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

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

South Dakota and the absence of press

A Democratic politician held a news conference at the Aberdeen Library to announce an initiative to take the sales tax off of food.  No reporters showed up.  As the politician and his staff were leaving,  a young man who said he was an intern (I can't remember for whom) wandered in and asked what was going on.  We supplied him with a press packet prepared for the occasion, went through it with him, and he went on his way.  Shortly thereafter the politician started getting phone calls from media representatives asking for interviews.   That's how the South Dakota press doesn't work, the politician said in explanation.  It was not the kind of experience I ever had as a member of the press.  

My time as a newspaper editor was during a period of intense competition.  The Quad-Cities area where I worked had four newspapers, three television stations with news departments, and five radio stations with news staffs.  There were a number of communities in the metropolitan area that had weekly newspapers and small radio stations that often assigned reporters to cover events in the area.  Reporters hustled to file timely reports, and they were in a constant push to file the reports, often in hopes of scooping the competing media.

The newspaper I worked for had an editor, a 50-percent owner of the paper, who had a different approach.  He said it was nice to be first, but it was essential to be right.  He had a strategy that played off of the electronic media.  As television and radio have more limited time to report the news, the editor said listeners would go to newspapers to get the full stories and for accurate details.  Our newspaper invited listeners to refer to the newspaper for more and reliable information in ads it ran on the electronic media.  What this meant for our newspaper was a more cumbersome process of gathering information and verifying and checking the facts.  The strategy worked as the newspaper became one of the most influential newspapers in downstate Illinois.  There were times when a press run was delayed in order to get more, complete information into a story.  The paper did not end the reporting with the publication of a story.  Reporters kept checking for any developments on a story so that new information  could be updated in subsequent editions.  The newsroom was staffed with many experienced reporters who were adept, thorough, and fast in their work--but not necessarily first.

What happened that afternoon at the Aberdeen Library would never have happened in the Quad-Cities back in that day.  In today's media, the kind of thorough journalism  I knew is referred to as "old school" reporting.  That reference indicates why, given the omnipresence of media in contemporary life,  there are so many uninformed and ill-informed people.   We have many technical options for disseminating news, but the practice of journalism is not a matter of current fads and fashions for delivery.  The gathering and verifying of facts and the writing of coherent accounts were established and refined over generations.  Computers may facilitate the gathering and analysis if information, but they don't change the principles of what it takes to make a legitimate news story.  

At the death of South Dakota's best known political journalist, David Kranz, one of his former colleagues tabbed him as a member of "the old school."  During the campaign of 2004 between Tom Daschle and John Thune,  Kranz became the target of character assassination by the Thune campaign because he was a college mate and friend of Tom Daschle.  The libeler Jon Lauck tried to show in a blog that Kranz was biased against Republicans because of his critical comments about Sen. Larry Pressler.  Kranz was in fact reflecting the treatment Pressler was getting in the national press for his lack of work accomplishments and his inflated press releases.  National columnist Jack Anderson called him "Press Release" Pressler.  Here are some sentences pulled out of context by Lauck as examples of bias.

“The national media continues to give Pressler grief. Now comes the Washingtonian revelation: ‘George Bush and Dan Quayle’s least favorite Republican senator is Larry Pressler—neither wants to go into SD to campaign for him. One White House aide called him ‘flaky.’” September 30, 1990.
“No one else comes close to filling the role of a public servant who uses slick marketing to make minor accomplishments look like world-saving ventures.” July 8, 1990.
“To the kingmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, he is a lightweight—holding his title with superficial rhetoric, unsubstantiated legislative success and a circle of friends who glitter from their wealth.” August 6, 1989.
“Sen. Larry Pressler forfeited his chance to be considered a great Senator long ago. His obsession with image building and photo sessions has left him preoccupied and ineffective.” December 30, 1990. 
“Pressler has now been in Washington 14 years and still has no clear cause. He is controlled by public opinion, with a finger in the wind and a safe vote and press release to follow.” November 5, 1989.
Then Lauck contrasted the comments with sentences about Tom Daschle as Daschle's notable work was earning him high recognition in the Senate.  Again, Kranz was reflecting what was being discussed in the national press.

“[Daschle] has almost single-handedly put the Democratic Party back on the same solid ground evident during the prime of George McGovern’s career. Democrats are indebted to him.” December 10, 1989. 
“[Daschle] still stands in the middle of drought-stripped fields and bleeds for the American farmer.” July 24, 1988.  
“Daschle would be an attractive candidate for the second spot [Vice-President] because of his national stature.” March 28, 1999. 
“National political analysts label U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle as unbeatable.” March 22, 1998.  
“Those who have watched Daschle over the years see him as a master politician, ready to capitalize on the new challenges.” March 26, 1993. 
“Daschle shows courage in voting for pay increase.” AL, November 26, 1989 (headline).

