Posts Tagged ‘newspapers and credibility’

Some of you probably are tired of reading about the Jason Whitlock saga.

But it’s got a very important element that is worth discussing — the credibility of The Kansas City Star.

The Star’s stock in trade is its credibility. Readers rely on The Star — just as readers in other cities rely on their daily papers — to get at the truth, when the truth is obscured by lies, conflicting allegations, complicated facts and just plain clutter.

For example, The Star has been working mightily to comb through the chaff of the Karen Pletz situation at Kansas City University of Medicine and Health Sciences. Was it a case of an administrator run amok, or was it a case of a board of directors that was sound asleep? Or was it both? The Star has done an excellent job, overall, of trying to sort things out, and its stories have laid plenty of blame at the feet of both parties.

Only The Star has the resources to launch a thorough examination and be assured that most people will trust the result. No other news organization in Kansas City can come close. So, when The Star speaks on the Pletz issue, thousands of people — tens of thousands of people — listen closely.

Another example: The Star recently published a big, 40-year anniversary story on the slaying of political and civil rights leader Leon Jordan, suggesting that it might be a good idea to reopen the case. Less than two weeks later, lost evidence turned up, and police decided to reopen the case.  

Here’s another, different, example of The Star’s credibility: Why do you think Mark Funkhouser is mayor today?  Here’s why: KC Star editorial writer Yael Abouhalkah, who has “covered” City Hall for more than 20 years, got behind him early on and started pushing. Yael, in turn, convinced the editorial board to support Funkhouser, and The Star then endorsed Funkhouser, propelling him to victory.

Among the dozen candidates for mayor, Funkhouser did not stand out for his character, personality or ability to build a consensus. No, he was just another member of a weak field. But he had The Star behind him. That’s why he won; the voters trusted The Star. (Footnote: The Star, to its credit, saw the error of its ways a couple of years after Funkhouser was elected and admitted it made a mistake.)

So, The Star’s credibility is important, very important to this community. And what is it doing with this Whitlock fiasco? It is chipping away at its own credibility. For weeks, The Star has been publishing a note to readers saying Whitlock is “on vacation.” Come on, it’s a lie, and everybody knows it.

It’s something else. Maybe he’s been suspended; maybe it’s a contract dispute; maybe the editors are sick of dealing with him. It could be anything…other than a vacation. After an absence that now exceeds two months, he’s probably not coming back.   

So, The Star should stop lying. It could drop the “note to readers” and say nothing. It could change the note to say, “Jason Whitlock is on leave,” or “Jason Whitlock is off work.”

Sorry to say, this is not the first time that The Star has been less than forthcoming about Whitlock’s status. In October 1998, Whitlock was suspended for goading fans who were taunting him at a Chiefs-New England Patriots game in Foxboro, Mass. Against the press-box glass, he held up hand-scrawled signs that said, “It’s warm in here — good looking women too” and “Bledsoe gay? Pats suck.” (He was referring to Patriots’ quarterback Drew Bledsoe.)

That was on Sunday, Oct. 11. The next day, Whitlock was suspended, and the suspension turned out to be for two weeks. The Star didn’t inform the public, however, until 10 days after the suspension. On Oct. 22, then-sports editor Rick Vacek wrote a column explaining the suspension and referred to “offensive” signs that Whitlock had shown to Patriots fans. He didn’t say what the signs said.

On Nov. 1, Miriam Pepper, who was then readers representative (the position that Derek Donovan now holds), wrote a column saying that the tardy report and lack of details had been a disservice to readers. “The newspaper regularly has to ‘go with the news’ before all sides weigh in,” said Pepper, now a vice president and editorial page editor. “In this case, it could have been handled by reporting the incident immediately and explaining that management was investigating.”

That episode hurt The Star’s credibility, and that was before the bottom fell out for most metropolitan dailies. Now, here we are again with a situation that, while probably different at its core, is still a matter of public interest. Whitlock is not a journeyman reporter; he’s the highest profile columnist and personality at The Star. Readers want — and deserve — an explanation that is not bogus.

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