And now, the story the Kansas City Star doesn’t want Steve Penn to tell…
After spending more than two hours poring over legal filings by the fired Star columnist and powerhouse lawyers for the newspaper, there are at least three potentially powerful points of attack the Star wants desperately to avoid having to defend itself against in court.
Let’s take a look.
First and foremost they absolutely, positively do not want Penn to call Star reporter Glenn E. Rice to the stand. That’s because Rice – like Penn was, is one of the newspaper’s very few African American writers. And he was involved in one of – if not the – most high profile plagiarism scandals at the newspaper in my 16 years at the Star.
That’s right, straight down the line stealing from another published journalist plagiarism.
No borrowing from an odd, innocuous press release, Rice’s journalistic crime was of the first order. Why he wasn’t fired remains a huge head scratcher and mystery to many, including former Star editor Jim Fitzpatrick.
A political reporter at the time, Rice somehow reviewed a jazz concert by singer Dianne Reeves at the Gem Theater that was published on May 13, 2002. In doing so Rice majorly plagiarized a published review of a Reeves concert two weeks earlier by Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel arts writer Matt Schudel.
It was bad – really bad – really, really bad.
Schudel’s take at the time on Rice’s journalistic thievery:
“This is, in my view, a textbook example of plagiarism,” he told the Pitch. “Up until then, Schudel didn’t know there was an overzealous fan of his work in Kansas City. ‘I find the whole episode rather appalling,’ he said.”
Did Rice get fired? Nope.
Nor did the Star ever own up to Rice’s plagiarism like it did with Penn. And make no mistake, Rice’s larceny was of grand theft magnitude compared to Penn’s petty shop lifting.
While potential witness Pete Grathoff is officially listed as a copy editor and page designer in the Star’s sports section, he clearly works as a reporter and columnist as well, penning an expanded calendar column dealing largely with – wait for it – press releases.
That appears worrisome for the newspaper in that Penn was fired and offered up to public ridicule by the Star for appropriating the odd press release passage in his column.
Just how worried is the Star about Penn likening Grathoff’s possible use of press releases to his? So much so its lawyers motioned to exclude Grathoff from the trial in part because he’s “not a reporter or columnist.”
In my opinion that’s a losing argument for the newspaper.
Because Grathoff clearly also writes news and columns – often interspersed with his calendar column – such as one he wrote late last month about arbitration-eligible Kansas City Royals that could be in for big pay raises. Or a column two weeks ago speculating on trade rumors that could result int eh Royals getting a Korean pitcher. Or yesterday’s mashup of calendar item and a column writing about ex-Royal Marty Patton.
Grathoff’s not merely a calendar clerk, he’s a veteran career journalist.
The Star’s lawyers wrote that Penn was an “opinion columnist whose work product appeared on the front of the Metro section alongside his name, photograph and the word ‘commentary.’ ”
Well, Grathoff’s work product appears alongside what an identical in nature columnist mug shot with his name and his additional reporting and opinion to calendar items goes well beyond the function of the mere clerks who have helped compile past Star information and entertainment calendar sections.
Has Grathoff ever appropriated press release material without crediting it?
Penn is only “assuming” that he may have and has no personal knowledge of Grathoff’s practices, the Star’s lawyers assert in their filings. However it’s clear they don’t want Grathoff on the stand confirming or denying such usage.
The Star’s third potential Achilles heel is former news editor Anne Spenner.
“After Penn was fired, an email was sent by Star editor Anne Spenner to all writers of the Star acknowledging ‘shock at the new interpretation of the Star policy on press releases’ and offering a brown bag lunch to Star writers confused about Star policy on their accepted use,” says a Penn filing referencing an email Spenner is alleged to have sent.
And who knows what Whitlock may have to say if Penn follows through and the case does go to trial. However one thing is quite clear. Penn has some very indelicate questions to ask, and the answers to those questions may not go over all that well with a local jury.
Perhaps we’ll see.