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What remains similar about both cases are the whispers that accompanied Penn's spotlighted takedown and Rice's retention in 2003: whispers that said the Star — which, like most mainstream publications, has an overwhelmingly white newsroom — fears the backlash that might come if the paper is seen as casually kicking out one of its few black voices.
"Nothing incites the paranoia gene more with the still largely white, middle-aged management at the Star than race issues," Hearne Christopher Jr., former Star gossip columnist and perpetually aggrieved media hanger-on, wrote on his blog after Penn's firing. He added: "Clearly the newspaper wanted to leave no doubt whatsoever as to why Penn was let go. Penn needed to go down hard and clean and that's exactly how he was exterminated. That's why the Star went on and on into practically each and every boring detail of Penn's journalistic infractions."
Others doubt that race is so relevant in this case. "You talk about losing a black voice — there was no voice there," says Penn's former colleague, referring to Penn's snoozy columns. "I was trying to figure out why he was elevated to that job. He hadn't earned his stripes [as a reporter]."
Gregory, who recently represented Danny Holmes in a successful race-discrimination lawsuit against the Kansas City police board, tells The Pitch he doesn't know why Penn would have been singled out if plagiarism was so widespread at the Star. "I can't read any minds until I talk to people," he says. Penn's lawsuit says only that the paper "intended to injure" Penn with its claims that Penn had acted unethically, despite having "serious doubts as to whether the statements are true."
Speaking of things that aren't true, Penn's lawsuit contains several basic errors.
The lawsuit, filed in Jackson County, Missouri, is addressed to the circuit court of Jackson County, Kansas. It misidentifies Star publisher Mi-Ai Parrish as the paper's editor, also misspelling her name. And, perhaps most puzzling, the lawsuit identifies Penn, a general-interest columnist, as a sports columnist who "would inform the public of upcoming high school and college sporting events and/or otherwise communicate news of interest to those who followed high school or college sports in the Kansas City area."
The clumsy filing underscores the question of whether trying to take the Star to court is going to help Penn.
"Why would he bring this back up again a year later?" Penn's former colleague wonders. "He was unemployable before, and now he's making himself even more unemployable." The source sighs and adds, "He's a nice guy."
(Editor's note: Mark Zieman was the Star's editor, not its publisher, in 2003. Art Brisbane was the publisher at the time; we've made this correction in the online version of this story.)