South Dakota Top Blogs

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Watch your digit there, Baker.

James Baker of the Baker-Hamilton commission taunts Blind Orange Julius.

They kill horses, don't they?

Barbaro when he injured his leg at The Preakness.

First of all, I have this thing about horses. They are exquisite. They are images of beauty and power and, for the most part, nobility. They provide imagery for the human spirit. Imagery is important. It is a vehicle of human thought.

So, after an eight-month struggle to heal Barbaro's smashed-up leg, disease won out, and he had to be put down. After his Kentucky Derby win, he seemed destined to become one of the equine personalities that provides moments of beauty and lifts the human spirit. Horses are created to run, and Barbaro ran superbly well. We turn to animals often for beauty, grace, and benignity, especially when our own species fails so dreadfully in those capacities--as it often does.

So, we are as saddened at the euthanasia of Barbaro as we are at the death of fellow humans who have brought some character and nobility to their lives.

Then we think of the execution of Saddam Hussein and the dementia of those who taunted him at his moment of death. Mark Twain noted that no species has the capacity for persistent, willful malevolence as "the damned human race." The putting down of Barbaro was an act of mercy. The hanging of Saddam Hussein was an act of perverse vengeance. It is a reminder that death penalties seldom serve justice; they serve perverse human motives that other animals do not possess. Some days one wishes it were possible to resign from the human race.

And now we turn to another abortion ban and the deranged ravings of those who insist that pro-choice people are baby killers. South Dakota legislative District 3 plays a large role in the proposed new ban as father-and-son representatives Al and David Novstrup assume a leadership role in pushing for the legislation. What is remarkable in looking at the comments in support of the new ban on various blogs is the sheer, perverse malevolence of its supporters. While they grow dementedly sanctimonious about zygotes, they hate the living with a disturbing passion. Their words make clear that they could not care less about human life. Their obsession is with making other humans bend to their will.

Al Novstrup speaks often in behalf of business interests and the threat that employees who have equity in the economy and, therefore, choice pose against businesses. He is an advocate of the "right to work." In South Dakota, when employees step into their places of employment, they step back into a feudal state in which they have no equality, no status as enfranchised human beings, and no rights. "Right to work" does not apply to employees. It applies to the employers' right to exercise their "at will" rights to manage and fire employees without any regard for human status or any accountability for what they do--in other words, their "right to work" employees anyway they damned please. When the preponderance of those who call themselves "right-to-life" are also "right-to-work," it becomes obvious that human life and possibility means little to them. They merely want the right to impose their will on others. This is fascism just as Mussolini conceived it.

The anti-choice people are getting noisy again, and we have to listen to their shouts of "baby-killer" and other idiocies they chant in their quest to enslave other humans to their totalitarian doctrine.

Maybe we'll just sit this one out and instead take a spin or two with Barbaro around the track of human imagination and aspiration.

"Daddy, he tried to touch my peepee." And other Dakota legends.

One good thing happened in the Gropegate matter: The state legislature conducted its business openly for all to hear and see. What came out was not what salty-earth South Dakotans want to hear or see, but it is there for the good citizens to deal with. The question is whether they want to deal with it or will do so.

Over the weekend, I was attending to some official duties in St. Paul, when it was said by a chap who maintains the Minnesota-South Dakota insult tradition of the Janklow-Perpich era that South Dakota is planning to add the images of zygotes and page peepees to its Mt. Rushmore attractions. Gropegate provided much derisive entertainment for the occasion. "Finally got a bit of open government?" a former journalist quipped. "Enjoy it while it lasts."

The state senate hearings on the Sutton-Wiese affair did not produce any conclusive information. But they sure produced a lot of hard evidence of the small-minded pettiness and buffoonery that dominates state government. Perhaps the most revelatory discussion was how much callow vagaries of youth seem to drive the proceedings.

There was a great deal of testimony about the extra-curricular activities of pages and the culture that has grown up around them. It seems that in apparent attempts to maintain a grasp on some sort of juvenile vitality, many legislators affect adolescent fads and fashions to appear "cool." And the pages appear to cow some legislators into unseemly postures in order not to appear "uncool."

