On August 15, the Associated Press offered its member papers a 1,400-word investigation into Congresswoman Karen McCarthy's dismal performance on Capitol Hill. But editors at The Kansas City Star -- where AP stories provide a daily source of nutrition for starving readers -- chose not to print the article.
Yet the story has zipped around the city by e-mail. (We'll give the Star credit for at least posting a link to the thing on its Web site.) It's generated a good buzz -- about not only McCarthy but also the Star's apparent reluctance to dig deeper into her problems, which are widely known inside political circles. Indeed, the news guardians at 18th and Grand seemed downright ashamed in June when their Washington correspondent revealed that McCarthy may have violated House ethics rules by trying to pay for an office consultant out of campaign funds -- the stories were hidden between ads for Ethan Allen and Sprint in the middle of the A section.
Au contraire, says Steve Shirk, the paper's managing editor for news. "We've covered this story aggressively," he claims. "Much of what was in the AP story was pre-rehab," Shirk says, referring to McCarthy's spring dry-out in Arizona. "For us to go back and regurgitate that information -- albeit in greater detail -- is a bit of an issue, unless those things persist upon her return."
Besides, close and careful Star readers did learn that, according to a former aide quoted in an article back in March, McCarthy's office had experienced "an awful lot of employee turnover." In the same piece, the Star reported that thirteen staffers had quit during McCarthy's first term, starting back in 1995.
And, yes, the paper did tell readers that, during the drunk-on-the-escalator incident that landed her in treatment, her Democratic colleagues were falling three votes short on a bid to shoot down George W. Bush's big-deficit-and-tax-breaks-for-the-rich budget. The Star also later reported on the votes she missed while in treatment.
At the same time, though, the paper downplayed the roll calls she had skipped over the course of her career in the nation's capital. "She had only missed a handful of votes," the paper's multimedia politics guru, Steve Kraske, wrote in an April column.
But Kansas Citians who read the AP story learned that her missed votes would hardly fit in a hand -- the tally was 217 out of 5,160, or 4.2 percent. And these weren't for piddling resolutions like declaring a national peanut day or naming the House mutt. The AP reported that McCarthy had skipped votes on Bush's first tax cut, permanently ending the marriage penalty tax, the House farm bill, campaign-finance reform, restoring cuts to Medicare (which are now screwing up Kansas City's ambulance services), school vouchers, missile defense, and mandatory sentences for gun crimes.
As for employee turnover, the AP revealed that McCarthy had been through 105 employees since 1995 -- a rate of nearly one a month.
To offer perspective on these stats, AP reporter Libby Quaid added quotes from nonpartisan Washington watchdogs -- the sort who have yet to grace the pages of the Star. McCarthy's missed-vote rate "is not acceptable," said Gary Ruskin, who runs the Congressional Accountability Project. "It's a dereliction of duty." Rick Shapiro, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation, observed that if a staff is perpetually turning over, it will always be focusing on learning the basics "rather than developing legislative recommendations for the boss to consider."
Quaid went on to report that only one of McCarthy's proposed bills (out of a measly seven) has made it into law.
That might have been the most alarming news in the AP story. But the Star failed to report on this, even though Kraske declared in his April 13 column that one of the questions reporters should be asking about lawmakers is, "Are they sponsoring any bills?"
After a week of local chatter about the unprinted AP story (and after our phone call to the paper, during which Shirk told us that dredging up McCarthy's boozy past would be "an issue"), however, the Star opened its Metro section on Saturday with a long article allowing the congresswoman to spread the blame for the disorder in her office. Star readers finally caught a whiff of what is, to political insiders like Kraske, old news.
It's common knowledge in D.C. that McCarthy can be unpleasant. (OK, the word bitch came up several times in our many conversations with Kansas Citians who are involved with Washington politics.)
Worse, she's perceived to be ineffective on the Hill. We're repeatedly told that local Democrats who need to get things done in D.C. turn first to their Republican senator, Kit Bond.
Sadly, none of this showed up in the AP article -- though the piece has apparently struck a chord with voters. When the congresswoman sat in on Kraske's radio show on KCUR 89.3 last week, a couple of callers had clearly read it. One cited the story's staff-turnover stats while asking what amounted to the toughest question of the hour: How is this instability affecting her ability to represent Kansas City?
As McCarthy replied that the job was hard and that people had moved on to bigger and better things, we found ourselves screaming at the radio. "C'mon, dude! Ask her why, if the job's so hard, other reps aren't having the same problem!"
But Kraske just said, "Mm hm. Caller, are you satisfied with that?"