Says Their Legal Firm, Lathrop & Gage, Not Consulted Before Running Altered McClatchy Piece Related to Several Clients, Employees of Firm
Star's Deputy National Editor Explains, Offers BRAD BLOG Contradicted Reason for Delayed Publication...
By Chris Tackett on 5/10/2007, 5:39pm PT  

Guest Blogged by Chris Tackett

After reading Greg Gordon’s excellent piece for McClatchy discussing Missouri’s place as "ground zero" for the GOP "voter fraud" scam, we – along with others – were surprised to learn that of all of McClatchy’s papers, The Kansas City Star had failed to run the piece when others, in different states, had done so on the first day it was filed.

When the piece finally ran at KC Star, FiredUp! Missouri's Howard Beale pointed out, it was greatly altered and had become what one could argue was a much different story. Their edited version of the story greatly downplayed failed Republican attempts to prove claims of massive Democratic "voter fraud," and excised references to many GOP politicians, such as Karl Rove, and perhaps most notably, a number of powerful Missouri politicians.

We wanted to allow the paper an opportunity to respond to those criticisms. We were able to receive such a response from The Star's Deputy National Editor, Keith Chrostowski. But later yesterday, the reason he gave to The BRAD BLOG for the delayed publication was directly contradicted in a public post Chrostowski made on the KC Star's own blogsite.

While originally waiting for him to respond to our numerous calls, we spotted Beale’s follow-up post from Tuesday morning revealing that The Star happens to be a client of the powerful Missouri GOP law firm Lathrop & Gage.

As BRAD BLOG readers surely know by now, Lathrop & Gage is the law firm of Mark F. “Thor” Hearne, who has been a central figure involved in the ongoing "voter fraud" scam in his role as founder of the GOP front group known as "American Center for Voting Rights" (our ACVR Special Coverage Page is here).

Missouri's Governor Matt Blunt is also a client of L&G, and has been represented for years by Hearne. Blunt, Hearne, and the ACVR were all central to the McClatchy piece as originally filed by Gordon and the role of each of them in the Star's altered version of the story was subsequently removed or otherwise greatly watered down.

Of course, there's no way of knowing if the editors at the Star were directly or indirectly influenced by this connection. But even if they are given the benefit of the doubt and the presumption that there was no influence on their delayed publication and editing of the McClatchy piece, the issue still remains that they failed to disclose the relationship to L&G to their readers. Such disclosure would seem to be a common sense journalistic principle.

On Tuesday afternoon, Chrostowski finally returned our call to provide a statement and an explanation. A transcript of the pertinent portion our conversation, along with his later posted contradiction, follows…

BRAD BLOG: Well, if you just want to make your statement we’ll go from there.

KEITH CHROSTOWSKI: Well, you know we often edit wire stories to meet our standards. We do that all the time to all sorts of wire stories. And that’s what we did to this one. When it ran it made the same points that the original version did. And the rest of the story isn’t changed. That’s pretty much it.

BB: So you do think that it made the same points as the original McClatchy story?

CHROSTOWSKI: Sure. We talked to the McClatchy people about it. And this often happens with wire stories. That’s our standards here at The Star, that’s pretty much all I can say.

BB: Looking at what some of these blogs have said, I’m trying to see this from everyone’s perspective. From The Kansas City Star’s perspective, do you think there is any validity to the claims that some of the edits, specifically taking out some of these key individuals' names, specifically Karl Rove and…

CHROSTOWSKI: [interrupts] The point is it made the same points as the original story did, you know. The story stands as it’s edited.

BB: Is there any validity to their beliefs that some of the edits, whether intentional or not, did benefit some of these individuals that were named in the original story?

CHROSTOWSKI: No, not at all. I think the point made in the original story is the same as in the edited story, whether the names are there or not. I’m not going to get into specifics because it was four days ago and we made numerous edits to that and other stories in the meantime. Gov. Blunt and the Republicans are still under heat regarding this story and they were before and they are now.
...
Blogs have different standards and we needed to make some changes to that story to meet The Star’s standards.

BB: Could you explain what those standards are as far as how they related to the cuts you made?

CHROSTOWSKI: That story is speaking for itself. We have standards for fairness and accuracy and context and things like that and we thought based on our report that we needed to make these changes.

BB: “Based on your report” does that mean you’ve done other investigative reporting work that showed some of the McClatchy piece to be inaccurate?

CHROSTOWSKI: No, but we’ve looked at this case, we’ve reported on this case in the paper extensively, so we know their situation here, regarding the situation in Missouri. We’ve followed this story in many ways.

BB: Well it actually has been shown that The Star has reported on this story less frequently than other papers also owned by McClatchy.

