Kansas City Star TV critic Aaron Barnhart (@TVBarn) hasn’t tweeted since early December. His last Star column was published on Christmas Day, a year-in-review piece. It appears he hasn’t been on Facebook since January.
What happened to him?
The Star has yet to tell readers.
“It could be health issues,” says a longtime TV blogger. “But why all the mystery and secrecy?”
“His readers are worried for him,” adds former Dallas Morning News writer and editor Joyce Saenz Harris.
Earlier this month, Kansas City blogger and Star “watchdog” John Landsberg asked about Barnhart’s whereabouts in a post. He noted:
The Star, which normally leaks like a sieve with layoffs and personnel changes, is very close-mouthed about the veteran columnist. Rumors about serious health issues abound.
I’m told that Barnhart’s absence is in fact related to his health. The journalist has previously discussed his battle with leukemia in a Broadcasting & Cable interview headlined “Getting Better.” In 2010, he reviewed “The Big C” — the Showtime series about a woman battling cancer — and called it “an important show … that’s not necessarily a great show.” At the end of the review, readers were invited to “read how TV critic Aaron Barnhart, also a cancer survivor, reacted to “The Big C” and discuss the show on his blog, TVBarn.com.”
Landsberg tells me that reaction to his Barnhart column “has been mixed” and that “some people think it is a fair question to ask about a prominent columnist who simply virtually disappears for several months. Others consider it a private matter.”
He writes in his email:
I personally think that readers deserve an explanation when a high-profile journalist or columnist is no longer in the newspaper. They are public figures and major influencers and ones like Barnhart have a national following. From a customer’s standpoint, many people buy the newspaper to read columns and stories by their favorite writers, and I believe readers deserve an explanation when that person suddenly is gone.
If it is a medical issue the Star is likely prohibited from saying anything because of HIPAA rules. However, that doesn’t preclude the paper from noting something like “Aaron Barnhart’s column is on hiatus” or some such note.
I asked Star public editor Derek Donovan about the way his newspaper has handled Barnhart’s disappearance from its pages. He writes:
A newspaper company is, of course, a public trust. Its journalists are public figures, and readers come to feel as if they know them. That’s particularly true with columnists. And the industry operates a lot more transparently than just about any other I can think of.
But a newspaper company is also a private business, with all the legal responsibilities to its workers that any other employer must follow. As long there hasn’t been a violation of journalistic ethics, the conditions of a journalist’s employment are a private matter. The employee may choose to divulge more, but the newspaper company can’t — and shouldn’t.