Save the Kansas City Star
I had decided not to talk about this issue when a fellow I know brought it up unbidden.
“What,” he asked, “has happened to The Kansas City Star?”
The fellow matters if for no other reason than he is a veteran blue chipper on our bi-annual power elite lists. What has “happened,” from his perspective, is that The Star has ceased to be the paper of record for the area, has ceased to keep citizens informed on critical issues, and has thus dumbed down the democratic process.
He caught me at a ripe moment. I had a recent experience of my own that also had me asking, “What has happened to The Kansas City Star?” It still has me shaking my head.
Last fall, I attended a national design symposium hosted by a woman who is arguably Kansas City’s premier designer and a rising national star as well, Ann Willoughby. Willoughby hosted this event at her “Design Barn,” a spectacular Platte County showcase of her own co-creation that would go on to win best of show in the American Institute of Architect’s regional competition. It was a truly super affair. I was invited to serve as “provocateur,” eat wonderful food, and ask amiably impertinent questions. These tasks, as you might imagine, fell comfortably within my range of talents.
Willoughby, I thought, was worth a story. As it was too much a human-interest story for Ingram’s, I pitched it to the Kansas City Star Magazine for which I have written from time to time over the years. The editors liked the idea. I cleared it with Joe Sweeney at Ingram’s and Willoughby, of course, and wrote the piece.
After some early revisions, some odd delays, a second event to compensate for the delays, and some more revisions to incorporate the second event, the editors scheduled the piece to run just before Willoughby’s 25 th anniversary party at the Barn. The timing was serendipitous as we had launched the project nearly a year earlier. Willoughby was excited and told literally hundreds of her friends and clients to watch for the piece, a planned cover story.
Then the phone call came. A woman in The Star hierarchy—I will spare names here—decided that I should not be writing for the city’s only newspaper. The reason? The woman objected to my Ingram’s affiliation.
As I write this, by the way, I am listening to The Star’s Steve Kraske host a radio show on KCUR-FM, sponsored by The Kansas Business Journal.The Star’s objections to media cross-pollination seem a bit selective. KCUR, for instance, is one of The Star’s many media “partners” in a shared website.
When I got the call, I explained to the editors that I have been affiliated with Ingram’s for twenty years—though never as an employee--and had written at least twenty different pieces for The Star during that time. They had known that. They understood. They apologized. The higher ups, however, were willing to risk a public relations fiasco to keep me out.
When Willoughby gently protested to The Star editor, Mark Zieman, the woman in question offered a compromise: cut the article in half and take it off the cover. Like the good mom in the Solomon story, I volunteered to take my name off, but, I protested, “don’t cut the baby in half.” I left this message on the woman’s voice mail about six weeks before today. She has told the editors that she has gotten or will get back to me, but she never does or did.
Zone of Decency
When my blue-chip colleague called, I was ready to commiserate. The city, I affirmed, needs a public forum, a place where all opinions are welcome and all voices heard, a place where real information is disseminated, and democracy is fortified.
Like it or not, The Star is the only local medium with the potential to serve as that forum. The city needs for it to succeed. For its part, The Star needs to understand that it is as close to a public accommodation as a media outlet gets and act accordingly.
“Art is a smart guy,” said the fellow of publisher Art Brisbane, “I don’t know why he is doing what he is doing.”
Brisbane may be too close to see what has happened. In fact, The Star has come to represent not the voice of the people of this area, but the voice of an increasingly narrow, not fully coherent political class. I hesitate to use the word “elite.” It doesn’t really make any sense here.
When the Missouri legislature recently overrode Governor Holden’s veto on both guns and abortion, The Star newsroom exploded in a paroxysm of “outrage” that was embarrassing in its one-mindedness. The staff’s monolithic gloom infected not just the editorials but also the reporting. This makes no economic sense that I can figure. Democratic legislators don’t override their own governor’s veto without enormous public support.
In his book The Content of our Character, African-American writer and social theorist Shelby Steele provides a keen insight on this class and its self-enshrinement in what he ironically calls a “zone of decency.”
Those who hold a series of appropriate opinions on a range of issues, what Steele calls “an ideology of conspicuous and social virtuousness” certify themselves as belonging in the zone. Those who don’t hold to this ideology are “decertified.” The decertified, like myself, almost cease to exist. This, says Steele, “makes the zone an enormous source of political power.”
Wittingly or otherwise, The Star has defined itself as the voice not of the metropolis, but of the zone. The primary certifying issue within the zone may be race, but The Star has also added gender and sexual orientation as well as a range of sundry and often inconsistent faddishly-progressive issues. .
My blue-chip colleague and I have never talked social issues. Nor, for that matter, have Willoughby and I. I doubt if I have much in common with either. What piqued him—and so many other people we have heard from at Ingram’s forums—is The Star’s attitude towards economic development. These critics don’t ask for editorial support. They merely ask for a fair shake in the reporting of the news and an informed public.
What puts Ingram’s outside the zone is the magazine’s unapologetic advocacy of free enterprise and economic development. From within the zone, the very idea of “growth” seems so grubby and distasteful. The restoration of a Hyde Park home is one thing. The building of a subdivision in Belton is something altogether less.
By the way, the last time the editors of The Star Magazine nixed an article they had commissioned me to write, they did so because the article was “too positive.” The subject was the Metropolitan Community Church. Was the church too right wing, you ask? No, it was gay. I haven’t changed. The Star has. I have merely ceased to exist.
I want to subscribe
I want to subscribe to a local paper that looks as good as the USA Today but that is smarter.
That covers major local news in depth and that puts only the trivial news in zoned editions.
That reports the news dispassionately and objectively and that balances the editorials.
That hires news columnists that are at least nearly as good as the sports columnists.
That treats people who are pro-growth or pro-sprawl or pro-life or pro-gun or pro-voucher or anti-Darwin like they were human beings.
Do that and I subscribe and so do about 100,000 other people.
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