The Washington Post catches the Star with its pants down -- and it ain't pretty.

Post Mortem 

The Washington Post catches the Star with its pants down -- and it ain't pretty.

While the Strip was on a brief vacation, sunning its meaty goodness half a world away, loyal readers kept us abreast of the hometown news by e-mail.

That's how we first learned about one of the most embarrassing episodes for this town's major daily newspaper.

If you missed it, we don't blame you. The Kansas City Star didn't draw much attention to its gaffe.

Only an eagle-eyed reader might have noticed that there was anything unusual about political reporter Steve Kraske's February 15 article announcing that U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver would no longer be paying campaign funds to a local reporter, The Kansas City Call's Eric Wesson, for consulting work.

Since last summer, Cleaver has paid Wesson $2,500 for work, including writing scripts for Cleaver's phone canvassers in the runup to last year's election. Wesson continued to write about Cleaver for the Call, often in glowing terms, without revealing to readers that he was on the candidate's payroll.

It doesn't take a journalism degree to see that Wesson's actions weren't kosher.

Kraske's story reported that Cleaver had had second thoughts about his relationship with the reporter and would no longer employ him. Kraske then wrote this paragraph:

"Wesson did not return phone calls Monday. Last year he told The Kansas City Star that his newspaper work was separate from his consulting business."

Close Star watchers may have picked up Kraske's interesting clue that something was amiss -- last year, the Star had actually published nothing about the Wesson-Cleaver affair, even though its reporters wanted very much to do so.

Kraske's subtle hint was an interesting journalistic moment. The Star had lifted up its skirt just high enough to show how dirty its underwear was.

In order to fully explain how the Star soiled itself, this tenderloin wants to take the story back to its beginning.

Last summer, a woman named Gale Banks was unhappy with how the 5th District congressional campaign was going. An African-American and Democrat, Banks was no fan of Cleaver, the former Kansas City mayor who had won the Democratic primary after a nasty fight with newcomer Jamie Metzl.

Like any good gadfly, Banks searched through Cleaver's financial disclosures, and one day late in September she found an entry for a political consulting firm, One Goal Consultants, with an inner-city address. That was odd, she tells the Strip, because all of Cleaver's other consultants were the usual slick suburban pollsters hired by many other candidates.

When she looked up the business on the Missouri Secretary of State's Web site, she found that One Goal Consultants was 100 percent owned by Wesson, the reporter who does much of the writing for the Call, an African-American newspaper.

Banks knew immediately that the information was newsworthy. Cleaver's ethics had already been a major part of the campaign. What would voters think if they knew Cleaver had hired a reporter who covered him?

(A Cleaver spokesman, Phil Scaglia, told us last fall that the candidate didn't see anything wrong in the arrangement. Wesson, meanwhile, tells the Strip that he can't answer this meat patty's questions, referring us to his boss, publisher and managing editor Donna Stewart, who makes it a point not to return our phone calls.)

Knowing she had potentially explosive information, Banks says the first person she called was Steve Kraske.

She also shared the info with KCTV Channel 5's Dave Helling as well as another political gadfly, a man named David Hoech, who passed the information on to this flank steak.

We still remember Hoech telling us that Kraske knew all about the story. Normally, that might give us pause, because it can be tough to get something into our weekly pages before the daily Star can. But we told Hoech we were confident that the Star wouldn't touch the story with a 10-foot-pole. You see, we'd noticed that the Star seemed squeamish about stories taking minorities to task for things the paper wouldn't think twice of reporting about white folks in this town. Even if there were clear evidence that a candidate and reporter had entered into an unholy relationship, the fact that both were black was enough to keep the Star from writing something about it, we speculated.

Well, our hunch was correct. Kraske didn't write about it. Neither did Star reporter Dan Margolies, whom Hoech says he also contacted when it became clear Kraske wasn't going to publish anything. Hoech says Margolies e-mailed him expressing his frustration that editors weren't letting Star reporters write the story.

(We only later realized, by the way, that Helling had ended up beating us to the punch. Normally we keep an eye on the hard-charging Channel 5, but we missed Helling's excellent October 20 story on Wesson. Our Backwash piece showed up on October 28, and we were blissfully unaware that we were in second place.)

Despite numerous other questions about his ethics during the campaign, however, Cleaver won the November election and was sworn into office in January.

But Hoech wasn't finished pushing the story. In January, payola for journalists became a national issue; it was revealed, for example, that President Bush's Department of Education had paid conservative columnist Armstrong Williams $241,000 to speak glowingly of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Hoech contacted Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz and pointed out that a similar situation was happening in Kansas City -- but between a liberal politician and a liberal columnist.

Kurtz led his February 14 Post column noting that "pundit payola" wasn't "limited to inside the Beltway." He also mentioned that the Pitch had written about the Wesson-Cleaver controversy last fall.

