Bunting, Kenneth Freeman (1948-2014)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 8/03/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10910
Ken Bunting was a Texas native who became Seattle’s highest ranking African American daily newspaper executive. He worked as a reporter, bureau chief, and editor in various other media markets before joining the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1993 as managing editor. He rose higher in the executive ranks at the P-I, serving as executive editor and finally associate publisher before the newspaper ceased print publication in 2009. He later became executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, working for a cause he had long supported. Besides his professional skills, he was known for wearing suspenders and cowboy boots with his business suits, for his big laugh and likeable nature, and for his avid support of the football team at his alma mater, Texas Christian University. He died of a heart attack suffered while playing tennis, his favorite sport. 

A Bright Student

Bunting was born on December 9, 1948, in Houston. He was the third child of Willie Freeman Bunting (1903-1982) and Sharah Lee Duncan (1913-1998). He had two older sisters, Edwina (b. 1933) and Willie Joyce (1945-1999).

Willie Bunting’s middle name was passed down from slave ancestors, and then to his son, Ken, and later to a grandson -- a reminder of the family’s race-related struggles. When Willie Bunting was hired by EMSCO Derrick and Equipment Company, maker of oil-industry products, he was the only African American on the payroll. He became a civic leader and activist in the black community of Houston Heights, leading demonstrations to get improvements for the neighborhood. His efforts helped create a park on Seventh Street where his children could play. Being black, they weren’t welcome at the closest existing park. Willie Bunting also was the first African American on the board of the neighborhood health center.

Young Ken was a bright student, collecting several awards at his sixth-grade graduation and getting straight A’s through junior high. His sister, Edwina Culpepper, remembers him winning a citywide essay contest for students when he was 12 or 13. The topic was whether this country should invest the money it would take to achieve a manned moon landing. He wrote that it should, ending his essay with "The United States should be the first to wave its flag triumphantly on the surface of the moon." For winning the contest, he got his picture in the Houston Chronicle. His sister thought that was where he got the idea he could become a journalist (Drosendahl interview).

High School to College   

In 1963 Ken entered Houston’s Booker T. Washington High School, which had been established 70 years earlier as “Colored High” and was still all black. As described in The Handbook of Texas Online, "The move to integrate the public school system was a slow and painful process" ("Texas Since World War II"). In 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed and Bunting was a sophomore, only 18,000 of the state’s 325,000 black students attended predominately white schools. He graduated in 1966.

College was something of a challenge, not so much academically but because he was one of very few black students. He enrolled at the University of Missouri in the fall of 1966 but left in 1967 after two semesters, partly because the university was expensive for the Bunting family and partly because Ken didn’t feel welcome there. He transferred to Lee College, a two-year school in Baytown, Texas, and stayed there until 1968, when he was awarded a scholarship to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. As was Missouri, both schools were overwhelmingly white. As recently as 1965, TCU’s James Cash Jr. (b. 1945) had become the first African American basketball player in the entire Southwest Conference.

"I think Ken got treated kind of badly as a black student (at Missouri). At Lee College he got the same treatment. But Ken paid them no mind. He just wanted to get his education. Same thing at TCU," Edwina Culpepper said (Drosendahl interview).

Bunting enrolled at Texas Christian in the spring of 1969. He studied journalism and history. On August 21, 1970, he became the first African American graduate of what was then the Department of Journalism. He scored another first at TCU in 2004, when he was among the inaugural inductees -- and the first African American -- elected to the Hall of Excellence at the university’s Schieffer School of Communications.

From Reporter to Editor

Early in his career, Bunting worked as a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, San Antonio Express-News, Cincinnati Post, and Sacramento Bee. While at the Post, he was the only African American on the staff. "That didn’t bother him a bit," said Henry Holcomb, who was his city editor there. "Everybody just loved him. I hired a lot of people over the years, and he was clearly one of the best. He was just a very sensitive guy who was constantly trying to find stories for his readers. He’d make a U-turn on a one-way street if he saw a story over his shoulder" (Madigan).

