This campaign season The Kansas City Star passed on a parcel of the nation's most eye-popping stories. Incredibly, at least five of those stories flared up in the Star's home state, Missouri. As the reader might guess, all five stories reflected unfavorably on Democratic candidates.
This is nothing new. What is new is that by censoring such stories the Star has continued to show its indifference to the majority of its potential customers even as it struggles to stay afloat. This kind of commercial death wish may be a first not just in the annals of journalism, but in the annals of American business.
Worse, the Star is hardly alone. A score or more mid-size, mid-American newspapers are doing much the same thing, many of them owned by the Star's publisher, McClatchy.
For the record, Kansas City serves as the de facto capital of an agri-business region with a center-right disposition. In 2008, an obvious off year for Republicans, 96 of the 100 counties closest to Kansas City gave the majority of their votes to McCain-Palin. This included the three most affluent counties in the immediate five-country metro.
Yet, the Star historically has created a product, both in its reporting and in its editorial, much better suited to the residents of say, Boston or Seattle, than of than of Kansas City.
In my role as the executive editor of the region's business magazine, I occasionally point out the Star's counterintuitive marketing strategy. The Star honchos have felt obliged to respond to my queries, always patronizingly. "Bias?" they respond. "What bias? We get criticism from both right and left."
Up until recently, very recently, the honchos would add that the Star was doing quite well, thank you, and didn't really need my advice. The following came from the then-publisher by way of email in November 2005.
Just so you know, our readership/audience has never been greater. . . . The combined reach of our Website and newspaper is at an all time high and growing nicely. I'm certainly open to your ideas on how to improve the newspaper. We're always open to new suggestions. Please send them in, if you care to share them.
I did not bother. The publisher was clearly not open to any suggestions that would disturb the status quo. He should have been. Since the time of that email, McClatchy has seen its share prices drop from the $50 to the $3 range.
A recent posting on bottomline.com sums up the Star's precarious state of affairs. "More cuts in Kansas City were announced today in the newsroom," writes an insider. "Most Star reporters have been carefully selecting what stories they cover for fear of irritating editors and being next on the list. Forget journalism, this is survival."
Analysts have given McClatchy more credit for cutting expenses than the Star's staff has. Still, as The Wall Street Journal reports, "Unless revenue begins to improve . . . it is unclear how much more the company can do."
One innovation that the Star and its sister papers could make to attract readership is to report the news. Take the Democratic Convention (and note how I refrain from saying "please"). On its opening night, while Michelle Obama addressed the delegates in Denver, Barack Obama camped out in a Missouri home to watch. The Star's ace political reporter Steve Kraske was there to take notes.
At the end of the Michelle's speech, Barack joined his wife and daughters over closed circuit TV. Said he unthinkingly, "I'm here with the Girardeau family here in St. Louis."
This was an awkward moment for Missouri Democrats, not because Obama needlessly repeated the word "here," but because the Girardeaus live in midtown Kansas City. By Show Me standards, this screw-up ranks with the missed call at first base in the sixth game of the 1985 World Series, the one that allowed the undeserving Royals to slip by the haughty Cards.
Missourian Rush Limbaugh caught the significance. "You people don't understand this," he told his national audience at the top of his show the next day. "This is a gaffe. Kansas City and St. Louis hate each other."
For the Star, however, it was all Omerta, all the time. Kraske chose not to rat out Obama, not even with a gentle poke in the ribs. Kraske's righteous silence set the stage for what was to follow.
Joe Biden needed all the willful silence he could get. In September, while introducing big shots at a rally in Columbia, Missouri, Biden urged one of them, "Chuck, stand up, Chuck. Let'em see you."
The advance man likely speed dialed careerbuilder.com as soon as he realized the depth of Biden's blunder. "Oh, God love you," stumbled Biden. "What am I talking about?" State senator Chuck Graham is confined to a wheelchair. Had Sarah Palin done something this daft, the Star would have printed a special section around it.
In 2008, both Missouri and Kansas went red, but plummeting stock or not, the Star editors still refused to throw their natural audience even the occasional bone.
In early October, KMOV News 4 in St. Louis ran a feature on Missouri's "Barack Obama Truth Squads." These squads, the viewer was told, were composed of Democratic prosecutors and sheriffs from throughout the state that support Barack Obama.
"They will be reminding voters," said News 4 reporter John Mills mindlessly, "that Barack Obama is a Christian who wants to cut taxes for anyone making less than $250,000 a year."
They also say," Mills continued, "they plan to respond immediately to any ads and statements that violate Missouri ethics laws."
This was not just Mills' opinion. He interviewed St. Louis County Circuit Attorney Bob McCulloch and St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, both Obama supporters.
"We are here to respond to any character attacks, to set the record straight," said Joyce. The exact nature of that response was left unspoken, but, as she had to understand, a warning letter from a prosecutor carries a little more weight than one from a campaign staffer. In fact, it can quickly chill speech to the freezing point.
Mills' piece attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to the KMOV News 4 site, but not the stand-up guys in the stoolie-free Star's newsroom. The editors email blasted their "10 hot topics" for the next few days without so much as a whisper about the Truth Squads or Missouri Governor Matt Blunt's denunciation of them as "scandalous beyond words."
A week later, a YouTube video caught the shocked attention of just about every one in America without an Obama bumper sticker. The video showed a squad of junior varsity storm troopers at the Urban Community Leadership Academy, a Kansas City charter school. They boys were marching in military attire, on public school time and property, chanting "Yes we can" in praise of Obama.
For days this video circled the Internet before the conservative host on a Kansas City AM radio show, Chris Stigall, grilled the hapless principal. Under pressure from everywhere, she suspended the teacher in question.
The Star did not report on the Obama Youth video until the following day and then under the comically gentle headline, "Schools tread a tightrope when teaching about election." Tightrope? This story did not make the "Start Smart" top ten either.
Most Americans know ACORN as the radical shakedown artists under investigation for vote fraud in at least thirteen states, Missouri chief among them. (For background, see my 2006 article, "Mommy, the ACORN guy is peeing in the street)".
Star readers can be forgiven for thinking of ACORN as just another "community group" no more troublesome than the United Fund or the Big Brothers and Sisters. In fact, the Star may be the only newspaper not distributed free in coffee shops to write an editorial defending ACORN. The impressively myopic editors saw ACORN's "voter registration fraud" not as a gateway to actual "voter fraud" but as an unrelated and lesser distraction.
The Republicans are "caterwauling," opined the Star, only because so many of the people ACORN signs up, dead or alive, are "ready to vote for change." Yes, the editors actually said "caterwauling" and "vote for change."
For better or worse, the Star editors seem to compensate for suppressing national news stories by making news on their own. And no editorial writer does so with more flair than Star vice president and veteran columnist, the oxymoronic Lewis Diuguid (pronounced "do good").
Just a few weeks before the election, Diuguid took John McCain and Sarah Palin to task for using the word "socialist" to describe Obama. Said Diuguid of the pair, they "simply reached back in history to use an old code word for ‘black.'"
This revelation came as news to everyone who knows anything about American history, including the always cerebral and normally restrained editors of The Weekly Standard. As they explained, "The overwhelming number of socialists in the United States were (and are) white folks."
The Paul Robeson that Diuguid describes as a socialist "involved in national and international movements for better labor relations, peace and racial justice," the Weekly Standard more accurately describes as a "dedicated life long Stalinist who defended every Soviet outrage."
As for Diuguid, said The Weekly Standard, "He is not only incoherent but astonishingly ill-informed." But hey, at least he made the national news, and who knows, maybe he will convince BHO to include the Star in the bailout package.
Let us spread that wealth indeed!