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Skip the hip

Ah, Kansas City. Our money-intensive media feeds bad information, rank opinion, and outright falsehood into the mainstream. Lack of accountability has made the Kansas City media—alternative news print, blogosphere, or any other new media—a really rotten place to inform ourselves about anything.

The link between “media” and free press in Kansas City has become so weak over the last decade that I had to look around to see if there was any hope for us.

The hope I found was us—the unhip, uncool, and fantastically ordinary.

Fourteen years ago, I took up with one of Kansas City’s two alternative weekly newspapers, PitchWeekly. With the New Times, a paper that went broke in 1997, the papers were, really, the only alternatives to the staid, starchy, and overly preachy Kansas City Star.

PitchWeekly put the New Times out of business and became a moneybag. It attracted the attention of a corporation, which bought PitchWeekly and made it The Pitch. Its mama corporation has bought another large corporation and become Village Voice Media.

Village Voice Media pretends to run “fiercely independent” local papers. But having seen the inside, I can tell you that what the marketing department says and the truth of the matter are two very different things.

Now, the writers are convinced they are independent and free thinking. But cultivated in altcorp mindset, they produce window dressing with sensational and provocative viewpoints and language. In the end, the stories have little impact on the society or corruption. But that’s the altcorp deal. Political and complicated disturbs advertisers. Sensation, reaction, and simplicity sells ads. Story, the little man says, comes first. The public and the Democracy be damned.

Corporations, in the end, mainstream, feed the consumer-profit capital base, and pay shareholders. And not everyone has a share.

If we look closely at altcorporate media, it’s cynically dismissive attitudes toward Democracy, trust in others, and feeling comfortable in our collective skins.

Democratic institutions in this town have never been very strong. We are a chamber-of-commerce town. The many neighborhood groups and associations where ground-level democracy should happen are, instead, means of excluding people they don’t like—the poor, people of color, and immigrants—out of neighborhoods. City Hall and Jackson County are captives of lawyers, lobbyists, and business people. These are the people who choose elected officials before they hit the ballot, despite what we might think about our own power with the ballot. The political process is more a tool of business and development now than when the overtly business stooge H. Roe Bartle steered the city in the mid-1950s.

The Kansas City history we learn in school, the newspaper, and in social circles is less about anonymous people and their labor building a town and home than about business and commerce. That we have any cultural identity at all is amazing. But, as we see in Whitney Terrell’s penetrating novels, The Huntsman and The King of King’s County, Kansas City’s very tiny circle of civic “leaders” and wealth influence and manipulate that identity for their own enrichment.

Kempers, the other Kempers, Kauffmans, Halls, Hockadays, Garneys, and a few others, and institutions like the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the Missouri Restaurant Association, the Kauffman Foundation, and the Downtown Council. Aided and abetted by the notoriously anti-democratic Economic Development Corporation, these groups, along with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City Life Insurance, and the various residential real estate interests have formed and reformed Kansas City in their own visions.

In the shadow of this kind of business domination, cynicism toward our public and cultural life has grown. But what can we expect when the greatest voices of this town are pro-business, anti-labor corporate bigwigs. We really believe that what’s good for DST/Hallmark/Sprint/Bayer/KCPL/Etc. is good for Kansas City. We really believe that an inorganic knot of corporate branches and factory-like franchises coupled with upper-class condos have solved all the problems 65 years of suburban development and sprawl visited on Downtown.

Meanwhile, suburban boomer hipsterism, sprinkled with unhealthy doses of Generation X and Y nihilism, killed the tiny bit of rebellion and cultural dynamism this town had. It was never strong here—even in the often praised Crossroads, where real estate people hung over artists like vultures.

Altcorp news has not only let mainstream capital run rampant but abetted it. They have further divided rich from poor, black from white, suburban from urban, and immigrant from native born. Kansas City is pitifully weak on racial progressivism and still segregated, in part, because no one in any of our media ever questions the basis for such economic and cultural disparity and separation. It was the job of altnews to bring these things to light. Instead, altcorp news makes its living from pimping racial and economic stereotypes.

Meanwhile, the Northeast, East Kansas City, South Kansas City, Leeds, and the Blue River Valley lie mostly out of sight—except for lurid crime reporting in the Star. The last thing these areas need is gentrification. But until they fall to the ground, that is what they are likely to get sometime within the next, say, century.

With decreasing journalistic credibility, everyone with a keyboard, and those with corporate ones have increasingly snarky, mean-spirited, and nasty in the way they express themselves. In the struggle to be cool, cool has become synonymous with uncaring cynicism toward the most vulnerable Kansas Citians, the poor and working class people and families upon whose backs the “civic” leaders make their money. The awful truth about who we are has been lost in the fog of all the self-indulgent, self-centered ranting.

The American media has never been the best place in to get information for democratic decision making. The Star does some daily newspaper things well. But it is still a booster paper, willing to overlook, say, the grosser faults of corporations like Honeywell, DST, and Hallmark, or the hypocrisy of small-government advocates like Kit Bond bolstering their election hopes by expanding government presence in Kansas City.

Anyone can publish just about anything short of slander under the First Amendment. Sadly, however, most of the media outlets in Kansas City were built on and continue to do their best work focusing on common crime. Corporate and government corruption almost has to reveal itself before Kansas City reporters get a hold of it. Then, they wander in herds, often reporting complete fabrications without doing any background work.

But, hey, the PR department at Conglomco said it, it must be true. It sells condos, it must be good.

We also don’t question the validity of truisms: The Chiefs are good for Kansas City. We have to give tax money to developers. The COMBAT tax is worth the time and effort. Government can’t do anything right. We need more federal presence (IRS, Federal Reserve, Courts, along with a nuclear bomb trigger factory, and tons of military contractors) in Kansas City to provide jobs. Etc. Etc. Etc.

It’s tough to take on huge, abstract subjects like “the media” and the blog phenomenon without sounding like another reactionary goon or a Birkenstock-wearing fringe pointyhead. But, in the end, these cultural and economic phenomena form a sort of mass irritation, spreading ignorance and viscera wherever we turn. It’s bad for the Democracy and we asked for it.

I always tell my students and my fellow ironworkers that if they have a problem, they can’t just complain. They have to present a solution. That solution, then, can become the start of a conversation that, hopefully, makes things better.

My solution? I don’t believe anything I read until I find out:
1. Who wrote it, for whom, and who are they after.
2. Why they wrote it
3. What their viewpoint is.
4. The timing of the appearance of the story or blog post.
5. What part of the city, development, or interest benefits or loses because of the story.
6. How they define the subject and use the language.

Only then can I understand what the reporter, the outlet, and their backers are trying to say. That’s not the truth. That is only a beginning for lengthier conversations that may bring the truth to light. (To be fair, I won’t answer to the points above. That’s your job.)

But it’s hard work. But if I don’t do the work, I get exactly what bloggers, reporters, columnists, and reporters what me to get, which are their viewpoints and opinions. Common American viewpoints tend to mirror what’s being said on the radio, television, and in passed around in blogs.

So, if I’m a parrot, it’s my fault. If I’m independent—which few who know me will argue—I seek as many viewpoints as I can, put them on the grill of my own inclinations and experience, and see what happens. Generally, what’s forged is a viewpoint that is most often my own. But it’s tempered with the notion that I’m not right, worthy, or special. Mine is just one of 300 million.

That means I’m not alone, and there are people among us who refuse to run with the herd. Regardless the failure of the capital-intensive free press, that’s a lot of hope for truth.

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