In 1978, Bunting joined the staff of the Los Angeles Times. After two years as a reporter, he was promoted to assistant city editor. In that role, he supervised 28 reporters and 11 photographers on the Orange County edition staff. From 1984 to 1987, he was the paper’s state capitol correspondent, covering the legislature and administration of Governor George Deukmejian (b. 1928). That job set the stage for work at another state capital, this time in Bunting’s home state.

In 1987 he was hired by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to run its state capitol bureau in Austin. Bunting covered state politics, and in 1988 the Democratic and Republican national conventions and ensuing presidential campaigns, including traveling with candidates before the primary and general elections.

Shortly after moving to Austin he met a radio reporter named Juliana (Juli) Jafvert (b. 1956), the capitol correspondent for the Texas State Network. They were married on July 13, 1989, in the Texas Supreme Court chambers with Justice Oscar Mauzy (1926-2000) officiating. As Juli Bunting recalled: "It was supposed to be a secret, but immediately following the ceremony, the door was flung open and the then-spokesperson for the Attorney General burst through the door with a video camera ..." (Juli Bunting email). There were small receptions that day at the Star-Telegram bureau’s office and the Texas Department of Agriculture, where she was working at the time, and a bigger one the following month. The couple honeymooned in Trinidad and Tobago. Their son, Maxwell Freeman Bunting, was born on November 7, 1991.

Ken Bunting quickly climbed the Star-Telegram’s management ladder. He became the city editor in 1989, assistant managing editor in 1990, and deputy managing editor in 1992. "He strengthened our staff almost overnight," former executive editor Mike Blackman said (Madigan). Joe Cutbirth, a reporter Bunting hired at the Austin bureau, said, "He was the one that everybody at the paper wanted to work for, and that is rare for someone whose title is editor" (Madigan). One of his reporters, Jack Douglas Jr., described Bunting as "an old-school reporter" whose even temper and likeable personality helped him succeed as a boss (Escobeda). Among Bunting’s other hires was Molly Ivins (1944-2007), who joined the staff in 1991 as an Austin-based political commentator. Her syndicated column eventually reached 400 newspapers and was known for lampooning Texas Republicans. (Ivins was the one who gave President George W. Bush [b. 1946] the nickname Shrub.)

Reaching New Heights in Seattle

Bunting was named senior editor at the Star-Telegram in July 1993, but three months later he accepted a job offer from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to be its managing editor. That earned him the distinction of being the highest-ranked African American in the P-I's history and the first to run a newsroom at one of the city’s major dailies. In a story announcing the hiring, publisher J. D. Alexander praised Bunting’s record as a reporter and editor, and added, "His commitment to excellence in his profession is matched fully by his caring for the community" (Jamieson).

At the P-I, Bunting initially led a newsroom and support staff of nearly 200 and managed an editorial budget of more than $15 million, according to his resume. He was promoted to executive editor in 2000. The paper won numerous regional and national awards during his tenure as ranking editor, including Pulitzer Prizes for cartoonist David Horsey (b. 1951) in 1999 and 2003.

As newsroom leader, Bunting earned the respect and appreciation of the paper’s strongest voices. "Ken Bunting had my back, and had that relationship with lots of people," columnist Joel Connelly said after Bunting’s death (seattlepi.com). Investigative reporter Lewis Kamb remembered Bunting as "an unwavering supporter of quality journalism who always gave all of himself to the profession’s greater cause. During my nine plus years at the P-I, he stood unflinchingly behind our newsroom and its most controversial work … and used his enormous diplomatic skills to defend and enhance press freedoms" (seattlepi.com). Eric Nalder, another investigative reporter and a Pulitzer Prize winner himself, called Bunting, "a defender of Freedom of Information, a bright light and a friend" (seattlepi.com).”  