Exchanges of rhetoric always occur in four phases: pretext, text, context, and subtext. People who have studied the rhetoric that grows up around incidents know that there does not have to be a calculated conspiracy for people to make what they say and do conform to the pressures exerted by pretext and context. And the subtext of any incident like Gropegate pretty writes itself. So in the statements of Austin Wiese and his father, we have an accusation. In the statements of Dan Sutton, we have denial. The two sides accuse each other of lying. And so, the regression of adult culture into playground squabbling is complete.

"He touched my peepee."

"Did not."

"Did, too."

"Well, yo mama is so ugly......" And on it goes.

Both men were adults when the alleged incident took place. One putative, the other approaching middle age.

From the outset, this story was driven by blogs, which put into electronic print the malicious speculation and mindless scurrility that once was spoken and left in the town tavern or cafe. But some bloggers delude themselves into believing that what they are doing is something akin to journalism. If it has anything to do with journalism, it is a few notches below the supermarket tabloids. And they do have their devotees.

Some blogs have done an excellent job of defining the essential points in this story, principally the Argus Leader blog and Denise Ross' Hoghouse blog. Both practice the essential function of journalism in focusing on the facts of the proceedings, not, as is the case of South Dakota War College, emphasizing the lewd and salacious to incite a wannabe lynch mob into declaring the guilt and just punishment for the accused.

I do not know Sen. Gene Abdallah, R.-Sioux Falls, other than by name and a little about his past work. He spent some time parsing the pretexts and subtexts of this incident and found that he was the subject of some bantering taking place on a taped phone call between Sutton and Wiese. The young man mentions having talked to Abdallah at a saloon in Ft. Pierre. Abdallah commented that he does not go to the saloon and was in Sioux Falls during the night in question.

Denise Ross put a video of his comments on her blog. Abdallah concludes his comments with the statement that many of the elements in the business made no sense to him. Bob Newland comments at the bottom of the post: "Lots of things don’t make sense to the pathetic ole drunk Gene."

As I said, I do not know Sen. Abdallah. But I do know that that even if such a comment had a basis in verifiable fact, it would have gotten the publications I worked for sued and me fired for allowing it into print. It makes a factual allegation that addresses a matter of character. What it says about politics in South Dakota is profound. Both text and subtext.

In looking at this and other parts of the testimony, one gets the impression that legislators are trying to ingratiate themselves with the callow vagaries of youth, not that pages are being taught the essentials of respect and decorum.

Whatever is wrong in Pierre goes far beyond a senator and a page sharing a queen-sized bed. It is not a matter of poor judgment being exercised; it is a matter of judgment being called for in such matters at all. In most places
with page programs, for example, underage drinking means immediate expulsion from the program. I know. I had to take the heat from some irate parents whose children violated the rules set down for interns and pages and were sent home. They are there to serve and to learn, but in Pierre they seem to get reinforced in the techiques of disrespect, juvenile bigotry, and malevolent foolery.

Well, we did, indeed, get our dose of open government. It was not pretty. It was not a moment of pride in good government and the rules of due process. It was Pierre, South Dakota.

And so, we can now get down to business with a new abortion ban, more assaults on working people and their claims to equity, and more diddling around with education. Some places give young people images and aspirations to surmount the small and mean-minded context that mires so many people down in the muck of petty jealousy and resentment. South Dakota gives them Gropegate.

Does anyone really wonder why the bright and talented young people leave the state as soon as they can? Does anyone really wonder why responsible people encourage them to do so?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Baghdad Bob shows up as Dick Cheney

Wolf Blizter interviewed Vice President Dick (Shoot-em-in-the-face) Cheney, largely about the Iraq War on CNN today. Cheney said that the successes in Iraq far outweight the problems. When asked if the messed-up war had created a blacklash within the Republican party, he said he did not accept the premise of the question.

He said it was "hogwash" that blunders may have hurt the administration's credibility on Iraq and led members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to question President Bush's plan to send more troops to Baghdad.

