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 MinneKota@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The long, slow demise

Some years ago, when  I taught journalism, Aberdeen had a fairly bustling news cadre working the area.  A news team operated out of KABY TV, which is now a satellite transmitter for KSFY in Sioux Falls.  KELO TV had a correspondent stationed in town. Three radio stations had news staffs working the region.  And there was the local newspaper, which is about all that remains in terms of a coverage presence. There was an abundance of news personnel to draw upon to give students some insights into the realities of the working press.

When there was a news conference or a significant event, journalism students could attend and see working journalists in action.  One could give students practical assignments to write their own news stories about the event and the compare them with the work of the professional press.  One such occasion was during the presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush  (president 41) when his campaign seemed to be lagging.  He came to the student union at Northern State as part of a movement to re-energize his campaign.  The journalism students became part of a large contingent of reporters, regional and national, and produced some impressive coverage, but more importantly got a first-hand experience in how the press handles such occasions.

Now there are no television newspeople stationed in Aberdeen.  Radio stations are programmed digitally from remote locations, so they have no announcing staffs, let alone news people.  

And the newspaper recently eliminated seven staff members, including two from news.  As most news media depend on advertising for their revenue, changes in the economy have a direct effect on their news operations.  The Internet has been an earth-shattering event for news media.  It has siphoned off the news audience with online sources.  And it has eliminated advertising revenues to a large degree because of the online competition in the retail market.

Newspapers for a time enjoyed a surge in revenues with the building of shopping malls.  Stores in malls advertised so much that some newspapers maintained advertising offices in the malls.  Newspapers delivered to homes burgeoned with advertising and were fat with flyers.  But now malls are struggling to survive store closings.  The Aberdeen Mall was a case in point.

The Aberdeen Mall opened with three department stores as anchors:  Walmart, J.C. Penney, and Herberger's.  Walmart built its own center across the street and moved out.  J.C. Penney closed as it shut down a number of its stores throughout the country.  Its mall store in Aberdeen was managed as a boutique whereas its old downtown store relied heavily on children's clothes, workwear, and a line of moderately priced clothing as its main  sources of revenue.  Herberger's, which is having a going-out-of-business sale, will close late this summer, leaving the mall to some scattered specialty merchandisers.  The Sears store is also closing.  The company which owns the mall is known to be on shaky footing, as malls throughout the country are becoming dead malls.  The Aberdeen Mall may be a candidate for that status.

Dead malls portend ill for the news business.  The absence of malls and stores means an absence of the sources of advertising revenue for the media.   Dead malls mean dead media, which means dead minds.


Journalism is the nervous system of democracies.  It records the routine workings of government and organizations that serve the people and signals when things are working.  It signals the problems when things are going wrong.  When journalism in a community diminishes, it is a sign of poor health.  The signals of things working and the alarms of problems are muted.  One or very few sources of journalism are a sign of an economy not robust enough to support it.  Dead malls make for diminished newspapers and radio stations.  They signify a redirection of the flow of money, most of it out of the community.  And diminished sources of journalism result.  TV news and online media tell what is happening in the world and the nation's capitol,  but where local media has shriveled away, people don't know what is going in their local communities.  They get word-of-mouth and online social media accounts, which are inaccurate and often just not true.  And the remaining media gets fearful about offending anyone and losing more of its audience, so it focuses on "feel good" news and avoids anything some might find negative.

