has some idea of what went on within The Star relative to how the column developed. His petition asserts that when Rose initially submitted the column for publication, he did not attribute the statements to any specific elected official.

The suit says: “One of the Kansas City Star editors instructed Rose to attribute the comments to some elected officials. Rose was up against a deadline. He was under pressure to obtain a source for the statements he conjured up (and)…under the deadline pressure, Rose gave the editor the name of Senator Denning, though in reality, Rose had not interviewed Senator Denning for the article.”

Denning apparently got his knowledge about how the column might have developed from his chief of staff, Ethan Patterson, who exchanged emails with Rose on Saturday, after publication.

**

Let’s make a quantum jump here and assume everything Denning alleges in his lawsuit is correct — and I doubt it is because Rose just can’t be that stupid. But even if what he says is so, Denning doesn’t have a libel case.

In both Missouri and Kansas, to defame a public figure — as Denning most certainly is (and Jungerman is and was) — what is written or spoken must…

:: Be false

:: Cause material harm to the plaintiff or damaged his or her reputation

:: Have been written or spoken with “actual malice”

A key standard for malice is showing that the writer or speaker not only put out false information but did so with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

On count 1, Denning would have difficulty proving that he never made any of the statements to Rose that Rose attributed to him.

On count 2, he would have difficulty proving that Rose’s statements caused him material harm or damaged his reputation.

On count 3, it would be almost impossible for him to prove that Rose deliberately and maliciously made up the statements he attributed to him.

**

On the other hand…

This whole thing probably will be a big black eye for The Star, in an era when the newspaper industry has been fading and public favor with newspapers have been sliding for more than a decade.

The situation looks especially bad for The Star’s seven-member editorial board, which produces the editorial page and the Op-Ed page, and particularly for Editorial Page Editor and KC Star Vice President Colleen McCain Nelson.

I regret that because, as I’ve written, the editorial page has been one of the few bright spots in recent years. After becoming publisher three years ago, Tony Berg fired the only editorial writer still on the staff, Yael Abouhalkah, and set about reconstructing the editorial board and page. It was a bold and laudable move because many papers, in the interests of saving money, have allowed their editorial pages to go the way of dead flowers. Berg went against the grain and invested heavily on that front, and it paid off.

Colleen McCain Nelson

But Nelson, a fine person and excellent journalist, will survive this. Whoever edited Rose’s column should have pressed him on when, exactly, he interviewed Denning, and maybe even asked him to produce his notes. Nelson’s overarching sin, however, was allowing someone who was not a full-time staff member to write a regular, weekly column. I presume Rose was paid by the column, which makes him a free lancer.

Free lancers are inherently more problematic than full-time staff members because managers have less control and contact with them — elements that are essential in the development of ideas and the actual line-by-line editing.

I don’t know who edited Rose’s columns. Maybe it was Nelson. Maybe it was someone else. Maybe it was whoever was available on a given week. Whatever the case, you can bet we will not see any more free-lance columnists appearing regularly on the Op-Ed page.

Not only that, but the copy submitted by all editorial page writers will be getting a lot more scrutiny. The editorial-page editing lid is about to be tightened quite a bit.

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