Q&A: Red-state opinion editor on calling out Trump’s silence

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Colleen McCain Nelson attended her share of presidential press briefings about tragic shootings as a White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal. So it struck her as odd that President Trump offered no statement for several days following an apparently race-motivated shooting last week in Olathe, Kansas.

Nelson, who returned to her native Kansas in December to take over as editorial-page editor of the Kansas City Star, brought up the White House’s silence in an editorial board meeting on February 27, the day after the newspaper ran a rare front-page editorial condemning the attack. A man had walked into a bar the previous week and allegedly told two India-born engineers to “get out of my country” before opening fire, killing one of them, injuring another, and also injuring a bystander who tried to stop the shooting.

The resulting editorial, which described Trump’s silence as “disquieting,” ran in print on Tuesday and quickly drew attention from Washington, DC, and around the country. “People around the world were immediately and rightfully horrified,” the editorial noted. “But our president? Mum.” Later that day, addressing a joint session of Congress, Trump finally condemned the shooting.

Nelson, 42, who shared a Pulitzer as an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News before her tenure at The Wall Street Journal and return to opinion writing with the Star, spoke with CJR about the power of local newspaper editorials, her red-state editorial board’s constructive-but-firm approach with Trump, and her own politics. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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CJR: Tell us about the backstory, the thinking behind this editorial.

Nelson: The Kansas City Star newsroom has been pretty consumed with this story over the last week. As it played out, it became clear the story had a resonance beyond Kansas City—both national and international implications. So as an editorial board we discussed what we should say about the shooting, and over the weekend the Star took the unusual step of running a front-page editorial. The editorial had the headline, “To be truly great, America must be kind.” We wrote about the fact this is not who Kansas City is, and we don’t share the views about immigrants the shooter reportedly professed. We thought that was important message to send in Sunday’s newspaper. On Monday morning, we continued to talk about the shooting, so I suggested the idea at our editorial board meeting that we say something about Trump’s silence. By that point, several days had passed. He had said nothing. He had opportunities to say things. So the board settled on the message and put it in Tuesday’s newspaper ahead of the speech.

 

Editorial-page editor Colleen McCain Nelson. Photo by Ian Wagreich

Editorial-page editor Colleen McCain Nelson. Photo by Ian Wagreich

 

CJR: Trump started out his speech to a joint session of congress on Tuesday with a reference to the shooting. Do you think the editorial played a role?

Nelson: I hope so. It’s hard to know exactly what the tipping point was, but I definitely think we helped advance the conversation. It certainly appeared our editorial had an impact far beyond Kansas City. We posted on Monday night, and pretty quickly people across the country, and media organizations around the country, were tweeting it. We were not the first to ask the question, but when the Kansas City Star, which covers two red states that supported Trump, suggested Trump should say something, it appeared to have some resonance.

 

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CJR: How did it stack up with other editorials in terms of traffic, feedback, and other metrics?

Nelson: It’s up there. We had immediate feedback. It’s clear our readers and those across the country were reading it. I heard from so many folks in DC and around White House journalism. It was a fairly organic response; the piece quickly started circulating, and it gained a lot of attention and a lot of positive feedback.

 

CJR: Was this a galvanizing moment for the newsroom, a recognition of the power behind what you say?

Nelson: Absolutely. It’s always encouraging and gratifying to see our voice matters, that our reporting and our editorials can make a difference. That’s what we aspire to do every day. Some days you wonder if you are making a difference. This was one of those very unique days where you felt like what you did really mattered.

 

CJR: You’ve had a lot of support from the community, and across the country, for your editorials on the shooting. Has there been any push back?

Nelson: I’ve heard from readers who’ve said that Trump was under no obligation to comment on this, and that a president can’t comment on every shooting that happens in the entire country, and that we’d be wrong to criticize him in any way for not weighing in on this. These are the opinion pages, and readers disagree with things we put on the opinion pages every day.

 

CJR: The Star endorsed Hillary Clinton (before Nelson arrived). So I guess the threats of canceled subscriptions already ran their course.

Nelson: (Laughs) They may have gotten that out of their system. I do hear from readers with very strong feelings about Trump every single day. A lot of them have me on speed dial.

 

CJR: Talk about why you came back to Kansas City and whether you feel like you’re having more of an impact as a journalist in a red state.

Nelson: I grew up in Kansas, so this is the home turf for me. I was at The Wall Street Journal for the last five years, and I covered the last two presidential campaigns, and Obama’s second term in the White House. It was an amazing job, and I loved it. But by the same token, I knew I didn’t want to be a White House reporter forever. One thing I missed, having left a regional newspaper, I missed being at a newspaper where you’re connected to a community, and where you feel a connection to your readers, and see more of a direct impact. The chance to come back here and lead the editorial page was too good to pass up. I’ve loved hearing from readers every single day how passionate they are about their local newspaper and also on occasions like this, actually seeing our work have an impact.

 

CJR: It wouldn’t be surprising to see an editorial like this from The New York Times, but talk about the different power coming from a hometown newspaper?

Nelson: Our readers are quick to remind me every single day that both Kansas and Missouri voted for Donald Trump. Any time we are critical of Donald Trump, I get phone calls to that effect, and readers inevitably remind me Trump won Missouri by 19 points. We’re not The New York Times, and we don’t come down on issues where they would come down. When Trump took office we wrote an editorial saying the country should give him a chance. We’ve tried to approach Trump’s presidency with a constructive approach—to praise him when it’s deserved and to criticize him when the White House is in chaos. We’re not an editorial board that reflexively criticizes. So we hope when we do it has an impact with readers.

 

CJR: Tell me about the experience of switching between covering politics as a reporter and writing editorials and leading an editorial page. Was there a large learning curve or did it come natural?

Nelson: I’ve had an interesting path. I was at the Dallas Morning News for 12 years, with the last six years on the editorial board. Then I went back to reporting, covering politics at The Wall Street Journal. So it wasn’t an entirely new experience.
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CJR: How much different is it running an editorial page in your hometown?

Nelson: I certainly loved Dallas and became attached to Dallas, but there’s just something different about your home turf—I grew up in Salina, Kansas. You have a different connection to this place. I’m now writing about a place I’ve known my whole life, and sometimes you’re writing about things that hit very close to home.

 

CJR: In terms of the power of local news and editorials, what must you do to keep the audience in such a difficult time for newspapers in terms of economics and trust among readers?

Nelson: It’s a really interesting moment to be in opinion journalism. I think we’re all feeling our way through what is a very different kind of presidency. Our goals on the editorial board are to be constructive and not shrill. I think there’s a lot of anger and frustration in politics, and it’s really easy to let that boil over into what we write. We’re trying to be constructive, consider our readers’ point of view, but not be afraid to say things in a strong way when it’s merited.

We’re trying to strike the right balance, and see shades of gray.

 

CJR: What are your own politics?

Nelson: It sounds kind of boring to say, but I’m fairly centrist. It depends on the issue. When you cover politics for a long time, you realize neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on good ideas, or bad ideas, or lousy candidates. I’m a little unpredictable.

 

CJR: Anything else?

Nelson: Covering the White House, I was in the briefing room over and over again when President Obama came out and commented on shootings that had an impact on the entire country. I had literally a second-row seat when Obama weighed in at moments like this. So it certainly was noticeable that President Trump did not choose to comment.

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Cory Schouten is a senior editor at CJR. He previously served as managing editor at Indianapolis Business Journal and a reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.