Consequently, people often do not know the state of their local community. As one person said on Facebook,  while things around them are deteriorating, the news pages are filled with kids and kittens and someone who makes toothbrush holders for unicorns.  News coverage gets displaced by the desperate attempts to ignore the reasons  for declining revenue and to project optimism even if the facts point to dismal factors.  In Aberdeen, sales tax revenues seem to be stable despite store closings, and with the Supreme Court decision enabling state and local tax collection on online sales, store closings might not matter much.  But sales tax figures which are listed by the category of the establishments which collect the tax show a different story.  They pin point where the biggest fluctuations are.  Aberdeen is taking a big hit in the dry goods category with the closings of Kmart, J.C. Penney, Herbergers.  A few types of business, such as restaurants and bars, have shown a decline of activity over the years.  Some types of retail business have disappeared.  When  I came to Aberdeen there were four men's clothing stores on Main Street and one in Super City Mall.  Now, outside the department stores, there are none.  There were two fabric shops.  Now there are none.  And there were a number of bars featuring adult entertainment or music.  Now, I think, there is one.  The culture has changed in town, but that change has not been much covered in terms of how and how much.

Changes in the culture of a community signal changes in its viability, whether it can meet the needs and aspirations of the people who live in it.  If the Aberdeen Mall is defunct,  where will the people go to find the goods and services and cultural elements of life in provides?  The closing of stores in Aberdeen are only a part of the loss of access to goods and services that are components of community life.

The decline of working news reporters is evidence of low state of the news enterprise in the community.  Their absence also signals an absence of information about how their community is faring in terms of the kind of life that can be lived in it.  It is not that there are few journalists because nothing is happening.    It is that there is a scarcity of people telling others exactly what is happening,  which is a long, slow demise of the community itself.




 


Monday, July 16, 2018

The legacy of malice

Shortly before I moved to South Dakota, my next door neighbor, who taught law enforcement at a community college, ran for county sheriff.  He was running against a man who was active in politics and was a bit of a character.  The opponent was serving as county coroner and he put emergency lights on top of his car and went buzzing around town as if he was always on his way to an emergency.  It was a joke around town because you don't need lights and sirens for trips to the morgue.  However, aside from such idiosyncrasies,  he had a reputation for being a very nice and energetic man and he was well known throughout the county.

I was a registered Republican at the time,  but not at all active in politics and I never voted straight ticket.  My next door neighbor was running as a Republican and the woman who was serving as party precinct chair lived just down the street and stopped to chat up the party candidates when we met on the street.


My neighbor launched a campaign that had a very negative element, as his ads and statements ridiculed his opponent in an insulting, mean-spirited way.  Most people, including the woman who was precinct chair, thought the negative campaigning was sure to lose the election.  The majority of people reacted strongly to negative, personal insults in campaigns and the conventional wisdom of most was that it reflected low character on the person  who used it and turned people against them.


My neighbor won the election, much to the surprise of most people.  Many political strategists in both parties noted that negative campaigning, particularly of the personally insulting kind, had never worked before and backfired on those who tried to use it, but it seemed to have worked in this instance.  Did it mean that the public had changed?  That negative campaigning would be effectively used?  Apparently so.  That time marked a shift away from campaigns that centered on what candidates would do to campaigns that engaged in personal attacks against opponents.  Since that election, I've seen negative campaigning grow to the point  to where it is considered a necessary aspect of a successful campaign.  Advocates of personal defamation as part of the political process say that it works.  Election results indicate they are right.


The South Dakota GOP finds defamatory campaigning so effective that it has become the major "strategy" in its campaigns.  Defaming and misrepresenting opponents dominates.  On the national level, Trump has turned insult, abuse, and mendacity into a national agenda.  However, if South Dakota can claim national leadership in any area of human endeavor, it is in negative campaigning.  The Daschle-Thune campaign provides the paradigm for using malice as the predominant motive in a campaign.  

