Lawrence’s answer to Project Censored
Tim Miller has an unusual hobby. As a religious studies professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Miller spends some of his free time as an independent media watchdog.
Seated in his small, almost closetlike basement office in Smith Hall on the KU campus, Miller explains that he’s been interested in newspapers since he was in second grade, when he started his own newspaper to cover his school and neighborhood. “That idea never left me. I’ve always been interested in journalism,” he now says. Miller dabbled in mainstream journalism for a while, including working as a stringer for Time magazine. Eventually, he took a different career route, and it wasn’t until the early ’80s that he decided to offer his journalistic views to the public in the form of a newsletter called Plumber’s Friend, which in its current form offers something akin to a list of local stories that are underreported.
Conducting research for a local history project, Miller had a personal revelation after discovering that a multitude of news sources were available in Topeka in the 1890s. Several mainstream papers, all reporting the news from their points of view, offered residents different versions of events and information. “They were at each other’s throats,” Miller says of the papers. “And if someone made a mistake, the other papers really let them have it.”
As a result of that experience, Miller says, he saw how important it was to have multiple sources of news in a democracy, to get a number of different versions of a story so the public can make up its own mind rather than rely on one source to tell the full version. “We’re doomed if people make their decisions based on one source for information,” he says. “It’s a tragedy there aren’t 100 voices out there.”
Miller doesn’t believe that newspapers can be truly objective and present a complete picture of a community. “Even if they say they’re trying to present a balanced range of outlooks, no one can completely represent any community,” he says.
It was after this revelation that Miller started Plumber’s Friend, a monthly newsletter of “opinionated news” covering Lawrence and KU. Using his own reporting skills, Miller published articles on news and issues the local media weren’t covering, developing his own sources and culling tips from readers. He set up distribution sites and sold each issue for 25 cents to avoid financing the effort through advertising and tainting his independence with financial concerns.
His biggest story came in 1987, when he published a report in which he alleged that former KU Chancellor Archie Dykes left the university as a result of sexual harassment complaints, which later cost him a position with an insurance company in Topeka. Miller had talked with a few mainstream journalists who had the story but weren’t able to publish it either because, according to Miller, Dykes had become friendly with local media managers or because no one would go on the record. Although Miller was unable to get anyone on the record about the allegations, he was able to confirm the complaints through several sources. That story, he says, got a lot of attention from people in the community. “It was my best-selling issue ever,” he recalls.
Eventually, Miller stopped publishing the newsletter regularly and began writing a column called “Lawrence at Large” for the Kansas City alternative paper New Times (no connection to the newspaper company that now owns PitchWeekly) until the paper folded in 1997. But by that time Miller had resurrected Plumber’s Friend in the form of “The Worst of Lawrence,” an annual year-end critique of media coverage of the community — particularly by the Lawrence Journal-World. Miller explains that it’s more of a critique of such news coverage than an effort to report those stories himself. “This is my slant on these stories,” he says.
Much of “The Worst of Lawrence” is made up of stories he knows about but never sees coverage on. For instance, Miller learned of one story about Sen. Sam Brownback in the most recent round-up (see below) in a casual conversation with a Brownback staffer. Although Miller’s readers may look to Miller to uncover the big stories for them, he says “The Worst of Lawrence” is just one man’s voice. “The biggest thing this does is just to provide a different perspective on what people read in the newspaper.”
Excerpts from Miller’s “The Worst of Lawrence 1999”
In late January, the case of a Lawrence police officer was resolved. He had been arrested on a driving-under-the-influence charge. However, most of the resolution of the case, including the officer’s ongoing status, was kept out of the public eye. Usual procedures were not followed, to say the least; no timely, uncompromised field sobriety test was given, for example. Given the dismal procedures surrounding the arrest, the officer was necessarily acquitted. Finally, after a round of ‘no comment’ by everyone in the chain of command all the way up to the city manager, the case was closed.”
• “It was another shining moment for (Sen. Sam Brownback), who earlier, mocking Jesus, had washed the feet of a departing staffer and was so humiliated by the press coverage of that abomination that he took off on a huge, expensive overseas trip at government expense to let the fracas die down.”
• “Various reports during the year announced that arsenic from an FMC toxic waste lagoon just outside North Lawrence was contaminating the local groundwater — the source of garden water and some drinking water throughout North Lawrence — and heading for the Kaw. Plant officials said they hoped to develop a plan to correct the problem within a year.”
Contact Michelle Rubin at 816-218-6784 or email@example.com.