The attack against Kranz was a tactic that GOP strategists were beginning to use as a means of dealing with candidates whose actual records of accomplishment did not compare well with their competitors.  Thune had a record in the House of fecklessness.   His conservative brand was based upon saying no to any expenditure of money.  The way to promote such candidates is to attack people's confidence in the press reports on them while accusing their opponents of bad things.  This is the tactic Trump has used in assailing the press with charges of fake news and being the enemy of the people, and calling Hillary crooked and accusing Obama of putting wire surveillance in Trump Tower.  Thune and his henchman Lauck attacked Daschle's wife, Daschle's success as a sell out to the Beltway, his patriotism and loyalty to the country--a phalanx of petty falsehoods that assailed Daschle's character.  The undermining of the press was intended to cast doubt on anything positive reported about Daschle.

The campaign stained the reputation of Kranz and his newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.  But it also sent a chill through the press in South Dakota,  which retreated into a cowardice that people like Thune and Lauck know how to manipulate.  They also recognize a reservoir of provincial resentment in South Dakota that can be called into action, and that resentment extends to a press that might report things the people in that reservoir do not want to hear. 

At this time, South Dakota has only one person reporting on state government, Bob Mercer who has a contract with a number of state newspapers.  Mercer carries some baggage as a former press secretary for Bill Janklow.  Most recently, Mercer's coverage of the Republican state convention raised eyebrows because it didn't mention a protest taking place outside the convention or the expulsion of two delegates, and took the form of a paean to Jason Ravnsborg, a candidate for attorney general who has never tried a case before a jury.

Kevin Woster, a former newspaperman, now writes a blog for South Dakota Public Broadcasting which ventures some into politics with casual commentary.

A young political reporter, David Montgomery, blazed a trail through South Dakota newspapers in Pierre, Rapid City, and Sioux Falls.  He landed a job on the St. Paul Pioneer Press,  but last September the paper offered him a buyout and he took it.  He left observers of the news business wondering why a reporter so young and with such seeming promise would be offered a buyout.

South Dakota now has no one doing a vigorous and incisive coverage of South Dakota politics.  The death of David Kranz marks the end of that kind of reporting.  That makes the majority happy, most likely.  If there is anything nefarious going on in state politics, the people would prefer not to know it.  That old school of journalism, which informed people of what was happening, is now a dead school in South Dakota.


Bob Mercer said...


I reported about the expulsions Monday morning on my blog ( Your post is dated Tuesday.

As to missing the protest outside the Republican convention, I was inside the convention hall and didn't know there was a protest until reading your post. To my knowledge, none of the other reporters inside the convention knew about the protest.

I'm willing to take whatever points you want to make about the four years I spent as press secretary for Gov. Bill Janklow. I helped improve his news-media relations. I was a newspaper reporter before that, and I have been a newspaper reporter again since January 2003.

As for the coverage of Jason Ravnsborg, it was what it was, just as my coverage of Randy Seiler was what it was.

I have told people for many years that I purposely don't vote. That held true while I was Janklow's press secretary too. I can't speak for all of them, but I know there are many reporters and editors who do vote or at least are registered to vote.

And, because you left the field as a reporter long ago, you probably didn't realize my employment situation changed some years ago. I again work for the Aberdeen American News. AAN holds the contracts with the other daily newspapers I proudly serve. They are the four other original members in Watertown, Mitchell, Pierre and Spearfish. Since returning to the Aberdeen American News, we also gained the daily newspapers in Rapid City and Yankton.

While you write critically about me, I would like to remind your readers about my extensive coverage of EB-5 and GEAR UP, as well as many, many other important news stories through the three-plus decades I've spent reporting news in South Dakota.

David Newquist said...

I was aware of your report of the expulsion on the blog because that is how I knew about it. My reference is in response to questions about why it was not mentioned in the report which appeared in the newspapers.

I am not trying to be critical of your reporting. In fact, your coverage of EB-5 and Gear Up are high marks in South Dakota journalism, and your efforts to crack open the closed records on Benda are the equal of Woodward's and Bernstein's efforts on Watergate. My point is that the state has no reporting that keeps a constant focus on politics and its players in the state. The war on the media which in the state broke out during the Daschle-Thune campaign has made the news business very timid, and that has more to do with how editors assess their audience.

Another bit of reporting you have brought light is the publication of Anna Madsen's honors thesis on Gear Up. The general public needs to know about this. You are the main conduit in the state for such news,

Porter Lansing said...

Mr. Mercer,
David Newquist's post about old school journalism is validated by your statement (paraphrased), "I was inside the hall and didn't know there was news going on outside." A newsman with no support staff? Not even an intern around to go outside, take a break and have a smoke? Important and interesting things are going unreported while "news on the cheap" has taken over.

jerry said...

I was reading your post and have come to the conclusion that the only news that most of the South Dakota public gets is from their weekly readers. I call them that as they are published each week and have glowing reports from NOem, Thune and Rounds in them. Sometimes there is a blurb from Daugaard but the three amigos are a steady blathering of how great they are doing and how wonderful the times are. They also blame any shortcomings on Democrats and the lie of obstruction.

The weekly readers are read many times over and passed along in the coffee shops and other places that farmers and ranchers sit around and bitch about Indians, liberals and how badly misunderstood they are. Of course, it has never dawned on them the the reason they are in the position they find themselves in, is because they read the propaganda and swallow it as truth.

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States