Remember Baghdad Bob denying that American troops were anywhere near Baghdad during the invasion and insisting that Iraqi forces were vanquishing them? Cheney apparently studied him thoroughly to put on this kind of performance

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Argus Leader editor calls for closing of NSU

Argus Leader Voices editor Patrick Lalley today called for the closing of Northern State University.

He says from the time he was an undergraduate, he has thought the state has too many state-run higher education campuses. He does not say why he thinks so, nor does he make any attempt to make a case. He simply says:

We have too many schools in places where there aren’t many people – read Aberdeen – and we need to close one at least.

There is no question that Northern has had some difficulties with enrollments and programs in recent years. However, the suggestions that it be closed have been floating around for more than a decade in my hearing.

This call comes in the context of the campus being established in Sioux Falls. While the argument for that campus was to augment the system and provide access to those living in the higher population areas, it was also denied that any other campus would be cannibalized in order to build it.

From the standpoint of some of us who taught at Northern in recent decades, we note that its leadership has not been given a clear mandate to build the university and we note the cutbacks in programs and offerings. While they have been made as cost-accounting measures, we also note that the cutbacks have preceded the problems with enrollments. Programs that NSU once led the system with have been diverted by various means to other campuses. And we note that the current president is on the finalists' list for a college presidency in the east.

We also note that Lalley blogs for his newspaper. And as is true of many bloggers, he gives us raw opinion without supporting information or an account of his reasoning.

I am not one who thinks higher education institutions that have outlived their usefulness should continue. One either makes them useful again, or finds a different mission or function.

But there is no mention of the history of NSU, its current role in the system, and why it should be singled out for closing.

This may be another instance of an effort to be au courant with the "new media," and a newspaper editor becomes as inanely mindless as some of our esteemed bloggers.

With the Argus Leader attaining the quality of the American News in this instance, perhaps there is some private equity investors who would like to give Gannett an offer. This is really dummying matters down.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

They've hauled out the ropes, but do they know how to tie a noose?

We have not blogged much of late. Time is a factor. But so is what has become the defining nature of blogs. It is not something we wish to be identified with.

Our good colleague Silas has said that blogging often devolves into the electronic version of graffiti. In an essay he makes the point that the Internet and the forums it carries has not raised the level of human information and thought, but has worked inversely. What many bloggers think is witty repartee and incisive observation is the kind of mindless prattle and doltish banter that used to be confined to the corner tavern or the town cafe coffee klatches. Rather than show the human genius for benevolence and innate intelligence, the Internet has displayed the human propensity for scurrility and infinite stupidity.

The Dan Sutton affair in the state senate is a case in point. Instead of anxiously awaiting to see if the senate can martial a fair and purposeful process, the bloggers rise up in raging presumption and accusation and call for him to commit virtual suicide. They claim that his attempts to defend himself will put the senate and the people involved through agony.

Examples of the sterling and inspiring thought and rhetoric can be found on the South Dakota War College. While a few voices say that no charges have been filed against Sutton or findings revealed, the majority clamors for his demise.

This is the lynch mob mentality.

As with what seems to be most of the people in the state, we have waited until some information that bears the stamp of integrity is made public on the business. The press has shown appropriate restraint for the most part. We have no idea of what the actual facts of the incident are, but the malevolent throngs that crowd the blogosphere claim to be speaking for the sanctity of the 18-year-old pudendum, not the principle of due process which would be the focus of anyone who gives a shit about truth and fairplay.

As a parliamentarian, I was certain that the challenge to the state senate's investigation would be dismissed by the courts. A basic principle of parliamentary law is that a body has the right to investigate and discipline its members when charges against them are made and to take action on any proven matters of conduct that interfere with the function of the body. I have participated in the investigation and, in some cases, the removal of members of deliberative bodies when they brought discredit to the body and obstructed the conduct of business. Numerous court cases throughout the nation have affirmed the rights and obligation of deliberative bodies to deal with their members in the course of their related duties.