Now, the Strip may be the sirloin of local media, and Helling packs his own wallop, but there's nothing like the glaring spotlight of a national organization such as The Washington Post to make folks jump to attention.

The same day Kurtz's column appeared, Cleaver announced that he would stop paying Wesson and would no longer use him as a consultant.

And the next day, February 15, the Star finally printed its first story about a scandal it had known about for more than four months.

One staffer at the Star laughed when we mentioned that his paper had taken so long to do the piece. "Every day is Groundhog Day down here as far as people of color are concerned. The paper is terrified to see its own shadow and offend minority readers."

That's what we figured. But we wondered if Star editors had another reason to keep a lid on the story last fall. Had they been trying to protect Cleaver's candidacy? The Star had endorsed the former mayor in both the primary and general elections.

We e-mailed Kraske last week, asking him if he wanted to talk about things, and at first, he seemed interested. But soon, we received an e-mail from his boss, managing editor Steve Shirk.

Shirk explained why the Star had decided not to write about the Wesson-Cleaver affair last year: "We decided the payment, made with private campaign funds, was primarily an ethical issue for the Call." He also wrote that "the Call has always been an advocate for Cleaver's candidacy and thus Wesson's conflict seemed to have little bearing on the campaign." The Star had finally written something on February 15, Shirk added, "because the practice was continuing."

Little bearing on the campaign? We imagine Jeanne Patterson might have liked to know whether a Star story really would have had little effect on the race she eventually lost to Cleaver. And we're certain that other Kansas City businesses and institutions will now be thrilled to know about the Star's hands-off approach to ethics questions. We're sure they'll be counting on the same treatment from now on.

But come on. That last one was a real howler. It's not hard to see that the Star finally let Kraske write the story because the Post had made the paper look so bad.

Was it possible that the Star really thought this wasn't a story last fall, when it mattered most? We asked Kurtz what he thought about it.

"If I were a local reporter, it's hard to imagine that I wouldn't be interested in writing about a case in which the area's congressional candidate had put a journalist on the campaign payroll," Kurtz told us. "That may or may not create an ethical problem, but it certainly sounds like news that should be reported."

Well, of course it is. And Kurtz was right -- reporters at the Star naturally saw it the same way. From our discussion with Banks and Hoech, it was clear to us that Kraske and Margolies were convinced this was an important story and wanted to publish something but were hamstrung by Star management.

And while reporting this column, the Strip kept hearing that this wasn't the only time.

We heard from two former members of Metzl's campaign, for example, that Kraske had complained to them directly about former publisher Art Brisbane interfering with coverage of the campaign. They say it was Kraske who told them something the Strip had also heard, but from another source: that Brisbane had overruled the Star's editorial board, which wanted to endorse Metzl, not Cleaver, in the primary.

We first heard that tale last fall and sent e-mails to all of the Star's editorial board members. We heard back from only two -- Brisbane and Lewis Diuguid -- who both denied that the story was true.

Was it Brisbane who ordered Kraske and Margolies not to write about the potentially embarrassing news that Cleaver was paying a local reporter?

Now a senior vice president at Knight Ridder's offices in San Jose, California, Brisbane declined to comment.

The Call, meanwhile, seems to be having a difficult time understanding the concept of conflict of interest.

Kurtz followed up his first Post column with another last week about Wesson's other ethical problem: He's a convicted felon who covers the same prosecutor's office that put him in prison.

Kurtz revealed that Michael Sanders, the Jackson County prosecutor, complained to publisher Donna Stewart that the Call reporter was writing stories about the same office that prosecuted him in 1991, resulting in Wesson's 10-year prison term.

Stewart, however, responded to Sanders' complaint not by pulling Wesson off the beat but by writing a letter to Sanders telling him that his complaint was motivated by racism.

Gale Banks, the gadfly who started all of this, says she's dismayed to see the Call resorting to name-calling when its shortcomings are pointed out.

"It's unfortunate that the race card is played at opportunistic times," she says. "It sets us back. It sets our culture, our society back whenever someone plays the race card for political purposes. How sad for the history of the Call newspaper and for other minority-owned newspapers. Its historical value is diminished."

But even if Stewart figures out one of these days what a conflict of interest is and cleans up the Call's practices, no one would expect the paper not to push an agenda. There's nothing wrong with the Call being an "advocacy" paper and choosing sides in an election.

The Star is a different matter. It can endorse whom it likes on the editorial page, but it's supposed to avoid bias in its political news coverage. Star managing editor Shirk didn't respond to our follow-up questions, so we doubt we'll hear any answers about management's interference.

But perhaps callers to Kraske's daily 11 a.m. radio show on KCUR 89.3 will have better luck. The studio line is 816-235-2888.

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