Near the end of the workday on July 12, 2011, a group of Kansas City Star editors and reporters filed into a small, drab conference room adjoining the paper's cavernous second-floor newsroom, where there seem to be more and more empty desks every year.
There were still enough reporters around that afternoon that the conference room was standing-room-only to hear the unscheduled announcement. Anne Hartung Spenner, at that time the Star's assistant managing metro editor, stood at the head of the table and delivered the news: Longtime metro columnist Steve Penn was getting fired. He had, Spenner explained, lifted sentences and paragraphs from press releases and passed them off as his own in his columns.
Gasps and murmurs followed. Penn was a 31-year veteran at the Star. (Full disclosure: I was an intern at the Star at the time of Penn's firing but have never met him, and I've had little contact with the paper's employees since my internship ended.) Parrying questions from a couple of the nosier reporters in the room, Spenner offered only a few more details and said that a fuller accounting would come in the following day's paper. It did: an unsigned burn notice that appeared on page A5 and charged that Penn had grafted whole sentences and paragraphs from press releases. In a display of inverted euphemism, the paper never used the word "plagiarism," but the phrasing could have been a dictionary definition of the dreaded scarlet P: that Penn had presented "others' conclusions and opinions as his own and without attribution."
Those words and that story — which amounted to Penn's professional burial — are now at the heart of a lawsuit filed by Penn at the end of June, nearly one year after his termination. The lawsuit claims that the Star "intended to injure" Penn's reputation by claiming that the copying of material from press releases was unethical.
Penn, who did not respond to an interview request made through his attorney, claims he has lost work opportunities because of the way the Star publicized a firing he says was unfair. In the lawsuit, which seeks $25,000 plus damages, Penn makes his case with this surprising claim: "Such press releases are widely-understood [sic] in the journalism industry to be released to the press by those who want their words published with no or minimal editing and who do not desire attribution as to authorship."
Copying is expected, Penn claims. But his crowning accusation goes further: "As such, [Penn's] training (and the widespread practice at the Star) was to use these press releases without attribution, and on the basis of an implied permission for such use." In other words, he admits having ripped off press releases, but explains that doing so was fine because so did a bunch of his colleagues at the Star.
"We believe the evidence is going to show that it was being widely done by various reporters at the Star," Penn's attorney, Lyle Gregory of Raymore, tells The Pitch.
Hoo boy. And so, as Penn scrounges for his ex-employer's loose change, his lawsuit is sending observers down the rabbit hole of KC media's inner workings.
So far, the Star is declining to put up its gloves. "We won't have any comment," Star editor Mike Fannin tells The Pitch in an e-mail. Spenner, now a vice chancellor of marketing and communications at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, also declined to rebut Penn's claims. But a former colleague closely familiar with Penn's career tells The Pitch that Penn's claims about the Star are "total horseshit."
"The only place where you're most likely to rewrite press releases is the business desk, where you rewrite releases all the time," says the former colleague, who did not want to be named for fear of becoming involved with the lawsuit. But even PR sent to the business desk would be rewritten, not copied, the colleague says, and only for brief items — not for columns. "No one that I know uses, verbatim, press releases in any capacity. And anyone who does is A: lazy; and B: someone who doesn't have any kind of integrity."
That ethical assessment is backed up by George Kennedy — a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Kennedy, the author of several journalism instructional texts, tells The Pitch: "I can't think of any justification for passing someone else's work off as your own, even a press release."
And Margaret Duffy, chairwoman of the strategic communications faculty at MU's J-School — who probably taught a lot of the people sending Penn those releases — disagrees with Penn's claim about an industrywide expectation that press releases materialize unedited in newspaper columns. "Clearly there are PR practitioners who would disagree [with me], who would say, 'Woohoo! Use my release, use my stuff with your byline on it,' " she says. "But I think it tends to undermine credibility and trust in a news organization, and that's a big enough problem already in my opinion."