However, the South Dakota legislature had no process established for dealing with such matters, so there was legitimate cause for challenging the senate's authority on Dan Sutton's part. Deliberative bodies have the established right to handle charges of misconduct, but they also have the responsibility to establish provisions to insure that the hearings and decisions will be impartial and confined to examining the facts, not indulging in political pissing duels for power. So, the South Dakota Senate has the right and authority to deal with the allegations regarding Dan Sutton, but as an officially elected government body, it also has the obligation to insure that the handling of evidence and testimony is absolutely fair and honest, and that the proceedings are absolutely open to public examination.

That point of openness is the basis for the notice by Dan Sutton and his attorneys that the matter could get mean, nasty, and damaging to all involved.

I know both Dan Sutton and Dennis Wiese, the father of the young man who claims he was groped. They have both been strong leaders for their communities and their constituencies. I am also familiar with what seems to have turned political allies and friends into hostiles. As the story plays out, when young Wiese applied to be a senate page, arrangements were made with the friend and neighbor senator for lodging. While it turns out to have been a bad arrangement, it is not the only question behind the allegations.

When Dennis Wiese was president of the Farmers Union, the headquarters town of Huron had taken a huge economic blow when Smithfield Foods closed a packing plant there and threw 850 people out of work. (The South Dakota Democratic Party and its U.S. Senatorial delegation at the time led the fund and food raising effort to help the families involved.) When Hutterite turkey raisers and other business people decided to launch a turkey processing plant in eastern South Dakota, they ended up choosing Huron for the platn. The Farmers Union was among the organizations to see an opportunity for a beef packing plant to reopen. Plans were made with Ridgefield Farms to put in a small packing plant that could share the infrastructure for water and waste disposal with the turkey plant.

For reasons never fully divulged, some local investors who were working with Ridgefield became dissatisfied and withdrew their support. At this point, with the help of Wiese the planned Ridgefield operation was moved from Huron to Flandreau, the hometown of Wiese and Sutton. They were both involved in the development and raising of financing for the beef plant. But the Ridgefield scheme hit some obstacles and late last summer it was abandoned. The town of Flaudreau and its development organization headed by Dan Sutton had contributed $850,000 to the help Ridgefield relocate from Huron and start working on the plant in Flandreau. When the scheme collapsed, the money went with it. All that was left was some bitter feelings in the town.

Anyone who has covered business knows that some of the bitterest enmities in the world exist between people who have been caught up in bad business deals. This is a huge factor that the South Dakota Senate has to deal with in the Sutton case. An alleged grope that took nine months to register on the complainants in the case is not just a matter of an alleged encounter in a shared motel room. It may well have some seething motives propelling it into the major incident it has become.

The blogs play a huge role in the gossip, accusation, and prejudicial statements made in the case. The commenters on the above-mentioned blog have already convicted, hung, and insured that, whatever the outcome of the senate hearings, Dan Sutton is branded as an offender. These are people who see politics as the occasion for malevolence and destruction. They do not trust the democratic principles of due process and fair play. They are only interested in inflicting damage in behalf of their political creed.

This whole business was mishandled by the officers of the South Dakota Senate to begin with. Instead of setting up a process of careful and impartial investigation and deliberative hearing, the officers, led by former leader Schoenbeck, made threats and stoked up the fires of accusation and prejudgment that some bloggers love so much.

The question now is whether the South Dakota Senate can throw off the mantle of petty, but nevertheless vicious, politics and conduct its business with competence and integrity. If it can, it will do something it has not been able to do in, at least, the last quarter century or so.

But I have a hunch all those lynch-minded bloggers out there are hunting up their old Boy Scount manuals to see if they have instructions for tying a noose.

This hanging may make Saddam Hussein's look like a pink tea party.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

While the Middle East goes ape, Latin America goes left

While our attention is being riveted on Iraq and the obscene atrocities that continue to take its people and our troops, the western hemisphere has taken a very pronounced drift to leftwing politics, some of it dangerous in the extreme. Hugo Chavez of Venezuala is attempting to take over control of the nation's media and revise its constitution to give him dictatorial powers. His left-wing politics verge into the kind of totalitarianism that was characteristic of the Iron Curtain.

