Still, nothing prepared us for last week's hyperactive screed, in which Donovan demanded that the New York Daily News take back a slur against a Star writer like he was defending a classmate in a schoolyard rumble.
Donovan was worked up because, he wrote, a transcript clearly showed that Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin had wronged the Star's Lee Hill Kavanaugh when he accused her of giving an "anti-war speech" during an August 16 telephone conference call with famous protesting mom Cindy Sheehan.
"I see no way to misconstrue Kavanaugh's comments in the call as 'anti-war,'" Donovan huffed. "The Star alerted the Daily News to the error ... but editors there declined to run a correction."
All right, settle down, Derek. Let's consider what actually happened.
First of all, let this meat patty put the episode in context. Just a week earlier, the Star had been forced to run a very telling correction about one of its own stories. Like other dailies following the Cindy Sheehan drama, the Star had given readers the impression that Sheehan was camped outside President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch simply because she wanted the opportunity to talk with him in person about the Iraq war that took her son's life. The Star wasn't the only news outlet forced to correct that picture after enormous pressure from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and their legions of Web warriors: Bush, it turned out, had already met privately with Sheehan and other parents who had lost sons and daughters in Iraq.
Sheehan has said she didn't feel that the meeting, which took place at Fort Lewis in Washington in June 2004, was the appropriate time to voice her concerns about the war. But the revelation that she'd passed up that chance did suggest that she was less grass-roots grieving mom than canny anti-war activist -- one who had come up with a dramatic way to get the country's media thinking again about our dumbass war effort.
For a mainstream press already smarting from constant criticism for its supposed liberal leanings, the episode was a smack upside the head. As a group, the country's journalists looked like naïve liberals who too easily bought into Sheehan's innocence.
The last thing the Star needed was more evidence that it was reporting on Sheehan's vigil without a healthy dose of skepticism.
Into that setting stepped Lee Hill Kavanaugh, the journalist the Star sends to the most frightening places on Earth so she can bleed all over the page.
We hear that Kavanaugh's a sweet-tempered soul who is known around town as the reporter who plays a mean jazz trombone. And she's an award-winning journalist who has lots of experience covering the military -- in fact, she's the first female reporter the Star has ever sent to cover a war.
But readers may also have noticed that Kavanaugh has a signature style -- she often finds ways to soften hard-edged news by looking for heartfelt human-interest angles and writing stories that seem more apt to reassure readers than challenge them.
On August 16, Kavanaugh took her place in a telephone queue with other reporters who were waiting to ask questions of Sheehan. Also listening was Goodwin, former executive editor of the Daily News, who has a Pulitzer Prize and (with the Daily News' editorial board) a Polk Award on his résumé.
Given the furor over press coverage of Sheehan, Goodwin wasn't the only scribe who called as much to hear other reporters' questions as what Sheehan would say in response.
But what Kavanaugh said floored Goodwin, he tells this tenderloin.
After several rapid-fire questions from other reporters, coordinator and MoveOn.org spokesman Trevor FitzGibbon announced that the next query would come from a Star reporter.
"Hi, Cindy. Thank you for doing this," Kavanaugh began, according to a transcript that the Star itself put on its Web site last week.
Goodwin says he was stunned.
"What was she thanking her for? Sheehan does a press conference every day," Goodwin tells the Strip. The greeting was so naïve-sounding to the ears of a hard-bitten New York scribe that Goodwin says he couldn't help suspecting that Kavanaugh was thanking Sheehan for the protest, not for simply getting on the telephone. "It's not a professional greeting," Goodwin says.
Then, the transcript shows, Kavanaugh began a long, somewhat rambling rendition of what Sheehan's experiences apparently looked like from where Kavanaugh was sitting: "A little more than a year ago, you were a mom -- a youth minister -- with four kids. And then you get that awful knock on the door. And you've been thrust into this ... where [you're] sitting up your lawn chair in the ditch, waiting to speak to the President at his doorstep ... I mean, I feel like we just are in the middle of the country watching this show happen. And ... you're being attacked in so many different ways."
Reading the transcript with the Strip over a telephone line, Goodwin gets to the words "you've been thrust into this" and stops. "Wait a minute -- Sheehan put herself out there," he says, pointing out that Kavanaugh's recitation was "a very generous view" of what had happened.
"I thought all of this speech was too sympathetic," Goodwin says. "It was too much 'I feel your pain.'"
And Kavanaugh was just getting warmed up.
"You know, I can very much relate as a mom talking to the president and not wanting to say something terrible to his face at that moment because you're overcome with grief and he is the president of the United States," Kavanaugh continued, apparently referring to Kavanaugh's 2004 meeting with Bush.
