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

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The vulture culture is flapping away

The Aberdeen American News has amassed an incredible record for incompetent journalism. Its editorial page and its handling of news both radiate the regressive agenda and the petit-fascist philosophy that it is okay to censor news that does not fit its political agenda and to hype up news that does. The American News has decided to abandon any but a few pretenses to journalism for a role as a partisan medium.

On Sunday, June 29,the rag's editorial called into question Sen. Tim Johnson's health.

It's time to start asking some tough, yet very legitimate, questions. Primary among these questions are: What exactly is Sen. Tim Johnson's state of health? Is he ready - physically, mentally, emotionally - to tackle another six years in
the Senate with the energy and vitality that South Dakotans expect and deserve?

The public has a right to know - and to ask - if the senator's health will allow him to be as effective in 2009 as in 2003. The senator has a responsibility to make sure he makes a full disclosure about his health.

Roland Walter, chair of the Brown County Democrats, pointed out the journalistic errors in the editorial both in a letter-to-the-editor and in an e-mail to the Brown County party members. A former journalist, Walt stressed that the editorial suggested that Sen. Johnson's health and ability to serve are called into question even though the facts--some of which have been published in the American News--are readily available and clear. Walt points out:

  • Tim has made numerous public appearances since returning to the Senate last August.

  • Tim has not missed a vote since his return.

  • Doctor's tell him he will continue to make progress physically, and that his speaking ability will improve greatly over time.

  • With the exception of the time spent in initial recovery, has there been a noticeable difference in the performance of the Johnson office?

  • The American News asks if Tim will be as effective in 2009 as he was in 2003. In fact, he can be far more effective despite any physical limitations. His is now the majority party in the Senate which enhances his power and thus his effectiveness and there is little chance that will change in November. Plus, Tim has an additional six years of seniority which also adds to his effectiveness.

  • The editorial says it is legitimate to ask if the Tim Johnson of today can provide the same energy as the pre-AVM Tim--implying he must do this in order to be worthy of our vote. That is not the question faced by voters and is not a legitimate comparison. The legitimate question for voters is whether Tim Johnson or his opponent will do the better job representing South Dakota over the next six years.

  • There is an implication that Tim's long term medical prognosis is somehow being hidden by staff. His doctors have stated publicly that there is no danger of a second AVM and that continued recovery will be steady, but may be slow. The question isn't whether his recovery will be fast and complete, but whether he capable of doing his job. Every indication is that Tim and his staff are fully capable and all Senators of any account do rely heavily on staff. Nothing is being hidden and there is nothing to hide.

  • The editorial states "Senator Johnson has served South Dakota well for years." Indeed he has and what is there to indicate he will not continue to do so?

When Tim was in Aberdeen last Saturday for a fund-raiser, he told the people present that his doctors said that in terms of continuing to recover from the AVM, he could only get better. For the sake of fluency, Tim generally addresses audiences--as he did at the State Democratic Convention and at the fundraiser--by reading prepared remarks. He goes to this effort in extra preparation to communicate efficiently with his audiences.

However, last Saturday after reading his remarks, Tim invited questions from his audience. He received some tough inquiries about issues before Congress, such as point-of-origin labeling, bio-fuels, and the economic downturn--and he answered them with a command of the issues, knowledge about where the Senate is in addressing them, and clear, concise language.

As Roland Walter points out, Sen. Johnson has demonstrated this kind of performance since his return to the Senate floor last August. An organization which purports to be a news medium would be well aware of these facts.

Newspapers have the right--and the responsibility--to express opinions. But they do not have the right to ignore, distort, or falsify the facts. Distorting the facts was the purpose behind the editorial questioning Tim Johnson's state of health.

The tactic used in the editorial is the same one used in the archetypal question "When did you stop beating your wife?" The purpose behind that prosecutorial question is not to elicit an answer, but to plant the assumption that the person being questioned beat his wife--whether he did or not.

The question about Sen. Johnson making a full disclosure about his health is not to elicit information, but to plant the assumption that he is hiding something about the state of his health. The editorial contains no summary and analysis of facts. Its sole purpose is to plant the idea in the public mind that the state of Sen. Johnson's health is being hidden from the public.

The real question is raised by this old, cheap, and malicious tactic. It concerns the state of intellectual, moral, and health of the Aberdeen American News.

The editorial stance of the American News is clear. While its editorial page gives token space to progressive commentary, it has assembled a stable of local regressive columnists that range from those whose writing displays severe symptoms of dementia to those who use their professional offices to give credence to tiresome and foolish regressive cant. At this point, that is all their political party has going, and they spout it endlessly.

But the opinions of the editors and columnists are not the issue. The fact that they habitually ignore, suppress, and often misrepresent the facts is the issue. In northeastern South Dakota, the Aberdeen American News has no competitors covering the area. So, it is the major source of information and its pretenses to reporting news are far outweighed by its partisan agenda--both in the opinions expressed and the news covered.

When John Thune last ran for election, the American News reported his stump speeches and slightest utterance in great detail when he came to town. When the Democrat candidates came to town, the American News "reviewed" their speeches for their repetition of campaign issues and their performance.

When the Knight Ridder company, which owned the American News, was dismantled, people hoped that a new owner would improve the journalism in the newspaper. It was purchased by Schurz Communications, whose major newspaper is the South Bend, Indiana, Tribune--the home of Notre Dame. Schurz owns 13 daily newspapers, 7 weeklies, 9 television stations, 13 radio stations, 2 cable companies, plus some regional magazines and shoppers. Its holdings in South Dakota besides the American News are 5 radio outlets in Rapid City and one in Sturgis. As is true of the news business nationally, Schurz is not as interested in the quality of journalism as it is making a dollar or two in markets where straight and competent news reporting has little entertainment value for audiences conditioned to having diversions, not sound information.

During his recovery from his AVM, Sen. Johnson earned some enmity from the press by not revealing where he was undergoing his rehabilitation and by being selective about which journalists he worked with concerning his health issues. He, his family, and his staff realized that it is not good for one's physical or political health to let the journalistic vultures cast their ominous shadows.

The Aberdeen American News has given us a demonstration of why that is so.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States