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Sunday, August 17, 2008

South Dakota Senate election is a referendum on Americans with disabilities

The Aberdeen American News again has a Sunday editorial suggesting that Sen. Tim Johnson's decision not to debate his opponent is a disrespect and distrust of the people of South Dakota. The newspaper, however, has demonstrated once again that it is a partisan hack-sheet, not because it has an editorial stance against Tim Johnson, but in its "news coverage."

On Thursday, Sen. Johnson visited Aberdeen. He held a meeting with the Brown County State's Attorney and others on issues of crimes against children and he toured the Brown County Fair. The American News did send a reporter to the meeting, but the account did not indicate where the meeting was held or under what circumstances, although it said Johnson walked into the meeting without assistance using a cane. The American News had no coverage of Sen. Johnson's visit to the Fair, which he toured on an ATV and stopped on the main midway to meet and greet people.

Still, when John Thune, who is not running for re-election, appeared 50 miles away in Webster, the AAN editors assigned both a reporter and photographer. This is just one in a multitude of examples of how the paper's partisanship determines it news editorial decisions.

I was in McLaughlin on business Thursday, so I did not see Sen. Johnson at the Fair. I did see him at the opening of the new Entrepreneurial Center in McLaughln, which is a cooperative venture of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Sitting Bull Community College.

Sen. Johnson has been forthright in stating that his progress in recovering his speaking abilities is not what he had hoped it to be by this time. Sometimes when answering questions, he is quick and fluent. At others, he finds it necessary to pause while groping for words. His pronunciation also is a factor. At times his physical speaking apparatus is not responsive and his diction is not clear and precise. Sen. Johnson knows and understands this and continues to work on improvement. He knows that he would be at a disadvantage.

And he knows from previous campaigns the kind of tactics that the Republicans will use to try to exploit his speaking disability. His campaign against John Thune six years ago became mired down in Thune-initiated muck. Thune then used the debate format to blind-side Tom Daschle with some false and irrelevant charges. Even when one is in full possession of verbal fluency, it is near-impossible, as the rhetorical rule states, to defend oneself against a lie. The only antidote to a lie is to expose the falsity of the facts , and the debate format does not provide for requiring that any charges or accusations being made be supported with clear and verifiable evidence.

Much of the press has, in its dog pack fashion, taken up the howling about the decision not to debate. None of them address the matter of what would and could happen if such a verbal confrontation were to take place.

I think of a couple of newspaper editors I knew. I once worked for the Davenport Morning Democrat. It shared the same building as the afternoon paper, the Davenport Times. While I was later working for The Moline Dispatch, the two papers merged into the Davenport Times-Democrat, but still published morning and afternoon editions. The managing editor of the Morning Democrat had a speech impediment. He had trouble with his l's and his r's. The word "library," for example, came out something like "wibwawy." The managing editor of the Times was a stutterer. When the two papers merged, the two editors had occasion to communicate frequently, and some staff members developed a funny but viciously cruel routine portraying the two men having a heated discussion. It was akin to Larry the Cable Guy's rendition of a song written by his deaf-mute brother.

And so the question is just what would be covered if Sen. Johnson were to debate Joel Dykstra--the substance or the speaking difficulties?

Sen. Johnson is fully aware that his speech has not fully recovered from the after-effects of his brain hemorrhage. Like all productive people who find themselves confronted with disabilities, Sen. Johnson is working around them in order to maintain his productivity. But some members of the press and the goon squad on the blogs is saying he has had his time and should step down. These factions are obsessed with the idea that his speaking ability signals an inability to function as a senator and to campaign.

The matter of the Senator declining to debate has turned the election into a referendum on whether the voters will shut out a person with a disability or will make accommodations so that the person can continue productive work.

The Aberdeen American News and other news organizations seem unable to confront their own intellectual and professional disabilities. Some are saying that the candidate is just a puppet for his campaign manager Steve Jarding. They seem to think that Steve Jarding is to Tim Johnson what Dick Wadham was to that poor wretch, John Thune. With organizations such as the Aberdeen American News, they whine and whine about no debates, but studiedly do not cover events where the Senator makes appearances and talks to constituents.

This election may well turn out to be referendum on whether the voters can accommodate some disabilities and looks past some superficial distractions to deal with the substance of the issues.

And it will also be a referendum on whether the press can surmount its Bush-league tabloidism and exercise some integrity of the journalistic enterprise.

For the Aberdeen American News, the conclusion is forgone.

[The photographs above are by Jason in Aberdeen and Tyler in McLaughlin of Badlands Blue.]

1 comment:

Todd Epp at S.D. Watch said...


I like the analogy to the ADA. But as you also know, the Courts have essentially made the ADA meaningless.

Is not debating a "reasoanble accomodation"? The electorate will have the final say. While I'd like to see Tim debate, ultimately, I don't think it will matter. Tim wins.

Todd Epp
SD Watch

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States