The Lurching Kansas City Star Editorial “Board”

From a long-time observer of Missouri politics and media:

In the dizzying crush of last-minute campaigning, one of Missouri’s most significant cultural and political changes has been little noted but was more evident than ever over the weekend: The rightward lurch of The Kansas City Star editorial board under Publisher Tony Berg.

The Star endorsed Roy Blunt, along with Jay Ashcroft, Eric Schmitt and Josh Hawley. This rightward lurch in editorial opinion would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. But The Star editorial board has been physically emptied by layoffs, firings and resignations. The Star does not even have an editorial page editor, much less any full-time staff editorial writers, in the closing stretch of one of the most consequential elections of our lifetimes. The liberals have been purged and a freelancing conservative has stepped in to ghost-write Star editorials.

In March, The Star cut the jobs of Editorial Page Editor Steve Paul and veteran editorial writer and columnist Barb Shelly. The Star’s Public Editor, a watchdog on the paper’s content, exited his job several months ago and has not been replaced. Then, on Sept. 28, The Star canned Yael T. Abouhalkah, prompting The Pitch to quip: “His firing was good news for just one person, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.” 

That left one man standing on a once-powerful editorial page long interwoven with Kansas City’s history, Lewis Diuguid.  But Diuguid announced hours after Abouhalkah’s sacking became public that he would step down on Oct. 7, the same day Abouhalkah departed. Duiguid’s last Star editorial column Oct. 7 encouraged disregarding Donald Trump’s bigotry and celebrating ethnic diversity.

That left Star Publisher Berg as the only member of his newspaper’s once-robust editorial board. KCUR Radio reported: “Berg has made it known that he’s looking to take the editorial page in a more conservative direction, which may have left little room for Abouhalkah and Diuguid, both liberals.” As was Shelly – who, like Abouhalkah, took her commentary about the 2016 and the state of The Star onto Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Faced with an empty editorial board, Berg hired a freelancer to lay out The Star’s endorsements. Not just any freelancer – the Star’s editorial freelancer is Rich Hood, a Republican who once led The Star editorial page until he lost that high-paid job in a 2001 Star cutback. One of Hood’s heroes is former Senator John Ashcroft, whose son The Star has just editorially embraced for secretary of state. Hood’s editorial also dissed home-grown KC area Democratic candidates Jason Kander vs Blunt and Teresa Hensley vs Hawley. The latest GOP endorsements have Hood’s heavy Republican handprints, as his conservative voice was empowered by Berg just in time to help out Blunt, Ashcroft, Hawley and Schmitt.

This weekend, Shelly excoriated Berg for editorial endorsements exemplifying the rightward swing. And Shelly noted on Facebook: “… if you think the Star’s endorsement of Roy Blunt sounds like a press release, you could be right. Word is the ‘editorial board’ invited both campaigns to send a one-page summary of why they deserve the endorsement, and pretty much regurgitated Blunt’s.”

The Pitch called The Star editorial page “a local resource willing itself limp,” adding: “Incoming editorial-board VP Colleen McCain Nelson won’t arrive until well after the election, which she’s covering for The Wall Street Journal. Who knows how much time she’ll require to establish her own presence and staff up?” The Pitch continued that The Star’s Berg has “picked this odd moment to yank out what’s left of the paper’s spine,” citing a post-presidential debate editorial that “doesn’t read like a careful turn rightward or to some imagined center.”

Wrote Barb Shelly of the weekend endorsements: “I doubt if Berg knows enough to understand that he has now placed this new editor and whomever else is hired to write opinion — if anyone — on the side of the NRA, voter suppression, discrimination against gays, repression of women and the interests of corporate greed over working and striving Americans.”

Interestingly, Colleen Nelson was a co-winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing with her then-Dallas Morning News colleague Todd Robberson. This year, Robberson was named editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. With the P-D’s unprecedented editorial flip-flopping of positions this year in regard to tobacco taxes, and The Star’s rightward lurch, both major newspaper editorial pages are in wobbly, understaffed and exhausted states. There are now weathered husks of amorphous opinion where once-brilliant writers held forth at 1729 Grand Boulevard in Kansas City and 900 North Tucker Boulevard in St. Louis. Do they even matter anymore?