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, September 2, 2010

Foxes in henhouses

For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained to me, the Internet and its blogs have changed the rules that once governed the publication of information about people who are not public figures.  A result of that change has been the South Dakota traffic ticket wars.

There has also been a change in the way the legacy media treats stories about other people's infractions of the law.  Back in those older times of journalism, about 30 years ago, the court records of political candidates would not have been much of a campaign issue for the political parties.  The news media would have taken care of that.  As people announced their candidacies, the media automatically checked their backgrounds, including court records, if any.  The major focus, however, was to verify the accuracy of the biographical information candidates cited in support of their candidacy.  Candidates were very careful about the claims they made to the press because they knew the facts would be checked.  And at that time getting caught in a misrepresentation or a significant omission would be deadly for a candidate.  The news-consuming public tended to dismiss anyone who was not truthful, because the age of spin had not yet inured the public to playing loose with the truth.  The public generally despised any public figure who got caught in a lie.

When the news media presented the background of a candidate, it routinely filled in any omissions that were significant and presented factual information in full context and relevance. It methodically deflated inflated resumes.   However, possible libel was regarded quite differently than it is today.  If people had some demerits in their background, news editors would decided on whether to include it in news presentations of the candidates' backgrounds based upon whether it was relevant to the office the candidate was seeking and whether it reflected significantly on moral character.

Publishing factual and documented information about a person could be considered libelous if it was done maliciously, that is to  say for the purpose of damaging the  person's reputation in the eyes of the public beyond simply informing the public.   While public figures cannot sue for libel as private citizens can, the media applied the same standard when reporting on public figures.  If a person had made past mistakes and paid for them, their positive efforts would be emphasized over any lapses in the past.  On the few occasions when fact-checking turned up negative information, the editors and the legal counsel would deliberate very thoroughly on whether or not to present that negative information.  The occasions I recall involved matters such as gross negligence, shop lifting, embezzlement, assault and battery, and dishonorable discharge from the military service. 

I do not recall that traffic tickets came up.  An old colleague in the news business reminded me of why.  The states he and I worked in had point systems.  When you got arrested for speeding, running stop signs or red lights, careless driving, etc., so many points were charged against your driving record.  When you received so many demerits in a certain amount of time, your driver's license was automatically revoked.

I do remember one candidate for a county office who had lost her license and had to be driven everywhere, but she won the election and got into a bit of a flap over whether it was appropriate to have a car and driver from the county motor pool drive her around on county business.  I do not think we ever had occasion to consider candidates who had tickets in the 15 to 20 range.  I don't recall exactly how that point system worked, but my former colleague and I both think that the system would have required the revocation of the licenses of habitual offenders, depending on the severity of the offenses.

I am not sure just how the current checking into the court records of South Dakota candidates was initiated.  As I said, at one time this would have been a routine function of the news media.  Keloland officially broke the story, and the magnitude of the number of arrests involved among the candidates makes it news.  The circumstances of how the story broke is also important, because they reveal how malicious forces are influencing the dissemination of information.

Whether media representatives initiated the investigation into court driving records or were tipped off by someone doing opposition research in the election campaign, a friend of the SDGOP who works with the records tipped off party members that the media was nosing around the court records.  In an attempt to head off negative impact on scofflaw Noem, South Dakota War College published that such a story was imminent and tried to paint it as the nefarious work of the Herseth Sandlin campaign.  This is viciously ironic in that War College will rush into publication with any kind of rumor or scurrilous accusation against a Democrat, whether it is factual or not, and do so gleefully with the sole intent of maligning the person and the party.  South Dakota War College has obsessively made personal attacks against Herseth Sandlin to the point that they have a pathological aspect. 

In addition the inane personal attacks of War College and the state Republicans executive director, whose petty and ridiculous sallies against SHS are faithfully published by War College--the traditional media won't touch them--the masters of the petty and craven have launched anonymous blogs against her.  They obviously hope to replicate what the character assassin blogs did to Tom Daschle.  At least when the Democratic Party launches a satiric blog on scofflaw Noem's driving record, it has the courage and integrity to announce itself as sponsor. 

The real story in such campaigns is not that a few fringe moral deviants immerse themselves in malicious scurrility==they've always been among us; the true significance is how many people listen to and believe them.  When so many people obsess over allegations that are so easily, provably untrue, such as Obama's birth record, his Muslim beliefs, his racist motives, the pundits ignore the significance of how easily and successfully the weak minded have been manipulated.  The GOP has mastered the technique of forming the undereducated, the intellectually ungifted, and the hate-prone into its base.  The problem is that the tea party movement has out-manipulated the parent party and the official leadership has lost control. 

The kind of campaigning reflected in the making the driving records of congressional staff members and relatives an issue is a national phenomena.  In South Dakota, the petty puerility is more unrestrained and pronounced.  Those fifth grade bullies who cornered kids out by the playground swing set and abused and bullied them are reliving what they regard as their moments of true consequence in the traffic ticket wars.

During the past five years, I have seen many friends leave the state.  One former colleague is a prime example.  For years, I knew he had purchased a property in the Black Hills and developed it into the home to which he would retire.  He anticipated a beautiful and peaceful place where he could do the work he loved.  He retired a few years ago and celebrated the move to the place he created.  A few months ago, I was asked to write an article about people in South Dakota who were doing artistic and creative work and I had occasion to contact this former colleague to verify some information.  I had trouble finding him, and finally he answered an e-mail, stating that he no longer lived in South Dakota.

This puzzled me, so when I talked to him about the information, I said I thought he had made the Black Hills his headquarters.  He said he had, but after living there for about a year, he and his wife found it anything but pleasant.  The geography and the landscape was beautiful and inspiring, he said, but the social and political attitudes of the people were toxic.  He said while there were good and fine people in the community, the dominant attitude was prejudiced, anti-intellectual, and malicious.  He said he and his wife, and his children when they came to visit, found the social climate toxic and unhealthy.  The attitudes he encountered made it impossible for him to reconcile the fact that he was living on stolen land, he said, and so they put the house up for sale and moved to another state where prejudice and hatred did not make up the social climate. 

There is much speculation about how energized the Republican factions are and how less-than-enthusiastic Democrats are.  From the people I know, I don't think the would-be analysts grasp the political implications.   Like my former colleague who joined many of my acquaintances in leaving the state, Democrats have seen hope turn into a realization of hopelessness.  Racial battles, McCarthy-like witch hunts, and raging hostilities dominate what purports to be political discussion.  As my former colleague said, these are not the people I want for neighbors.  There are big problems to be solved and higher  purposes to pursue, and sometimes one has to move to where the solutions and the pursuit are possible.

Leave the small-minded twits to their petty retaliations for having a scofflaw exposed.  They are the worst demons, not the better angels, of our natures. The Republicans have brought us to the age of defamation.  Let them live in it and let the more high-minded people move on.  America was a good idea, but right now the geography and mental climate do not seem to suit it.  But it's a big universe.

1 comment:

larry kurtz said...

Good eye, Doc. It took me thirty years living in the Black Hills to finally get it, better late than never, it's said.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States