The Kansas City Star’s recent coverage of State Senator Jim Denning seems driven less by facts than a dual political agenda of expanding Medicaid and seeing Denning replaced by a progressive Democrat.

As part of our mission to hold media accountable, The Sentinel found several glaring examples of what, taken collectively, could qualify as journalistic malpractice by the Kansas City Star.

  • Pertinent facts were withheld from a news story that singled out Senator Jim Denning’s vote on a Medicaid expansion attempt.
  • They published a guest editorial calling Denning and another senator a “public health threat” and saying their actions would “place them in the state’s top 10 causes of death.”
  • They promoted Denning’s 2020 campaign opponent three times in less than a week.
  • None of these and other recent pieces opposing Denning’s position on Medicaid mentioned the fact that Denning is suing the Star for defamation.

“Over the past week, the Kansas City Star has made me its number one topic of conversation, especially regarding Medicaid expansion,” Denning said in a release. 

Facts Withheld

Though a number of Senators voted against debating Medicaid expansion on the Senate floor last week, the Kansas City Star singled out Senator Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, in its coverage. Denning, the Kansas Senate Majority Leader, is suing the publication, but the Star doesn’t mention that in any of its coverage of the Overland Park Republican.

“Over the past week, the Kansas City Star has made me its number one topic of conversation, especially regarding Medicaid expansion,” Denning said in a release. 

Senate leadership controls which measures are put on the legislative body’s calendar for debate, but a super majority of the Senate can vote to put things on the calendar without leadership’s consent. Sen. Anthony Hensley attempted to force the Senate to debate a Medicaid expansion bill last week. The procedural maneuver to pull the bill from committee required 24 votes. It fell one vote short, with 13 Senators opposing the maneuver and four, including Denning voting “Pass.”

The headline on a May 1 news story read “JoCo senator’s ‘pass’ vote was key as Kansas Medicaid expansion attempt fails” singled out Denning for voting ‘pass’ instead on ‘aye’ but the Star didn’t disclose there were three other senators who also voted ‘pass.’  Another senator changed his vote from ‘aye’ to ‘pass’ and concurred with Senator Denning’s explanation of vote, but singling out Denning without disclosing that others voted with him is misleading.

Denning added a lengthy explanation of vote to be added to the permanent record in the Senate Journal.

“Today I vote ‘pass.’ I’m not saying no; I’m saying this policy isn’t ready,” it reads. The Star quoted that part of his explanation, but left out the rest, which included much of Denning’s reasoning.

“It is not prudent for this Senate body to support Medicaid expansion spending plan until we know how the Supreme Court rules on K-12 funding,” Denning’s explanation continued. His statement also expresses concern that the original bill was a gut-and-go passed in the House without any committee hearings or testimony.

“I have committed to working on a Medicaid plan over the interim in a transparent manner, and I believe a modernized present-day bill will be debated on the Senate floor early next session,” he wrote. “This body should not support policy based on political wins and losses, but rather good sound policy that benefits the state of Kansas and its constituents.”

The story didn’t mention the other Senators who voted “pass,” nor did it name any Senators who voted “no.” The Star didn’t run any of Denning’s 712-word response to the story, issued in the form of a press release. However, the Star ran an editorial favorable of Gov. Laura Kelly, in which the editorial board allowed Kelly’s chief of staff to “push back” point-by-point on Denning’s claim from a previous story.

“Kelly is known for her willingness to compromise. But even if it’s Denning’s account that’s accurate, why not call her bluff and suggest a compromise?” the Star’s April 25 editorial reads.

Public health threat accusation

The Star editorial board expressed outrage when President Trump said media is ‘enemies of the the people’ but leveling personal attacks on their political opponents is apparently fair game.  An April 29 guest editorial said Senator Jim Denning and Senator Susan Wagle are public health threats.  The editorial, written by a Kansas State University undergrad, said Denning’s and Senate President Susan Wagle’s obstruction of Medicaid expansion “would place them in the state’s top 10 causes of death…” ranking above murder, suicide, the flu and kidney disease.

“This is precisely what the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign calls ‘policy violence,” the undergrad column continues. “…Wagle and Denning have blood on their hands.”

Whether Democrat, Republican, conservative or liberal, there’s simply no excuse or justification for outrageous personal attacks of that nature.

Promoting Denning’s 2020 opponent

It’s one thing to write a story about someone announcing candidacy for public office, but mentioning that Denning has an announced opponent twice with the next week while being critical of him in a May 1 news story and a May 1 editorial amounts to in-kind political contributions.

Defamation lawsuit

Senator Jim Denning sued the Star after its editors published a Steve Rose column that falsely attributed to Denning multiple statements about Medicaid expansion. At the time the column ran, Denning said he hadn’t spoken to the columnist in more than two years. The Star removed the column from its website, and Rose resigned. Denning sued both. Star attorneys have twice delayed proceedings in the case.

In its frequent coverage of Denning, the paper isn’t mentioning Denning’s lawsuits against it and its former columnist.

“The KC Star ought to add a disclaimer to every newspaper article advising the public that what is contained within may or may not be accurate, because they take no responsibility for what they publish,” Denning wrote in a response to the Star’s recent coverage of him. “…This is exactly why I sued the Star.”

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