The Daschle campaign and the Brown County Democrats ran their campaigns out of a large storefront on downtown Main Street.  The Daschle campaign manager set up a back office he called the "war room."  In it, he posted all the ads and statements that the Thune campaign issued against Daschle.  One newspaper ad pictured Daschle with Osama bin Laden and Iraq's Saddam Hussein with the implication they were all somehow allied.  Another claimed that Daschle abandoned his first wife for a beauty queen.  And there were blog printouts and news accounts of what Thune said at his public appearances.  One of Thune's hired character assassins wrote a book about the campaign which, of course, never admits that the fundamental; strategy of Thune's campaign was to create malice against Daschle and anyone or anything  associated with him.  After the election, a political scientist and some journalists suggested that the campaign materials should be reviewed to analyze how the press was manipulated and responded to the negative materials of the campaign.  Some funds were generated to organize what was titled The Press Project, which was conceived largely as a fact-checking enterprise.    The materials collected in the Aberdeen campaign office provided a substantial start for the review.  A professor of writing and journalism and dean of a program who was on a pre-retirement sabbatical from an eastern university was engaged to set up and direct the project in its initial stages.  Professor John had visited the Dakotas with a close professional colleague originally from South Dakota and for many years they had neighboring summer homes near Detroit Lakes, where he was working on a sabbatical project and where he was directing the startup on The Press Project.  At the very beginning right after New Years in 2005, the friend who had introduced him to the Dakotas died of cancer.  Professor John kept working on the project which had been moved to Fargo for his convenience, but he indicated that he would be able to spend less time in starting up the project than he originally intended.  Initially, The Press Project intended to focus on only the traditional media.  Blogs were very recent and surveys showed that extremely few people were aware of them, let alone read them.  The professor decided that blogs had to be included because they most clearly defined the tenor of the Thune campaign.

He arranged for a young political scientist to work into the directorship of the Project, and turned his attention to his own project and preparing to return to his job for a year before retiring.  Another Project worker was a young woman who was an early contributor to the Northern Valley Beacon.  She reported that the professor had become very dispirited as he analyzed the materials.  After he turned over the project to the political scientist, he commented how demoralizing dealing with the campaign materials was for him.  He said that the misrepresentations and defamations could be fact-checked, but the malice behind them was the dominating factor in the campaign.  They were made with no regard for the collateral damage it did to people.  He commented that what needed close study was the audience that accepted such campaign tactics.

The Press Project came to a halt when the young political scientist quit to join a more prestigious project, stating that what happened in South Dakota was a provincial anomaly of little importance to the rest of America.  (The Trump phenomenon proved him wrong.) So, we packed up the materials in  archive boxes and put them in a storage unit with the expectation that the work would resume.  As time passed The Project receded into the background of political business, and I have lost track of where the materials are.

One of the things that the professor found alarming was that in a state whose media have a notorious "conservative" slant, the Thune campaign contended that it, particularly the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, showed a personal partiality for Tom Daschle.  The evidence showed that for the most part Thune was, in fact, receiving idolizing treatment from the media, treating him like a "rock star."  In an account by the Aberdeen American News, that term was actually used. 

The late David Kranz was a particular target of the Thune campaign.  I had met him in his professional capacity, but we were remote acquaintances.  He was considered by other journalists and political operatives to have the most extensive, insightful knowledge of South Dakota politics of anyone in the state.  Professor John said that the attacks on Kranz were "malicious contortions" of his work which the Project should expose in detail.  The professor left some analysis of the attacks, but they were never followed up.  Professor John was an expert in writing and rhetoric, but his successor was a political scientist and placed more emphasis on the social effects of the campaign rather than analyzing its truthfulness and defamatory constructs.  The professor noted that the fundamental premise of Thune's campaign was character defamation against Daschle, which included assailing the character of anyone associated with Daschle in a positive way.  Thune's record in Congress was one of fecklessness and indolence in comparison with Daschle's.  Rather than risk comparisons, the Thune campaign carpet-bombed Daschle's character, including that of anyone around him.

Through my associates, I kept hearing that David Kranz was deeply troubled and hurt by the attacks on him, insisting that most of what was said was not true.  And  I heard that he was struggling with health issues.

Professor John said that the Thune campaign left South Dakota with a legacy of malice which will be recorded in the many lives it affected.  Kranz's long-time colleague Kevin Woster brought that legacy up in his lengthy tribute on the occasion of Kranz's death.  He referred to the memorial given at the funeral by former Argus Leader editor Randall Beck, whose tenure at the newspaper included the 2004 campaign cycle.   Beck spoke of "the 'false, malicious attacks on his character' from which, Beck rightly said, Kranz never quite recovered."