Bunting was promoted to associate publisher at the P-I in August 2005, a position that took him out of the newsroom. He managed the paper’s reader and community relations, while also overseeing editorial standards, legal matters, and First Amendment and access issues. Although the paper continued to be well regarded for its content, it was plagued by the loss of readers and advertising to the Internet. In March 2009, it ceased print publication as its owner, the Hearst Corporation, reduced the P-I to a website and terminated most of the newspaper staff, Bunting included.

Advocating Open Government

While he worked at the P-I, Bunting wrote two books, an anthology titled The Passionate Editor and a college textbook titled An Ethics Trajectory: Visions of Media Past, Present and Yet to Come. As associate publisher, he also wrote a weekly column, frequently about First Amendment issues and the need for transparency in government.

He was a longtime supporter of those causes. In Fort Worth, Bunting served as a board member for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIFT). In Seattle, he was one of the founders of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and also served on the state Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee, otherwise known as the Sunshine Committee, an advisory panel appointed by the governor, attorney general, state auditor, and legislative caucuses in 2007. He pushed for a state shield law for reporters, which was approved later that year.

In a column that appeared in the Yakima Herald-Republic in 2009, Bunting made clear his priorities. He wrote that a friend considering a run for public office had asked him how he could differentiate himself from other candidates.

"'Talk about accountability,' I advised. 'Talk about transparency.' Talk about creating a culture of openness in a local agency that has a history of being run by scofflaws with open hostility to the web of open-government and accountability laws that help Washingtonians keep an eye on the workings of their governmental agencies and the public servants, elected and nonelected, who work for them (Yakima Herald-Republic).

After urging citizen attendance at an impending local forum on open government, he concluded the column by writing, "The public's right to know what their governments are doing to them and for them is a precious right that is at the heart of what makes our democracy special. It should never be taken for granted (Yakima Herald-Republic).

Back to Missouri

On July 1, 2010, Bunting became executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), a nonpartisan group advocating transparent government and acting as a freedom of speech watchdog. It was a move that took him back to the University of Missouri, where he had begun his college education, and aligned with his decades-long support of those causes.

"He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in First Amendment and access issues, and his many years of journalism experience make him a great fit here," said Dean Mills, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism (NFOIC press release). Frank Gibson, president of the NFOIC board of directors called Bunting "a passionate leader for the cause of open government, making him ideal to lead the NFOIC. He has been an advocate at the state level and we know he will use that experience to promote open access nationally" (NFOIC press release).

Bunting headed a staff of four with duties that included fundraising and administering foundation grants in support of state affiliates and litigants in open government lawsuits. He also was a spokesman for protecting public access to government records.

He left that job in early 2014. An avid tennis player since his early 20s, he was playing at the Bethel Tennis Courts in Columbia when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 65.

Remembered Fondly

News of Bunting’s sudden, premature death shocked his friends and fellow journalists. Kudos poured in. The National Association of Black Journalists issued a statement saying the group mourned his passing. In Fort Worth, where he had not worked for more than 20 years, Star-Telegram senior vice president and executive editor Jim Witt said, "Ken was a great journalist and an even better person. The Star-Telegram is mourning the loss of one of our best today" (Madigan). Retired journalism professor Doug Newsom, who taught Bunting at Texas Christian and nominated him for the school’s Hall of Excellence said, "You couldn’t overlook Ken Bunting. He was just an outstanding human being. It’s a terrible loss to his family and friends, but it’s also a terrible loss to the field. He had a lot of curiosity and not much patience with bad behavior on the part of anybody in authority. He felt compelled to expose it so something could be done about it" (Madigan). Randy Smith, a friend and journalism professor at the University of Missouri said Bunting "made the atmosphere that helped all those great people do all that great work" (Escobedo).

Professional plaudits aside, Bunting was remembered as an outgoing, immensely likeable person. He loved cowboy boots and suspenders, which he wore at work with his business suits. He loved bridge and country karaoke. He was a proud alumnus of Texas Christion University and avid backer of the school’s Horned Frogs football team. He also was a fan of the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans, the relocated and renamed version of his hometown Houston Oilers.