However, other countries with decidedly communist leaders are:

  • Bolivia -- Evo Morales
  • Ecuador -- Rafael Correa
  • Nicaragua -- Daniel Ortega (Ronald Reagan's old nemesis in the Iran-Contra scandal)

Other countries in Latin America are in the leftist camp to a more moderate degree:

  • Brazil -- Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
  • Argentina -- Nestor Kirchner
  • Peru -- Alan Garcia
  • Chile -- Michelle Bachelet

With Iraq drawing so much of our attention, resources, and diplomatic energies, we cannot help but wonder what troubles are getting ready to erupt in our own neighborhood.

Out of Iraq: countering the lie

Using a tactic described by Orwell, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney spent the weekend trying to deny that critics of their insane plan to increase the troops levels have alternative plans to offer. Despite the Baker-Hamilton Commission Report and the fact that most Democrats and many Republicans endorse it as comprehensive outline for disengaging from a hopeless and destructive war, Bush-Cheney charge that the opposition is being irresponsible in not offering an alternative to their repetition of Viet Nam.

Another plan is also on the table, if anyone can muster enough intellect and integrity to notice. It is in a 142-page broadside by South Dakota's George McGovern and William R. Polk, a longtime professor and diplomat in the Middle East, including Iraq: Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal (Simon & Shuster, 2006).

You can buy a copy at Amazon for less than $10.

The book not only offers a detailed plan for disengagement, but it provides some incisive and comprehensive analysis of what is causing the violence in Iraq.

In regard to whether Bush-Cheney lied in order to mount this war on Iraq, we note that the editors of Mt. Blogmore have suggested that Bush did not lie; he was simply mistaken. We think that books by former administration officials and Bob Woodward make it abundantly clear that they were not trusting the best information available to them. They were rejecting the best information presented to them and accepting only information that supported their going to war. This has been later confirmed by Colin Powell.

Denying the presence of alternative information is a form of lying. They are still using that form of lying in saying that no alternative plans to their escalation of the war exist.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

There ain't no super glue that can fix it

[ An Iraqi hospital worker walks among the dozens
of bodies of victims of sectarian killings brought
to a hospital morgue today. How can you repair this? ]

It happened here in Brown County. Some highway workers were ordered to tear down a house that the county had bought to expand a right-of-way. They came with their bulldozers and trucks and knocked it down and hauled the debris to the land fill. The only problem was that it was the wrong house. The county had to pay for the mistake.

While telling this story at a gathering of people from other places recently, one of them had a similar tale. Police had received information about a house in another city out of which a drug dealer was alleged to have operated. From their informants, they received enough probable cause information to obtain a search warrant. They assembled a task force team, broke into the house, held the occupants at bay, and ransacked the house. They found nothing. They were in the wrong house. The one they wanted was in the next block.

The story is loaded with complications. While they were searching the house, which process involved much damage, the police held a woman, man, and children at bay as suspects and witnesses. The couple had been estranged from each other until the previous week and were in the process of reconciliation. The children were traumatized by the police invasion. During the questioning of them and their parents by authorities who assumed they were involved in illegal activities, many accusations were made and many accusatory statements were made. A 14-year-0ld girl developed an exceedingly hostile attitude about the police and every other authority, including her teachers. A boy just entering his teens became withdrawn and distant. The family did receive a financial settlement and moved to get away from the many bad memories the house contained, but the damage done to the family at a crucial time was not reparable, according to my friend who related the incident. Even though the incident was clearly a mistake, it raised suspicions, distrust, tensions, and recrminations among family members to the point that no amount of counseling and efforts at reconciliation could rectify. It disrupted all the things that held the people together. The family disintegrated.

As for the occupants in the house where the alleged drug activity was taking place, they were given time to get rid of any evidence and move their operation elsewhere.

What happened to that family parallels what we did to Iraq. The first problem is that we busted into that country under the false pretenses that it was harboring and manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and in league with Al Qaida to attack America. As numerous books about the George W. Bush administration have pointed out, Bush and his cohorts were determined to invade Iraq and no amount of information or persuasion contrary to their desires was tolerated. When the true facts about their pretext for an invasion came to light, they switched their justification to removal of Iraq's evil dictator. But there is no way that the damage the Bush administration did to the public trust, our relationships with our democratic allies, and to the bonds of friendship and common purpose between people and countries can be repaired.