Details about whether and how often press releases end up parroted in the local daily may not matter to the average reader. But public crucifixions such as Penn's are a fixture in the journalism industry, where ethics are regulated not by any licensing system but rather by the profession's cultlike credo of independence and transparency. Enforcement for the violation of those norms typically consists of shamefests sparked on media blogs such as poynter.org and jimromenesko.com; think Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Ethics aside, though, Penn's lawsuit may be doomed if he can't prove that the Star's management was privately telling him to do one thing while the paper very publicly said its policy was to do something else.
On June 22, 2003, after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal at The New York Times, the Star's then-editor, Mark Zieman, posted the KC paper's full ethics policy on its website. He wrote in an accompanying column: "All staff members are required to read it and abide by it." According to that policy, as quoted by The Pitch in 2003 — and which remains unchanged today — the Star's official stance on plagiarism is unambiguous: "Do not borrow the work of others. Plagiarism includes the wholesale lifting of someone else's writing, research or original concepts without attribution."
Penn's attorney argues that a silent exception exists for news releases and that the Star's plagiarism policy was "vague." Indeed, as then-Pitch editor C.J. Janovy noted about the policy in 2003, "What it doesn't spell out is what happens to someone who would do something so dumb," which is where internal politics at the paper come in. Janovy was referring to a 2002 incident in which Glenn E. Rice, a reporter for the Star, got busted copying whole paragraphs of a jazz concert review from another review in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, newspaper. As would later happen with Penn, the paper implied that Rice's plagiarism was not an isolated occurrence. "Our examination of Glenn's music coverage revealed serious problems that had to be addressed," Zieman said in an ensuing Star story.
But unlike the Penn case, those problems were not explained further to the public. Furthermore, Rice — who is also black — was disciplined rather than terminated.
What remains similar about both cases are the whispers that accompanied Penn's spotlighted takedown and Rice's retention in 2003: whispers that said the Star — which, like most mainstream publications, has an overwhelmingly white newsroom — fears the backlash that might come if the paper is seen as casually kicking out one of its few black voices.
"Nothing incites the paranoia gene more with the still largely white, middle-aged management at the Star than race issues," Hearne Christopher Jr., former Star gossip columnist and perpetually aggrieved media hanger-on, wrote on his blog after Penn's firing. He added: "Clearly the newspaper wanted to leave no doubt whatsoever as to why Penn was let go. Penn needed to go down hard and clean and that's exactly how he was exterminated. That's why the Star went on and on into practically each and every boring detail of Penn's journalistic infractions."
Others doubt that race is so relevant in this case. "You talk about losing a black voice — there was no voice there," says Penn's former colleague, referring to Penn's snoozy columns. "I was trying to figure out why he was elevated to that job. He hadn't earned his stripes [as a reporter]."
Gregory, who recently represented Danny Holmes in a successful race-discrimination lawsuit against the Kansas City police board, tells The Pitch he doesn't know why Penn would have been singled out if plagiarism was so widespread at the Star. "I can't read any minds until I talk to people," he says. Penn's lawsuit says only that the paper "intended to injure" Penn with its claims that Penn had acted unethically, despite having "serious doubts as to whether the statements are true."
Speaking of things that aren't true, Penn's lawsuit contains several basic errors.
The lawsuit, filed in Jackson County, Missouri, is addressed to the circuit court of Jackson County, Kansas. It misidentifies Star publisher Mi-Ai Parrish as the paper's editor, also misspelling her name. And, perhaps most puzzling, the lawsuit identifies Penn, a general-interest columnist, as a sports columnist who "would inform the public of upcoming high school and college sporting events and/or otherwise communicate news of interest to those who followed high school or college sports in the Kansas City area."
The clumsy filing underscores the question of whether trying to take the Star to court is going to help Penn.
"Why would he bring this back up again a year later?" Penn's former colleague wonders. "He was unemployable before, and now he's making himself even more unemployable." The source sighs and adds, "He's a nice guy."
(Editor's note: Mark Zieman was the Star's editor, not its publisher, in 2003. Art Brisbane was the publisher at the time; we've made this correction in the online version of this story.)