Kansas City Star opinion editor Colleen Nelson told Steve Rose she was troubled by the column the newspaper had just published.
At her urging, the freelance writer earlier that week had revealed Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning to be the source of inflammatory comments in the first draft of his column, and Nelson added Denning's name. Now, hours after the article had appeared in print and attracted attention online, Rose was telling her the two hadn't spoken recently.
His journalistic merits were "iffy," Nelson said.
"The column was misleading at best and gave readers, and me, the impression that Denning said this recently," the editor said to Rose. "The lede even says that he 'finally confessed' this, certainly suggesting that this happened in the not-too-distant past."
Denning filed a defamation lawsuit over the Jan. 26 column, accusing the newspaper of publishing false information. The newspaper has accused the senator of hypocrisy, pointing to his ongoing opposition to Medicaid expansion.
Rose said Tuesday he believes the lawsuit is politically motivated. On Saturday, Denning's attorney, Michael Kuckelman, was elected chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.
"The fact remains that Denning is a leading conservative voice in the Legislature, and there is no indication his position has changed since our discussion," Rose said. "He opposes Medicaid expansion vehemently and has said so publicly and very recently."
Rose, who has been in the newspaper business for 50 years, resigned his freelance position at the Star following publication of the column. He says the comments in question were based on an hour-long conversation he had with Denning at a restaurant in Fairway, but Rose couldn't say when the meeting took place.
Kuckelman says Denning's records show the meeting took place more than two years ago.
A series of emails between Nelson and Rose has surfaced in court filings, and Kuckelman says they are evidence of how the Star failed to meet its own journalistic standards.
Rose turned in a column that didn't refer to Denning by name. Nelson told Rose she couldn't justify using an anonymous source for statements of opinion. When Rose told her it was Denning, she added the name without appearing to ask any follow-up questions.
When Denning's chief of staff contacted Rose about the article, Rose offered to resign in exchange for dropping the issue. He also reached out to Nelson, who immediately identified problems with Rose's work.
"It is disconcerting," Kuckelman said, "to hear a newspaper defend its publication of a defamatory article by arguing that it’s not legally responsible for the failure of a columnist to adhere to the KC Star’s own standards. If that is the case, it seems the KC Star ought to publish a disclaimer on every newspaper, advising the public that what is contained in the KC Star may or may not be accurate, because the KC Star has no responsibility for what it publishes."
Rose said the problem was failing to clarify when the meeting took place and that his column accurately reflected Denning's opposition to Medicaid expansion.
"If anyone’s reputation has been damaged by these events, it is mine," Rose said. "I have been accused by Denning of fabricating an entire meeting, of making up the points he clearly did make, and of somehow ruining his reputation as a public leader whose views — unless he states now otherwise — are precisely now as they were then. Denning has maligned me. He has twisted the truth to my detriment. His grandstanding publicity has given him the blood he sought, even though his allegations are totally absurd."
Kuckelman said Denning's opposition to Medicaid expansion is about the cost. Gov. Laura Kelly's proposed budget, Kuckelman said, relies on the refinancing of the state pension system to cover the deficit the senator anticipates from Medicaid expansion.
"We do agree with Steve Rose — he has certainly damaged his reputation with these events," Kuckelman said. "The public now has an objective view of his form of journalism. I don’t know what he thinks his reputation was prior to his submission of the column, but the public has a clear and objective view of it now."