It all goes back to Colin Powell's pottery-barn warning about Iraq: If you break it, you own it.

A very large majority of Americans believe the plan to increase our troops in Iraq by 21,000 has no credibility as a measure to restore order and peace among a people who don't trust each other, don't like each other, and have lost all sense of common interest. Still, most Americans don't think we can go into a country, bust up its infrastructure, interfere with its human relationships, and then slip away without taking some responsibility for what we have done.

The big question is, what can we do? Or like that family that was so damaged by a police raid, is there really nothing that can repair the damage and salve the wounds? Sometimes broken things just can't be fixed.

President Bush today went on the radio and berated his critics for casting doubt on his plans but not coming up with any of their own. If he wants to take true responsibility for the horrific mess he created in Iraq, he may have to face the facts that he broke Iraq so thoroughly that there is no way it can be put back together again.

Sending in more troops, as many have pointed out, will just expose more Americans to ambushes and IEDs. If any headway is to be made in the civil war between sects and factions in Iraq, America will have to be less involved in the violence and destruction. We don't have any choices left. A redeployment with the essential role of our troops changing from combative roles to reconstructive missions is the only chance we have to a honorable withdrawal of our involvement.

When you break something in the pottery barn, you can sweep it up and dispose of the remains, but there is no super glue that can put it back together. All you can do is offer the potter all the help and support you can to build another vessel. That is where we are in Iraq. Iraq is the fragments and remnants of a country. We own it. We won't solve its problems and our problems by continuing the destruction.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Paste a gold star on this, mama.

This photo from The New England Journal of Medicine shows a medical team treating the leg stumps of a soldier whose Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device in Baghdad. It is why I so ardently oppose the war on Iraq.

I opposed the war on Iraq from the time it first became apparent that George W. Bush and cohorts wanted to get us into it. Although some people say we did not know in March of 2003 that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and was bedding down with Al Qaeda, we did have, in fact, some pretty Goddamn good information that indicated such was not the case. And we had some leaders who warned us about the consequences of invading Iraq. Remember Colin Powell citing the pottery barn rule: if you break, you own it? Well, we broke it and most Americans thought we should do something about making reparations. We did not think that under the presiding regime, our presence in Iraq would degenerate into an insurgency and a civil war which would kill and maim thousands and thousands of Iraqis, kill 3,000 of our own troops, and maim tens of thousands more.

You want more blood and guts? Feast your eyes on this.

This is another photo from the New England Journal of Medicine of the abdomen of a soldier hit with a high-energy rifle ball that passed through the liver.

I am a veteran. I grieve for these soldiers, but I get enraged at the dismissive and incompetent command that set them up for this, which has little to do with our security from terrorists or our intervention in campaigns of genocide.

Now, we plan to expose 20,000 more troops to this, and we can keep even bigger, more luscious scrapbooks. This is how our heroic and loyal young people are being honored.

What do blogs actually do?

Questions about whether bloggers who presume to say they are reporting news on politics--and in some cases culture--should receive press credentials from the South Dakota government have unearthed an infinite reservoir of ignorance and presumption.

First of all, some folks keep assuming that the state's media are part of the Mainstream Media, as bloggers like to label the corporately-run news organizations. Even though a few newspapers occasionally emulate some of the standards of the epitome of MSM (The New York Times and Washington Post), all South Dakota media conforms to the preferences of the insular and provincial audience they try to serve. They are not "mainstream."

Secondly and most disturbingly, South Dakota political bloggers constantly resort to the argument that what they do what is identical with what, say, David Kranz does in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. There is some truth to that. David Kranz is most known for his columns in which he reports some events and writes his analysis ABOUT them. He writes columns. When he does put his name on a news story, different criteria of reporting, verification, and precision are applied. The news business used to enforce a stringent distinction between reporting and opinion. Today, many news organizations edit and display and often write news--and other features-- to incorporate their political orientation. We do not live in a time when there is much interest, respect, or ability for people in the information industry to refine the dross from the facts. Our age is in the process of snuffing out any of those vestiges of light that linger from the Age of Enlightenment.