Goodwin was struck by the first words in that utterance -- that Kavanaugh was essentially saying she could relate to how Sheehan felt at that meeting with the president. "Sheehan has given two different accounts of that meeting. She has said that Bush was graceful. And another time that Bush was cold. So we don't really know how she felt."
Kavanaugh continued while the other reporters waited for their turns:
"But now ... it feels like you are being shredded from [the blogosphere] to mainstream media. And I feel like in a sense both you and President Bush are in the same boat, suddenly that damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario. And I'm like ... "
Finally, FitzGibbon, the MoveOn moderator, butted in.
"Sorry, could we get to the question now? We've got a lot of people on the line, and there is a big line up."
Kavanaugh apologized and then got to her query: "How has this changed your heart towards ... speaking up?" (The transcript published by the Star has Kavanaugh saying "part" instead of "heart," but two others listening to the call say Kavanaugh clearly used the word heart.)
"Well, you know, I really think it's despicable, the right wing attacks against me," Sheehan began in a long reply.
"Kavanaugh gets the answer she wants," Goodwin says. "She has asked a question that makes Sheehan a victim of the press, and Sheehan answers that very way."
Goodwin says Kavanaugh's rambling performance was inappropriate considering all of the contested coverage that had already taken place. "She has to be aware of the environment she's in," he says. "This is a big, big story now. You can't be so naïve to all of these elements. As a journalist, in her tone and words and in the context of the event -- for all of these reasons, she put herself on Sheehan's side ... I think that's inappropriate, for a reporter to be aligning herself with a subject."
For all of those reasons, Goodwin made the criticism that he did in his August 17 column: "One woman who said she was from the Kansas City Star gave an anti-war speech."
Kavanaugh, however, denies that she was making an anti-war statement or aligning herself with Sheehan.
She was just trying to slow things down, she tells the Strip.
"I didn't give an anti-war speech. I'm guilty of being flustered and trying to slow down a press conference where every question came across like a bullet. I was trying to understand Sheehan's heart," Kavanaugh wrote in an e-mail to this cutlet.
"When the moderator called my name, I didn't expect to get picked," she writes. "I tried to slow the pace down. I was trying to get to her emotions ... I was flustered. I'm really a shy person. Painfully so. I am so embarrassed when I read my words from the teleconference."
Kavanaugh points out that just the day before the Sheehan call, her writing had been honored by AmVets, a national veterans' advocacy group. Even if her conference call statements had betrayed a bias (which she denies), the story she then wrote, contrasting Sheehan's views with that of a mother who had lost a son to the war but still supported Bush, appeared to this ribby reader as neutral as possible.
But last Wednesday morning, when word of Goodwin's column began to spread around the Star newsroom, Kavanaugh admits that she thought she might be toast.
"The storm clouds were gathering here with my days (make that hours) numbered as a working journalist for the Star," she writes.
Instead, after her editors got their hands on a transcript, they told her they had her back. "I'm breathing normally now. And every now and then, I laugh," she wrote in another e-mail last Friday. "I have so much to learn in this gig. (The only time I don't get performance anxiety is when I'm playing my bass trombone.)"
The only thing left for the Star to do, after deciding that Kavanaugh had done nothing to get fired over (a decision this sirloin endorses), was to have Donovan make a stink and declare that Goodwin's opinion -- in a clearly marked opinion column, was "wrong" and demand a correction.
Naturally, the Daily News told the Star to pound sand. Arthur Browne, editor of the Daily News editorial page, rejected the Star's request, Goodwin says.
But we still wondered -- how did Kavanaugh's performance come off to someone else listening in to the conference call?
"It wasn't an anti-war speech. She was just a reporter sucking up to the subject. Inappropriately, perhaps," says Robert Wilonsky, a staff writer at the Dallas Observer, which is a newspaper owned by the same company as the Pitch. (Full disclosure: Wilonsky's movie reviews often appear in these pages.)
Wilonsky says that nearly every reporter who asked a question had his or her agenda hanging out. "She [Kavanaugh] spoke and sounded like a columnist who was clearly trying to ingratiate herself with Cindy Sheehan. She was actually just irritating. What an awfully phrased question -- 'How has this changed your heart?' Shut up! Don't ask stupid questions."
All right, that's enough, smart guy. The last thing we need is more piling on after the beating the Star took from a New York commuter tab. Fact is, we like the dopey Star just the way it is. And if you don't watch it, Wilonsky, they'll set Derek on you, too.