A year or so after I moved to Kansas City, the Star offered an opportunity for select readers to come and tour their newsroom and printing plant, and to attend an editorial meeting. I signed up for it without disclosing that I was a reporter for the Pitch.
I was in my early 30s then and I was the youngest person on the tour. All of us were white. When we met with the Star’s editorial board, one of the older members of our touring party, a man from a suburb on the far edge of the metropolitan area, told how he basked in the paper everyday, reading the sports page first, then the front section, then local and business, and finally the lifestyle section, and the comics.
Lewis Duiguid, who I think was the only black member of the board at the time, and who writes a weekly column that often explores diversity issues, said, “You’re exactly the kind of reader we want.”
Duiguid was talking about the man’s reading habits, obviously. But I couldn’t help but see this as confirmation that Star’s target audience, its ideal reader, is an old white man from East Bumfuck Suburbia.
This incidents stands in my mind as one of the best illustrations of the role the
Star plays in the Kansas City region: It’s a defender and lapdog of white supremacy.
I don’t mean white supremacy in the white-hood-and-burning crosses sense. I don’t believe for a second there are any overt racists at 18th and Grand.
I mean it as a stark term to describe life as it is in KC and all across America. Whites, by and large, rank supreme. And the daily paper serves to ensure that this will always be so.
Right around the time of my tour of the paper, I covered a demonstration outside of the central offices of the Kansas City School District that was attended by virtually all of the city’s black leaders. The district was in turmoil, had recently ousted the superintendent, and the demonstrators were calling on the larger community (i.e. the white community) to rally around the district’s students, most of whom are black.
The black leaders railed on the Star, blaming the paper for fomenting controversy and subverting the will of the black community.
I was new to town, so I asked a few of the people at the demonstration to meet me for coffee, to expand on their views of the daily paper.
They told me, in no uncertain terms, that it is the most racist institution in town, an assessment I heard repeated over and over again over the next 10 years. In fact, Alvin Brooks – one of the city’s most beloved black leaders – was one of them. And this was before I worked on the campaign that denied his bid to become mayor.
At first, this assessment of the paper seemed too extreme. But then I began to see it in the paper’s coverage.
This really became clear to me later that year when a few of the city’s black leaders commandeered the process by which the boundaries of the school board’s election districts would be redrawn to reflect population shifts revealed by the 2000 Census. The black leaders bent the process to serve their purposes, which was to get more black representation on the board, and in doing so, they split up the district that encompasses the richest and whitest section of town.
In other words, they played politics the way they’re supposed to be played by anybody who wants to win.
If one were to judge solely by the front page of the Star and their coverage of the development, though, it would seem as if a major crime had been committed.
The paper ran a alarmist article and a great big reprint of the maps to show how the blacks had committed the ultimate crime in this city: They’d divided the predominantly white and wealthy Southwest Corridor into two districts, and both of the proposed new districts crossed Troost, thus giving black voters more power in each.
In response, a new redistricting committee was formed, one led by white leaders, and the district boundaries were redrawn to reunite the rich white district and break apart a different district, that had a large population of poor whites.
After that, I saw time and time again how the paper would shape the story of the city such that rich, white leaders were shown as champions of progress, largely incorruptible, and black leaders were ok so long as they played along with the white leaders’ game plan and only spoke up about acceptable issues of political correctness.
When I switched sides and got into politics, I really saw it.
My boss, Mayor Funkhouser, was pushing to create a regional transportation system, for a variety of reasons, but the one he cited most often was that it would decrease the racial segregation and isolation in the city, and give residents on the Eastside — where there are few jobs and the unemployment is high — access to jobs.
The Star, on the other hand, had come up with its own transportation plan: a light rail line that would run from one rich white part of town, through another rich white part of town to downtown, where a lot of rich whites work and sometimes go out for dinner.
So the paper’s coverage was skewed against us from the start, because they had their own plan to champion.
But one thing I found particularly vexing was that the paper never – and I mean NEVER – reported on the Mayor’s desire to help people who live in jobless, primarily black parts of town move to predominantly white areas, where jobs are much more abundant.
(At the same time, the paper’s coverage of the Mayor suggested that he was racist, due to the Francis Semler thing, and his attempt to fire the black city manager, and Mammygate, but that’s a whole other story.)
But then, in the middle of our full-court press to get a regional plan on the November ballot, we released a plan that would put the light rail line on Troost, the city’s historic racial dividing line, instead of the white and wealthy west side. Up on the 29th Floor of City Hall, we were all quite excited about making such a bold stroke against the city’s historic, racial divisions.
The paper went apoplectic, especially the editorial board, just like they did when black leaders divided the Southwest Corridor to create new school district boundaries. It was like: How dare you take a multi-million-dollar toy away from us rich whites and give it to them.
It was the most blatantly racist thing I’d ever seen the Star do, frankly, and I called them on it. I had some long phone arguments with Yael Abouhalkah, Merriam Pepper and Tom McClanahan, the editorial board’s token conservative.
I’ll never forget how I told McClanahan I thought the paper’s position and coverage were examples of institutional racism, and – get this – he didn’t even know what institutional racism was.
But that’s not the worst of it.
At some point during my nightmare run as spin doctor for Funk and Gloria, one of the Star’s top reporters admitted, in no uncertain terms, that they pretty much only report on the problems and dramas of the governments and institutions in Kansas City proper. He told me that Johnson County government has just as many problems as KC does, and the school districts in the suburbs have issues too, and there are crazy people in office all across KC suburbia, but the paper never reports on them.
Take a second to think about this. It’s a huge admission.
The only story that’s fit to print in the paper of record in this town is that the urban core is fucked up, but everything’s just fine in the burbs.
So, day after day, the Star sends a loud and clear message to its predominantly white and suburban readers: Kansas City is fucked up! Stay the fuck away!
Day after day for years and years and decades and decades.
It’s no wonder this is one of the most segregated cities in the country.