Written by Mike Martin
Violates strict Missourian policy by failing to disclose major conflict of interest in editorials on Blight Decree
COLUMBIA, 5/26/12 (Beat Byte) -- In a move that has dumbfounded some of his longtime reader-fans (including this one), Missourian editorial writer George Kennedy -- arguably Columbia's #1 most influential public opinion leader -- failed to disclose his position as a Food Bank board member in an editorial that praised Food Bank director Peggy Kirkpatrick's City Council testimony supporting Columbia's Blight Decree/EEZ.
"I was, and still am, on the board," Kennedy told the Columbia Heart Beat. "Left out the disclosure."
Kennedy -- a former Missourian managing editor and journalism professor emeritus -- wrote about the Food Bank and Kirkpatrick's testimony as through the unbiased lens of an outside observer, violating a long-standing Missourian policy against failures to disclose conflicts that can impact editorial opinions.
"To me, the most persuasive speakers Monday were Peggy Kirkpatrick, who heads the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, and Tim Rich, her counterpart at the United Way," he opined May 10. "Ms. Kirkpatrick said that the Food Bank’s pantry on Big Bear Boulevard, the largest local source of free food, has seen an increase of more than 10 percent in its clientele, to 22,638, in the past year. The increase in hunger demonstrates the urgency of job creation, she said."
He has continued writing editorials on the topic sans the all-important disclosure.
Kennedy's strong stance against undisclosed conflicts of interest motivated this publication to adopt the same position. He has been highly critical of non-disclosure, most notably Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters' defense of eminent domain and city funding for a new State Historical Society museum, while Waters failed to disclose he was a member of the Museum's board of directors.
In other editorials arguing against conflicts of interest, Kennedy decried developers on the Columbia Planning and Zoning commission; and in 2010, his superiors at the Missouri School of Journalism's flagship newspaper redesigned their conflict of interest policy.
Among conflicts "Requiring Disclosure: Holding or seeking office in an organization that tries to influence public policy on or off the campus," exactly the Food Bank's role that Monday night and in subsequent Council discussions about the far-reaching EEZ proposal.
Kennedy's focus on Kirkpatrick seemed oddly out of character with his normally analytical approach. It now seems even more suspect, given the Missourian's recent features about EEZ problems statewide, and the doubtful poverty and job creation statistics EEZ proponents use to prop it up.
In his editorial, Kennedy excluded other voices, many more eloquent and informed, and ignored statistics that shed doubt on Kirkpatrick's testimony, especially the large student population that skews poverty data, as reader Tracy Greever-Rice pointed out.
Most surprising of all, perhaps: Kennedy did disclose his position on the Food Bank in an editorial last September, obviously cognizant of its importance. "Disclosure: I’ve been a volunteer at the Food Bank for nearly 10 years and a member of the board of directors for three months," he wrote. "It’s a satisfying way of paying my citizenship dues."
Certainly, George Kennedy is not guilty of a journalism felony, just a misdemeanor, especially given his ongoing op-eds about this important debate. The concept of smaller and larger journalistic offenses appeared when the Missourian dismissed long-time Mizzou J-School professor and columnist John Merrill in 2007 over charges of plagiarism.
"Several journalists and journalism educators I spoke with referred to it as the ethical equivalent of a misdemeanor, not a felony," Missourian editor in chief Tom Warhover referred to the Merrill case. "I believe the Missourian, and the School of Journalism, must hold itself to a higher standard."
In a note Friday to Missourian opinion editor Elizabeth Connor, Mr. Kennedy expressed his regrets.
"I'm embarrassed, as I should be. Except for the piece in September, which Mike links to, I've intended to stay away from the Food Bank. My failure to repeat the disclosure in the more recent column was a lapse for which I have no excuse. I was glad to see Mike's own disclosure of his and his wife's involvement with the anti-EEZ organization they helped form."
[Ed. Note: Over conflict of interest concerns, this writer left the organization CiViC some weeks ago, though I continue to post on their public Facebook page. I hold no other positions on local boards or commissions. My wife is leaving her treasury post with CiViC after their first board elections.]