Woster writes, "Most of us would have returned fire against such an onslaught. Kranz did not. Could not.  'It was not in him to fight back,' Beck said."


The legacy of malice has not yet been presented in a comprehensive account of the Daschle-Thune campaign.  But it keeps cropping up in the lives of those who were hurt by it.  Much to the discredit of the voters in South Dakota, it works.  And the election of Donald Trump is an indication of depravity in the national population.  Good will is not part of the GOP agenda.

The family and friends who were collateral casualties of the character assassination blitz against Tom Daschle are the evidence of that legacy of malice.  It is one thing to cite negative things when they are true about a candidate.  But contriving falsehoods solely for the purpose of defaming a person in the eyes of the public is decadence that kills off the better angels.  Such tactics leave a trail of distrusting and damaged people.  And that is our legacy of malice.







Thursday, July 12, 2018

The bean counters boot Bob Mercer

The Aberdeen American News announced that Bob Mercer is among seven employees laid off today. Here is executive editor J.J. Perry's explanation:

Bob Mercer’s situation is a little different. He is based in Pierre, and his work is sold by our company to other news outlets in South Dakota. Those subscriptions helped offset some of the cost, but not enough. 
Rather than an immediate layoff, the Capitol Bureau in Pierre will remain open through the end of September. That will give our member papers enough time to decide how to proceed with their coverage, including of our new governor and the legislative session that opens in January. 
My deep hope is that one of the other subscriber newspapers can pick up the Capitol Bureau position, and we can subscribe or otherwise subsidize some version of what the American News has been able to provide for nearly 10 years.
The layoffs come in response to a lack of operating capital.  What is obvious in Mercer's dismissal is that essential journalistic coverage is not much of a consideration.  Bob Mercer and the AP are the only coverage of state government in the state.  If editorial responsibility were a factor in the decision, a first concern would be that state government be covered and kept under scrutiny.  However, such journalistic concerns are not important in the world of bean counting.  In other words the primary reason that the press receives First Amendment rights is dismissed.

The South Dakota press has a reputation for deficient journalism, and the tradition continues.


Monday, July 9, 2018

Can we try again, America?

American literature is not just fiction, poetry, and drama.   It includes all the recording of events and rhetorical exchanges of the founding and development of our country.  It is a unique national literature because it not only recorded the thrust and details of the founding of the United States, but it played a major role in defining and enabling the quest for freedom, equality, and justice.  I have had the privilege of teaching American literature from the early pre-colonial journals of exploration to the poetry of minorities and women in our time pushing to realize full equality and the fiction that satirizes the ignorance and bigotry that blemishes American life.  The force of American life has been to confront the failures of democracy and to work and struggle to correct them.

All four of my grandparents were emigrants from Sweden.  Two of them died before I was born, my father's father died when I was very young, but my mother's mother, who became an invalid after breaking her hip, lived in my family household for 16 years until she died at the age of 98.  She is the only grandparent with which I could talk as I grew up.

There was a strange bit of folklore that floated around some of my aunts and uncles that my grandmother's family descended from royalty.  My grandmother and her sisters emigrated to America as single women, while their brothers stayed in Sweden. Her sisters settled in Minneapolis where they married successful businessmen.  My grandmother was abandoned on the frontier with her eight children who survived infancy.  The family story was how my mother and her seven brothers collaborated to help the family survive on the frontier.  My cousins and I asked my grandmother about the "old country" and if it was true that we were descended from royalty.  (Relatives who checked the genealogy found it not to be true.)  She avoided talking much about the old country and brushed off questions about royalty by saying in her heavy Swedish accent "that's the kind of thing we left Sweden to get away from."  My grandmother found the story of her impoverished struggle on the frontier of far more importance than any memories and connections with Sweden.

