Before the 1960s The Kansas City Star almost never published obituaries of black people. Then black funeral homes began to call obits in to the city desk. Several of us reporters would write them and drop them in the basket. Because of young editors like Tom Eblen, they slipped into the paper. One day a major editor approached the city desk.
"When colored funeral homes call," he told the staff there, "just tell them we only publish obituaries of important people. We can't do that for everyone." Copy editor Frank Spurlock rose from his chair.
"But we do publish obits of all white people," he said.
"Just tell them that anyway," the editor replied.
"You want us to lie?" Frank said.
I sat at my nearby desk as the city room air seemed to heat up.
"Well…if you can't do it, I'll get somebody who can!"
Breathing hard, the two men spun around and walked away from each other. Amazingly, hardly a month went by before The Star began publishing all black obituaries. Even more amazing, Frank didn't get fired.
For more than a full century, we had been doing the wrong thing. This was years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Pressured by nothing more than Frank's nervy confrontation and the desire to do right, we changed.
I tell that story now because I'm sick of President Donald Trump's ugly libels about the "disgusting and corrupt media."
Trump speaks not of internet liars; he speaks of mainstream journalists like Frank Spurlock in his young years. I was a reporter for 20 years and taught journalism at the University of Missouri-Kansas City another 20. Mainstream reporters, past and present, are among the most truthful and courageous people I've ever known.
I yet recall the strange sight of my Star colleague, J. Harry Jones, popping open his car hood at midnight after work to search for suspicious wires. That's because Harry had written countless stories exposing Mafia names and Mafia games even in Kansas City politics. In that era, Mafia types were blowing up their enemies and each other with car bombs. That scared Harry but didn't stop him from writing.
I have read The Star nearly every day since I was hired there in 1958. Star reporters try to be "objective" and "tell both sides of the story" while also struggling tell the Truth — Truth with a capital letter and no quotation marks. The Star's Lynn Horsley and Steve Vockrodt did that recently in just half a sentence.
Managers of the Intercontinental Hotel on the Plaza, where the Presidential Suite rents for $3,920 per night, told Kansas City government the hotel was "blighted." They asked the city to impose a 1 percent Community Improvement District sales tax and pay it to the hotel.
In their story Horsley and Vockrodt wrote: “When asked why the hotel doesn’t just raise room rates to pay for the improvements, general manager Don Breckenridge responded via email, saying "experienced management companies explore all options to maximize revenues.” In other words, "we try to get all the money we can."
The reporters' question posed a problem for the manager. But that's the very one Star's readers would have asked. The reporters were not just repeating what they were told by management. They were seeking the Truth.
Not long ago I was lucky enough to sit beside Star freelance reporter David Twiddy at a contentious Shawnee Mission school board meeting. More than a hundred teachers were protesting the board's "safety pin" ruling. Twiddy rattled away on his laptop, taking swift notes on the testimony.
In a separate box on his screen during gaps in the argument, he had already started writing the story he would turn in by midnight to appear next day. Later I read his ten inches or so of type and found the printed story well done.
I wish our new President had the intellect to report a meeting well enough so all the attendees could say, "Yeah, that's about what happened."
I have followed The Star's Diane Stafford for years as her countless stories and columns popped up hither and yon in the paper. When I asked her about good work by Star reporters in recent years, she said only seldom is courage required.
"I do think of (reporter) Judy Thomas," she said, "who has written so much about abortion protests and kid-abusing priests. But those aren't necessarily ethical decisions. She's following good stories, like a good journalist.”
Maybe that's the point: not super moral decisions but simply chronicling the world we live in with clarity and honesty no matter how much grief we get from people who vehemently disagree.