CHROSTOWSKI: Well, you need to look at what’s been on Prime Buzz [note: Prime Buzz is the subscription-only political site of The Kansas City Star], which you probably can’t. This story has been picked up by TPMMuckraker and Harper’s blog, so our coverage we feel has been right there. And we published this story. We published this story and it made the same points. That’s really all I can say. I don’t feel like I have anything else to add.

BB: What was the reason for the delayed publishing?

CHROSTOWSKI: We didn’t have space that morning. That’s often the case. We did feel it was timely, but it got in by Thursday or Friday, but doesn’t make that much difference. We still got it to the reader. There was never any thought of not running the story.

BB: So you had to wait two days for space to open up?

CHROSTOWSKI: Right.

BB: With regards to The Star being a client of Lathrop & Gage, does that in any way raise an issue of conflict of interest or ethics since they are involved?

CHROSTOWSKI: That has nothing to do with anything. That’s all I can say. They are our libel lawyers and that’s all there is to it.

At this point in the conversation, Chrostowski mentioned he had a meeting to attend to. This was shortly after 4pm and I understood he had deadlines to which to attend, so I let him go.

Realizing the recording had been somewhat muffled in certain spots, including the important portion regarding Lathrop & Gage, we followed up via email to allow him to clarify his statement on this important issue.

The email to him included these questions: 1. With regards to The Star being a client of Lathrop & Gage, does that in any way raise an issue of conflict of interest or ethics since they are involved? 2. How important is the relationship between The Star and Lathrop & Gage to the context of this story and should The Star provide a disclaimer alerting readers to this potential conflict of interest, if one exists?

His response to that email in a moment, but before that, we noticed last night that Chrostowski had also come under fire on the paper's KC Buzz Blog concerning these matters.

The response he posted to readers about the delay in publication would seem to directly contradict the reason he offered us, that the delay was due to space considerations. On the paper's blog, he claimed the delay was due to additional time needed for "some independent reporting and editing." Here's how he described the reason for the delay on the blogsite last night:

As for the McClatchy story, the thrust of the story that ran in the paper was the same as the McClatchy version. We did some independent reporting and editing, which took some time, and that's why the story was held a day. There was never any thought about NOT publishing it.

Okay....there's still a whole lot of murk here, it seems. All of which underscores the need for full disclosure and the paper's failure to do so in the first place.

So back to our email, to which Chrostowski responded in short order thusly:

Chris:

The notion that Lathrop and Gage has political influence at The Star couldn't be further from the truth. They are our libel lawyers only. I have worked with them on numerous stories and never felt any political pressure.

They were not consulted in the editing of this story. They don't even know what stories we have unless we tell them. They saw this story at the same time our readers did.

While he was still typing this response, we placed another call to him, hopefully to reach him before he left for the day, so we were able to verbally get his response to this question for a second time.

Here is the pertinent exchange:

BB: I had a quick follow-up, if you could explain the policy for disclosing certain relationships and why there was no disclosure given here.

CHROSTOWSKI: That statement is inaccurate because there was no conflict of interest. Lathrop & Gage was not contacted about this story. We don't contact them unless we think there is a potential libel problem with it. They didn't even know this story was here. And that's my statement.

So there you have it. Despite The Star's coverage of a client of L&G, an attorney at L&G, and a story that has direct implications on L&G (there was an ongoing investigation into both Blunt and L&G by Bud Cummins, the Arkansas U.S. Attorney at the time he was fired and replaced by "voter fraud" zealot Bradley Schlozman), the Star feels it wasn't necessary to even give a disclosure to readers that their corporate attorney happens to be L&G.

Obviously, we disagree.

If only to avoid the questions that have arisen --- here are a bunch of them posted on the paper's own blogsite by readers --- due to their failure to disclose that important point to readers. Had they done so, we might have been able to decide for ourselves what influence L&G may or may not have on the paper's editorial influence, particularly given the very specific, patterned, and radical changes that were made to the original McClatchy piece on which one of the paper's most Right-leaning reporters, Steve Kraske, was assigned as a "contributor."

The ethically correct practice of offering full disclosure is not meant as a way of signifying that the story was compromised in some way. It's an effort to avoid claims or questions of some sort of cover-up or collusion when such an obvious appearance of conflict of interest is later discovered.

We're "just a blog," but even we know that much. The long-established Kansas City Star should very well know that at least that much by now. We can only hope they'll include such disclosure when covering these related matters in the future since this episode has already raised more red flags than --- at least they think --- are necessary.

Brad Friedman, who is in no way represented by Lathrop & Gage, even if he was born and raised in Missouri, contributed to this report.