I found the reason for her preference of her American story by reading the novel "The Emigrants" by Vilhelm Moberg and seeing its film version.  I used the film as an introduction to the American Literature survey because it provides such a relevant context to the story of America and what motivated its immigrants.  The Sweden my grandmother and her sisters left operated in the feudal tradition.  It offered nothing but a life of serfdom for them.  Their family tried to lure them back with offers of money, but to my grandmother life as a poor person in America was preferable to life under masters in the old country.  That is why she told stories of sending her sons out along the railroad tracks to scrabble for coal that had fallen off the locomotives so they could heat the house and eschewed stories about life in the old world.  She told a story congruent with the narratives in much of American literature.

The American story is one of confronting its moral failures. A lingering failure involves what white immigrants did to Native America.  There have always been people in America who favor depravity over decency.  Slavery was accommodated in the Constitution, but a strong constituency understood the wrongness of it.  Even though he owned slaves, Jefferson warned of the moral decay it threatened to the country.  The country went to war over it, and the side represented by America's greatest president won, and his great intelligence and his monumental words guided the nation through a civil war and its Jim Crow aftermath.  The spirit of Lincoln prevailed throughout the civil rights era, which addressed racial, gender, and religious discrimination.  His actions and words continue to inform and inspire.  His speeches are a part of America's story.   But they have not provided much solace or comfort to Native America.

The nation's struggle to make the principles expressed in its founding manifest in the life of its people is a story of setbacks, but an ineluctable quest for freedom, equality, and justice for all.  

Then came Trump.  Trump is the representative and manifestation of everything that Lincoln worked against.  Lincoln worked to unite the nation under the principles of American democracy, but Trump derides and destroys those principles, and has divided the nation.  That division is along the racial lines of the Civil War.  The latest polls show that 49 percent of Americans recognize Trump's racist mindset.

Trump has defined what divides America.  And what divides America is not political beliefs on how the country should be run.  What divides America is basic moral beliefs.  Support for Trump is an overt avowal of greed, malice, dishonesty, fraud, and cruelty as the preferred traits of American character.  Not a word that comes out of Trump or his administration can be believed or trusted, unless it is a word of insult, abuse, or malice.  Those are traits with which people of decency and aspiration for good cannot reconcile.

There are those who think the revilement of Trump voters will cause a surge of support for him.  They do not understand that submission to their values is a reversal of the democratic progress and the acceptance of degeneration as a condition of life.  Even the conservatives who reject Trump as a legitimate leader are beginning to suggest that mere demonstration against him and verbal protest are not enough.  Stronger measures are needed which could well bring down the country.

Those who truly believe in liberty, equality, and justice may have to regroup and find different circumstances and different places to practice the principles of democracy that they strive for.   Those principles are too valuable and essential to allow to fall into decay by the corruption that Trump and his disciples have injected into America.

The ideas and processes are well recorded and explained in our literature.  We have the stuff with which to try again.





Sunday, July 1, 2018

Honors thesis examines the dishonorable

Anna Madsen – Honors Thesis 

Honors graduate, May 2018, from the University of South Dakota Anna Madsen wrote a thesis that does what journalists usually do in detailing the boondoggle that was the GEAR UP program in South Dakota.  It is titled:



Ms. Madsen examined the history of the grant as it originated and how it was administered.  She does not go into the individual performances of the personnel who participated in the swindle, but she identifies the principals and what their ostensible roles were, and she analyzes the requirements of the grant and to what degree they were or were not met--overwhelmingly the latter.  She found from the outset that the "application was proposing a program greatly out of compliance with the grant requirements."

Most astute observers have noted that the crony network that operates at the behest and under the protection of state government agencies were exercising what has become its customary function in state business.  Ms. Madsen's thesis is a tale of organized malfeasance and misfeasance and well-planned embezzlement.  It fits the South Dakota definition of crony capitalism in which capital from the federal government pours into the pockets of cronies.

