I don't want us to be like The Kansas City Star, where they spent weeks, weeks and damn weeks putting up billboards and crap to hype the redesign they rolled out in June. OK, so they also put up a $200 million building with imported German presses, so I suppose they wanted to get their money's worth.
There is one little thing to say. Yes, it's true. We're now using the Star's new presses, too.
Those kinds of deals get worked out by guys in suits in faraway offices. It's business. The Star's happy to cash a gigantic check from us every week; we're happy for the sweet print job. But it's no lovefest.
Just to prove that point, I'm going to tell you a little story, one of behind-the-scenes political intrigue and squishy-headed gutlessness at the Star.
First, you'll need the political background. In the race for Missouri's 10th District Senate seat, four candidates are running to replace Charles Wheeler. This piece of it involves three of them:
· Mike Flaherty, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law school grad who owns the Point and a Catholic who makes no secret that he's pro-life (against abortion and against the death penalty, by God).
· Jolie Justus, who has made a career out of doing free legal work for children, the poor, the downtrodden, and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. She's director of the pro bono program at the giant Shook Hardy & Bacon law firm. (Hey, someone's got to spend all that money SHB made defending big tobacco.)
· Jason Klumb, who served two terms in the Missouri House in the '90s, when he represented the small Bates County town of Butler. He moved north to Raymore when he ran two years ago for state treasurer (and lost). Then he got a job as an assistant attorney general in Kansas City and moved to a house near Ward Parkway. There, he could make a run for Wheeler's seat.
Hey, if I were an ambitious Democrat, I'd be eager to get the hell out of Butler, too. But that's not what has Justus supporters freaking out.
Justus supporters are pissed about something the Star, the unions, the bankers, and the big-name Democrats who have endorsed Klumb don't care about but should care about because it keeps coming around to burn their party.
Back in 1996, Klumb was one of the first politicians in Missouri to work for legislation banning gay marriage.
In the mid-'90s, when the gay-marriage bomb exploded in state legislatures everywhere, Democrats trembled like kindergarten sissies. Rather than lead by arguing that one of their core constituencies deserved the same civil rights as other citizens they hoped the whole problem would disappear.
At the end of the 1996 session, Klumb proposed a gay-marriage ban as an amendment to an unrelated bill. Klumb has said that the final version of the legislation contained a "poison pill" that would keep the bill from becoming law. These days, Klumb describes this effort as a brilliant parliamentary strategy blessed by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan. The tactic prevented the gay-marriage ban from becoming law for a while, anyway. "We made it go away for three years," he beamed at one candidates' forum. "We outsmarted the Republicans."
Right. And the Democrats have been outsmarting the Republicans on the gay issue ever since. Pppfff.
I figure there's only one person whose analysis of Missouri Dems' brilliant political strategy really counts.
Former Rep. Tim Van Zandt is the only openly gay person to have served in the Missouri House and was in office at the time. "They weren't trying to fix it for us," Van Zandt told me last week. "They were basically trying to beat the Republicans to the punch of screwing us."
Instead of his ridiculous "We outsmarted 'em" rhetoric, Klumb and Democrats all over the country might try out a new talking point: "We were wrong. We've learned a lot in the last 10 years, and we'll never again forsake our gay brothers and sisters in favor of cheap politics."
Now for the Star's part in all this.
On July 25, the Star endorsed Klumb. Among the Justus supporters infuriated by this was Scott Hartley, who is Justus' ex-husband but still a close friend. The day before, Hartley had written a letter to the editor, filled with glowing biographical information about his ex-wife's efforts on behalf of social-justice causes. Lajean Keene, who edits the Star's letters page, wrote back and told him he'd have to cut it to no more than 200 words. Hartley sent another version clocking in at 199.
Hartley's letter began by arguing that Justus was the only "true progressive Democrat" in the race.
"Compared to her opponents, Jason Klumb, who as a State Representative from Bates County, co-sponsored the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and voted for handgun conceal and carry legislation; and Mike Flaherty, who is Anti-Reproductive Choice and Anti-Stem Cell Research, Jolie stands alone as the only candidate whose platform best represents the values of the 10th District."
Keene wrote back again, saying, "I need to verify the info about Klumb and Flaherty. Where did you read it?"
He'd read it in her own damn paper! Hartley referred Keene to the Star's July 25 Klumb endorsement, which noted that Flaherty "has positions that threaten stem-cell research and abortion rights." He also sent her a link to a June 20 Star story about the candidates' positions. And to verify Klumb's voting records and his history on the gay-marriage issue, Hartley attached links to official House records from 1995 and 1996.
"I've got problems with your information about Klumb," Keene replied. "We looked more carefully at the votes and spoke to Klumb himself. The long and short of it is he doesn't favor either conceal carry or banning gay marriage and has said so."
What? The Star let its endorsed candidate weigh in against an unfriendly letter before it went to print?
Keene grew defensive. "I have received numerous letters in recent days distorting the voting records of candidates for office and have spent considerable time trying to fact check them," she wrote to Hartley. "Some make it in the paper. Some don't. It was the decision of Miriam Pepper, editorial page editor, to go directly to the candidate because of the confusion about some of these charges. I have spoken to our Statehouse reporters, and they agree that it would require considerable reporting to clear this up. The long and short of it is, I'm not going to be able to publish your letter. I'm sorry."
Hartley wasn't buying it. "Your reasoning for rejecting my letter," he wrote, "smacks of an institutionalized effort to suppress information about a candidate your newspaper has endorsed."
They argued via e-mail for all of last week, with Keene at one point suggesting alternative language and Hartley refusing to back down.
When I called Keene on July 28 to ask her about the exchange, she said, "All letters are fact-checked."
That's great. But is it the paper's policy to fact-check with the subject of the letter, who happens to be the Star's endorsed candidate?
"I'm not going to comment on the specifics of this [Hartley's] letter," Keene said.
Later that afternoon, she e-mailed the Pitch an official statement.
"We fact check every letter. In some cases, that includes talking to the person who is the subject of a letter. Only Star staff see the letters before they are published."
Hey, we get controversial letters, too, and we also work hard not to publish inaccurate ones.
But here's a promise that won't end after the election: Even though we're printing at the Star, we won't let political candidates help water down your letters to the editor.