Long after he left Texas, he continued to follow and, in the tradition of Ivins, be alternately dismayed and amused by the actions of that state’s government officials. "The best thing we shared, besides our son, was laughter and politics. We laughed a lot," Juli Bunting said (Madigan). In Seattle, where his stay at the P-I was the longest of his career, former colleagues fondly recalled his deep laugh and his habit of greeting them by full name and the phrase "great American." Kamb, the investigative reporter who appreciated Bunting’s support as an editor, said, "more than anything, Ken was simply a good man who made you feel good." (seattlepi.com).

Blackman, the former Star-Telegram executive editor who hired him in Fort Worth, agreed. "You could meet him and 10 minutes later you felt like you had been friends with him for a long time. He just had a way of making you like him and trust him and that’s the kind of thing that made him a good reporter. He genuinely cared about people"(Madigan).


Sources: Glenn Drosendahl phone interviews with Edwina Culpepper in Houston, June 10 and June 24, 2014; Rowland Thompson, Executive Director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, email to Glenn Drosendahl, June 30, 2012, in possession of Glenn Drosendahl, Seattle; The Handbook of Texas Online, "Texas Since World War II," (by Robert A. Calvert), http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/ (accessed July 2014); Rick Waters, "Big Man on the Boards," The TCU Magazine, Summer 2004, (http://www.magarchive.tcu.edu/articles/2004-02-an.asp?issueid=200402); Tim Madigan, "Ken Bunting: A Newspaper Career of Great Stories, Lasting Friendships," Fort-Worth Star Telegram, April 24, 2014 (http://www.star-telegram.com/2014/04/21/5754508/a-newspaper-career-of-great-stories.html?rh=1); Juli Bunting, email to Glenn Drosendahl, June 5, 2014, in possession of Glenn Drosendahl, Seattle; Richard Escobedo, "Longtime News Exec, Journalism School Alumnus Dies at 65," TCU360, April 21, 2014 (http://www.tcu360.com); Robert L. Jamieson Jr., "Managing Editor Is Named by the P-I," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 26, 1993, p. B-1; "Ken Bunting, Former Post-Intelligencer Top Editor, Dead at 65," seattlepi.com, April 21, 2014; P-I Staff, "P-I Outlines New Leadership Roles; McCumber Has Top Newsroom Job; Bunting Moves Up," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 20, 2005, p. B-2; Kenneth F. Bunting, "Journalistic Chili," The TCU Magazine, Summer 2009 (http://www.magazine.tcu.edu/Magazine/Article.aspx?ArticleId=155); Waters, "Journalism Executive Ken Bunting ’70 Dead at 65," Ibid., April 24, 2014 (http://www.magazine.tcu.edu/TCUPeople/Article.aspx?articleId=548); Bunting, "State AG to Push Shield Law Next Session," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 7, 2005, p. B-6; Bunting, "Case Shines Spotlight on Shield Law," Ibid.,  December 15, 2006, p. B-6; Bunting, "Free Flow of Information Key to Democracy," Yakima Herald-Republic, June 24, 2009, p. A-4;  "NFOIC Hires Full-Time Executive Director," National Freedom of Information Coalition press release, June 17, 2010 (nfoic.org); Aditi Shrikant, "Kenneth Bunting, Former Director of National Freedom of Information Coalition, Dies at 65," Columbia Missourian, April 22, 2014 (columbianmissourian.com); "Alumnus Ken Bunting Remembered as a 'Journalist’s Journalist,'" Texas Christian University Bob Schieffer College of Communications website accessed August 3, 2014 (http://www.journalism.tcu.edu/news/alumnus-ken-bunting-remembered-as-a-journalists-journalist/); Joel Connelly, "Sunday Memorial Service for Former P-I Editor Ken Bunting," seattlepi.com, April 29, 2014.

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