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'Kansas City Star' Publishes Apology For Its Coverage Of Black Community

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It began with a suggestion from a reporter. At the close of this year marked by protests against racism, one of the heartland's most respected newspapers is issuing an extraordinary apology for conduct stretching back nearly a century and a half, an acknowledgment that decade after decade, The Kansas City Star, as its editorial page put it, robbed an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition. Well, joining us to talk about this is the reporter who recommended a bold, if belated, second look, Mara Rose Williams.

Welcome to you.

MARA ROSE WILLIAMS: Oh, thank you for having me here, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And also the editor of the Star, Mike Fannin, who wrote that apology. Welcome to you as well.

MIKE FANNIN: Thank you. Happy to be here.

KELLY: Mara, I'm going to start with you because this was your idea for the Star to go deeper than an apology and not only going through your own archives, but searching court documents and minutes of meetings and comparing how the Star had covered a particular story compared to how Black newspapers like the Kansas City Call or the Kansas City Sun were covering it.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, that was one of the things that we wanted to do - was to look at the full story. So in order to do that, it required a tremendous amount of research. This project was like none other that I had ever done in my 40 years as a journalist in terms of it started with a mere idea - not a tip, not an event, but just an idea. So it required tremendous amounts of research by myself and my colleagues. Eric Adler and Cortlynn Stark, Mike Hendricks were the other three reporters who worked on this with me. So, yeah, it was quite a bit of work - I mean, boxes and boxes of court documents.

KELLY: Yeah, I'm guessing quite a bit of work is an understatement. Well, give us an example of something that you didn't get right the first time around, Mike, a story that just shouldn't have run or shouldn't have been reported or written the way it was.

FANNIN: Well, the Star considered itself, I think, to be a bit of sort of The New York Times of the Midwest. And so we were writing a lot about what was happening in the region. We were writing about military actions that were happening in Europe. But we weren't writing about Black families who were having their homes bombed just down the street from the paper. So many of the people who help make our city famous did not get ink in the Star or its sister paper - the morning sister paper, the Times.

KELLY: Yeah. I was going through some of the examples that y'all cite. Charlie Parker leapt out at me, the jazz great from Kansas City. And your paper barely covered him.

FANNIN: Didn't really get a headline until he died, and it was late. It was several days after he died, and we misspelled his name and got his age wrong. So it was just that kind of sloppiness. And it certainly went beyond sloppiness. I mean, it wasn't just a sin of omission. It was a sin of commission. We chose in many instances to stand on the sidelines instead of representing and advocating for all Kansas Citians and, you know, being a voice for everyone who lives here.

KELLY: That was another example that will stick with me - Jackie Robinson, the baseball great who had played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues before breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier. And the Star did cover that story - on Page 18.

FANNIN: Yes, shameful.

WILLIAMS: A lot of the coverage, too, was there are things that were very subtle, but they impacted the Black community, and they're still talking about those things today.

KELLY: And when you say subtle, you mean what? - the words that were used or - what do you mean?

WILLIAMS: For example, the school district kept making a series of boundary changes to keep the schools segregated. We may have written about a boundary change as it occurred at a school board meeting, but what we didn't do was make the connection as to why they were making these boundary changes and that there were - like, within a two-year period, there were, like, 24 boundary changes, some of them just one block. We didn't dig in deep enough to make the connection that it was to keep the schools segregated, to keep white children in one part of town and Black children in another part of town, which was also a violation of federal law at the time.

KELLY: One of the centerpieces...

FANNIN: I think another example, Mary Louise, if I can jump in there is just in the 1968 riots following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, we had unarmed Black men, including a teenager, who were shot and killed by police. And unlike what you would see today, I think, from The Kansas City Star, there were no follow-up investigations, no tough questions asked of the police.

And so the reason that we think this is significant and important to write about now is because as we write about structural racism in institutions in Kansas City that exist currently, to do that without having ever addressed our role in helping to create and support that structure, we help build that structure. And so that is why we had to come forward and acknowledge that we played a role in the outcomes that we see today. And those outcomes are deeply rooted in both our history and the city's history.

KELLY: These challenges and biases are hardly unique to the Star. I know these are very much live conversations in newsrooms around the country, very much a live conversation inside NPR. And it can feel like a necessary and I hope respectful but sometimes really uncomfortable conversation, too. Mara, what is your advice to other newsrooms who are doing their own reckonings with race, with bias?

WILLIAMS: My recommendation is to - you know, to look very closely at what you've done in the past. I said something to Mike the other day. He and I were talking. And newspapers, The Kansas City Star included - we have been a vehicle that basically shines the light on wrongdoing. We are watchdogs. We are truth tellers, and we point fingers at people who do wrong. But, you know, you can't really shine the light on someone else when you haven't first shone the light on yourselves.

You do that, and it is inspiring. It makes you - it has been inspiring for me. It makes me want to dig deeper, look closer, ask more questions, connect more with the community. So there may be some things that come out of this that you'd be surprised. I mean, it has been an inspirational project as well.

KELLY: Has it been painful?

WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, seeing some of this is - sometimes I sat at my desk and I actually cried, I mean, even though I knew that I would find things that would be painful. And I've had to call my colleagues and talk through it. It's like, I can't believe we said that or did that or didn't do that. So, yeah, it's been painful, but it has also been inspirational.

KELLY: And Mike, how about you - closing thought?

FANNIN: I think inspirational is a great word. I'm inspired by the reaction that we've seen, and it's poured in from across the country. We're inspired by the response, mostly because we think that that gives us momentum to come forward with more concrete solutions that we'll put in place in 2021 and hopefully really be able to establish some trust in that community because many generations of Black Kansas Citians grew up learning not to trust the Star. And so we have a lot to unwind there. And I would suggest that other news organizations across the country, particularly those with legacy publishing histories, take a hard look in the mirror.

KELLY: We have been talking with Kansas City Star reporter Mara Rose Williams and Mike Fannin, the paper's president and editor. He wrote in his essay, quote, "we are grateful for how far we've come. We are humbled by how far we still have to go."

Thank you to you both.

FANNIN: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK BARROTT'S "MOKUSHO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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