Ms. Madsen concludes:  "The GEAR UP grant program is a clear example of how “throwing money” at a problem without adequate oversight and checks and balances fails to accomplish its noble goal. In the end, good intent was lost between the dollar signs."  The thesis does a thorough job of presenting the  evidence,  There is, however, a troubling omission in its premise.  It begins by noting that Native Americans comprise 9 percent of South Dakota's total population, but they are only 3.16 percent of the student body in South Dakota Board of Regents institutions.  The thesis seems to assume that ratio is the definitive indicator of Native American students who go on to higher education.  What is left out are the tribal colleges: 

  • Sinte Gleska on the Rosebud Reservation
  • Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge
  • Sitting Bull on Standing Rock
  • Sisseton Wahpeton on the reservation of that name
  • Cheynne River College Center, a branch of Oglala Lakota on Cheyenne River Reservation
And then there are the South Dakota native students who go to in-state private schools or out-of-state schools. Their inclusion would probably not boost the percentage of native students who venture into post-secondary education very much, but it would give a more complete picture of of the opportunities available and the degree to which they are utilized.

The percentage of native students going to college is of concern and is what GEAR  UP and other programs are expressly designed to address.  The story here is how some officials and purported educators inveigled themselves into a cut of the take from this massive taxpayer rip off.  Very little of the millions of dollars dribbled down to students.  The manager of the organization that administered the project is alleged to have killed his spouse and four children before setting his house on fire and killing himself.  GEAR UP in South Dakota is branded as a community-shattering atrocity, not an occasion of benevolence.  Ms. Madsen's narrative reveals an elaborate system of contractors and consultants which have little effect on enhancing the education of youths, but devoted and adroit at scamming the system.  GEAR  UP appears totally devoid of the spirit and purpose with which most teachers I am acquainted with address their classrooms.  The educational bureaucracy disdains learning.

I am frankly flummoxed by the GEAR UP proceedings.  I have been involved in a number of grant-funded projects over the years, although none from the Department of Education.  All the grants required a fiscal officer who applied the rules governing the expenditures of money.  The fiscal officer had to report regularly to the grant-funding organization.  In one case during a summer institute for teachers, we provided lunch.  As the food service was on a summer break, we had to make special arrangements with a cook and a server to provide the lunch.  In their evaluations of the institute, the teachers commented on how much they enjoyed the lunches.  The hitch came when we included a gratuity on the bill for the lunches.  The fiscal officer said the rules did not provide for tips.  We directors of the project took up a collection to provide a decent gratuity.  The incident shows how closely financial matters were monitored.

All of the grants I've worked with were under constant audit.  None of the money was discretionary, and we had to document that it was used for the purposes to which it was dedicated.    

The U.S. Department of Education shares much responsibility for the  perversion of GEAR UP in the name of education.  It approved a proposal that did not meet its published standards.  It did not practice the stringent reviews and audits that are customary in administering educational grants.  The Department's performance needs thorough investigation.

Its disfunction does not absolve the South Dakota vultures who carried out the depredations against trusting taxpayers and expectant students.  The teachers I have worked with go to work each day with integrity and good purpose.  Many buy supplies for students from their own pockets.  Their betrayal by members of the bureaucracy that presumes to direct their efforts is a big part of the atrocities committed in the GEAR UP swindle.  It is indefensible.

However, the teachers who directly delivered to students what benefit that GEAR UP offered receive scant mention in any of the accounts.  Those who managed the program did not consider it important to keep a record of where the program actually worked.  In their zeal to obfuscate the swindle, they ignored what honest and successful moments the program might claim.

Ms. Madsen's thesis presents the anatomy of a malignant crime.  It calls into account an educational bureaucracy more interested and practiced in financial swindling than in delivering an effective education.   

There is much that can and should be done on the basis of the information provided by Ms. Madsen's thesis as well as other sources.  A first step would be to put education back in the hands and minds of teachers.









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