I’m about to do the unthinkable…
I’m going to tell you exactly why Steve Penn was fired by the Star. In my humble opinion. But trust me, I spent 16 years toiling in the belly of the beast and I know how things work at 18th and Grand.
Steve Penn wasn’t merely fired because he slipped up and got caught. He was fired because he wasn’t very good – which is being generous – and the paper stumbled on to an unimpeachable reason to rid itself of him.
It’s really just that simple.
Frankly – and allow me to first say as a person I like Steve – his columns were somewhat obviously, poorly written and of little consequence to most readers. Steve was a byproduct of the Baby Boom generation of editors – post Watergate journalists who wanted to right the wrongs of their predecessors.
Two of those wrongs being the presence and treatment of women and persons of color in the newsroom.
When I came on board in 1992, for example, two of the main thrusts by new editor Art Brisbane were to place women in charge of the features section (now FYI) and hire African American and women columnists.
To that end, no fewer than four female "Metro" section columnists were installed, starting with Jennifer Howe then Betty Cuniberti and continuing – in failure I should add – with Barb Shelly and Miriam Pepper. They all failed to ignite anything approaching significant followings or interest by readers before leaving or being promoted to positions where attracting readers was of less importance.
That’s a brutal assessment – and they’re all nice people, so I apologize on that count – but stand by the obvious.
Steve Penn was in most people’s minds a minority hire. A dude who worked his way up, but let’s be real; few of his columns were of much consequence or substance. Penn was the default "black guy" in the newsroom who could be counted on to deliver blow jobs to Wayne Cauthen or Ollie Gates – not that they did or didn’t deserve them – and cover odds and ends in the black community. But not much else.
And in today’s bottom line driven, wide world of sports – where trimming fat (along with bone) is a painful reality, Steve had to go. They whacked his pay by a third along with fellow columnist Mike Hendricks two years back. But even if he’d been making $60,000 after the wick trimming, that still left a $40,000 paycheck on the table, and that was $40,000 too much.
Catching Penn turning in passages from press releases and the like as his own work was the perfect out.
Nothing incites the paranoia gene more with the still-largely white, middle aged management at the Star than race issues. Crossing swords with Kansas City’s African-American community. In other words, letting Steve go could only be done if they got him in the Jason Blair Zone.
Blair, you recall, was a black New York Times reporter axed in 2003 for "frequent acts of journalistic fraud."
And like Penn in today’s newspaper, Blair’s public execution was an extremely high profile affair.
Few staffers get disgraced in the pages of the Kansas City Star as thoroughly as Penn did today.
Think about it. The last one I recall was Gib Twyman in the early ’90s. Sports columnist Gib went down ugly, just like Penn, but Gib was screwing up on all four cylinders.
Clearly the newspaper wanted to leave no doubt whatsoever as to why Penn was let go. No way did it dare risk any kind of backlash whatsoever from the black community on the silencing of one of its few voices at the paper.
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.
Let me add one more thought…
In a perfect world, Penn would have been long gone years ago. It was obvious at the paper that he wasn’t up to the task. I recall during Obama’s campaign in 2008, a friend of Penn’s telling me that Steve had argued that there were 200 million African Americans living in the United States.
Several years back, I was working late one night at the Star when I got a call from Mike Hendricks.
Mike had been writing a column that went in the Joco edition of the Star (and later the Missouri side) and – as he explained to me that night – had been put on probation because his column was not being well read.
Mike was bummed and the conversation consisted of equal parts crying on my shoulder and asking for advice. I don’t recall exactly what I told Mike, but I do remember that he began to ramp up the sex appeal on his column post haste.
One of the first things Mike did was start a campaign to get "Goin’ to Kansas City" named the official city song.
I thought it was a bit queer but some City Council members signed on and Mike helped get it done. Then he began dialing in far more edge and attitude and in the ensuing years managed to piss off Bill O’Reilly and make a bit of a name for himself.
I’ve heard through the grapevine that editors attempted to light a similar fire under Penn but obviously they failed and fairly miserably. But if indeed Steve was ever put on "probation" like Hendricks, they never made it stick.
They should have…