News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Taser this, or the art of the leading question.

In court trials, they are called leading questions and attorneys yell “leading” when their opponents pose one. The judge usually tells the offending attorney to rephrase the question.

When a journalist asks a leading question of a news source, there was a time when the reporter could expect a sharp, sarcastic answer or a long, qualifying one. But that was back in the days when a college education included a basic knowledge of what comprises legitimate rhetoric and what comprises cheap tricks and false propaganda.

When a news medium poses leading questions to its audience, it loses its status as the independent Fourth Estate and becomes a propaganda agency.

That’s what happened at the Rapid City Journal last week when it published an editorial questioning if Sen. Tim Johnson’s health qualifies him for another run for the Senate. The editorial carried the headline “Johnson’s bid raises health question.”

No. The Rapid City Journal’s editorial raises the health question.

Most people who are conscious and competent enough to go to the bathroom by themselves know that Tim Johnson had a brain hemorrhage last December and has been recovering from reparative surgery and the physical after effects.

Sen. Johnson’s family, doctors, and staff did something horrendous. They decided not to let the press intrude into his treatment and recovery. They did let Bob Woodruff of CBS News have periodic visits, which ended up as a report about the healing and recovery process on Nightline. They did so because Woodruff suffered a brain injury from an IED in Iraq. His resulting story was about facing debilitating injuries and recovering from those so that one’s life and work can be resumed.

The reason the press was avoided to keep the focus on Sen. Johnson’s recovery and reduce the kind of tabloid-level gossip and speculation that much of the media practices as journalism.

As Brendan Johnson, the Senator’s son, relates to anyone who will listen, Sen. Johnson did not give his family any advance information about his decision to run. The reason was simple. He had goals to reach in his physical therapy, and he wanted to be sure in his own mind when he decided, and he wanted to be able to demonstrate to his constituents that he was capable of running if he found that he could.

The kind of issues raised in the Rapid City Journal represent exactly the kind of superficial and superfluous speculation that the Senator did not want influencing his decision and the public’s perception of his abilities.

The editorial writers complained that the Senator did not grant telephone interviews or hold weekly teleconferences with reporters. The editorial did not mention that since he returned to the Senate, he has not missed a vote and that he has issued statements of his position and analysis of issues through his staff. The Senator openly acknowledges that his speech is not as fluent as it was prior to his AVM, and he communicates in the form that affords the most control and precision for him. The press may find it frustrating that he does not provide them opportunity to jump on halting speech patterns, but he has chosen the option of competent communications management.

The press suffers from the notion that it has mandatory access to political leaders. It doesn’t. I recall the master of selective press contacts in my home state, Sen. Everett Dirksen. He did not waste time and energy on reporters whose competence and motives were in doubt. No one practiced selective press contacts more than Bill Janklow did as Governor.

There has been a deplorably petulant aspect among the South Dakota media, especially the blogs, when it has not been fodder for its tabloid exploitations of the Senator’s illness. They have whined that the people have a right to know if they will have a full-time capable representative in the Senate. They have wailed fatuously that they need to know if their state will be represented by someone with his faculties intact. The fact is that they have been informed as soon as the Senator knew what plans could be pursued.

In all this, Sen. Johnson has demonstrated a dimension of leadership that lifts him above trite and banal carping that the blogosphere regards as political discourse. His wife Barbara is a breast cancer survivor who has traveled the world giving women the hope and information to surmount that illness. Sen. Johnson has had a bout with prostate cancer. And then last December, he was hit with the AVN. For anyone who has faced setbacks and adversity, the Johnson family has demonstrated an intelligence, a courage, and a determination that is a standard of hope and triumph. That’s real leadership.

We live in a digital age when the press thinks it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the way it approaches the news. Rather than diligent reporting and skillful writing, it depends upon Jerry Springer Show fights and conflicts to attract audiences. Newspapers are losing readers and advertising to the digital formats. But the print media is also showing a definite stratification on intellectual level. There are alternatives to blogs and daily media that cater to the mean, petty, and cheap.

The Rapid City Journal editorial was an extended leading question. It was written in such a way as to predispose readers to the notion that Sen. Johnson’s health is the major campaign issue. It prompts the readers to respond with doubt and concern that the editorial raised because of the Senator’s controlled contacts with the media. It did not cover his activities on the Senate floor or the statements he has issued.

The Rapid City Journal did not operate as part of the independent Fourth Estate, but as part of the tabloid industry whose main endeavor is the manufacture of doubt, conflict, and idle speculation.

The Rapid City Journal has some fine reporters on its staff. It may be that the Senator does not want this campaign to go off in the negative and hopeless direction that his campaign against John Thune took, and wishes to restrict occasions for speculation and the exchange of defamations. The state’s media have much to do with the tone and substance of that campaign. But good reporters do not serve to generate silly accusations and character assassination. Maybe the Rapid City Journal can rediscover the basic premise of journalism and the function of the Fourth Estate.

But then, maybe not.


Douglas said...

The RCJ did call it an editorial and not a news story. There is a difference.. not that I agree with the editorial.

The press ire at Johnson has been more than a bit unseemly and arrogant as it demonstrates an inflated sense of self-importance.

Your ire is perhaps more appropriate for situations when the "news" is labeled with a headline that is grossly misleading. More than a few people scan just the headlines. Too often reading the actual story indicates the headline is an inappropriate extension or diminuation of the actual content.
The same AP story may have markedly different headlines in different papers and salient content may be clipped in different papers.

Getting a bit offtrack here, but this also indicates the problems with the FCC attempt to allow both newspapers and electronic media to be controlled by the same corporate news group in larger cities. This gives people the misleading impression that they have gotten the story from two independent sources, when it may be the same opinion or opinionated news from the same people or editors.

David Newquist said...

Even an editorial is supposed to account for all the facts. If it presumes to report, its writers are obligated to get it right. This one did not mention any of the Senator's activities since he returned to the Senate.

You are right about the corporate media. News to them is a commodity to be made as cheaply as possible and appeal to the junk-food appetite.

Douglas said...

The Mitchell Daily Republic reprinted the RCJ Editorial.

Apparently it was a slow week for good editorials.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States