Bloggers write columns. Sort of. Their entire motive is to envelop events in some partisan or personal bias, or to rub their febrile and erectile little egos up against some audience out there that, in their fantasies, is lying on its back, panting, knees akimbo, to await the moment of release that only bloggers can provide. And most political blogs are written with such presumptive diction that only the most inexperienced readers can miss the ego-bound language. Sometimes blogs are entertaining. Sometimes they are even informative, but not about happenings.

Bloggers do not write news. In the study of semantics and grammar, it is generally recognized that language has two forms: the language of reports and the language of judgments. Straight news stories are supposed to be in the language of reports. Columns and other opinion pieces are generally written in the language of judgments. Judgments define the near-total purpose of blogs. And the judgments are ill-formed.

That is not to say that judgments are not necessary and important. They are the basis for the attitudes we hold. But there is a vital difference between attitudes shaped from facts processed through competent, disciplined experience and reason and facts created from attitudes.

My concern is not about blogs in general, but about blogs on government and politics. After the election of 2004, a group of professors, journalists, and other concerned citizens found the money to sponsor the Press Project, which studied the communication about the campaign appearing in the various media from the northern plains. The main purpose of the Press Project was to gather clippings and video clips of news stories, political ads, and pamphlets. Then it set about doing some intensive fact-checking, content analysis, and rhetorical analysis of the materials. Initially, the Project was not intended to include blogs on government and politics. But blogs received enough mention, usually at their own instigation, that the advisory board of the Press Project decided they needed to be placed in the context of the campaign. The problem was that none of the personnel doing the research wanted to do blogs. The Project director ended up doing the task largely himself.

The primary function of the Press Project was to fact-check and sort out information that was deceptive and misleading from information that attempted to portray accurate, verfiable facts.

However, a portion of the Project involved a rigorous survey of where people in the region obtained their political information and how much that information influenced their opinions. The raw data from material gathering and categorizing of the information was summarized in a report. It was turned over to other writers for the purpose of putting the material into narrative form of the events of the election campaign of 2004.

At the same time the preliminary materials were released in early 2006, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released its study on blogging. It was a national study and produced the following statistics:

  • 57 million, 39 percent of those surveyed, reported reading blogs.
  • 12 million, or 8 percent, report posting on blogs.

  • Of the 12 million who blog, 11 percent said their blogs dealt with government and politics.

Here is more from the Pew Project:

  • 34% of bloggers consider their blog a form of journalism, and 65% of bloggers do not.

  • 57% of bloggers include links to original sources either “sometimes” or “often.”

  • 56% of bloggers spend extra time trying to verify facts they want to include in a post either “sometimes” or “often.”
  • The main reasons for keeping a blog are creative expression and sharing personal experiences.
  • Only one-third of bloggers see blogging as a form of journalism. Yet many check facts and cite original sources.

The Pew Project focuses on people who use the Internet and those who consult blogs or write them. The Press Project focused on the general population of the northern plains and surveyed how many people read, listened to, or watched political information and where they encountered it.

The Press Project found that few people study political information in making political decisions. They either vote the party line--even if they don't know what the planks and agendas of their party are. Or they form impressions from friends and neighbors, churches and other organizations, and large political ads. (The group working on the detailed analysis of the Project Project information has a proprietary interest in the study and has embargoed detailed information. It has made available to sponsors of the study some general information. )

Very few of the voters in 2004 (only slightly more in 2006) were aware of blogs or consulted them if they were.

Most political blogs in the northern plains that were in existence for more than three months repeated their official party line. Much of what they did were attempts to cast news of political opponents in a negative light.

The readers of political blogs tended to be other bloggers of the same political persuasions.

A major impetus behind the Press Project was the defeat of Tom Daschle by John Thune. Blogs claimed to have played a major role in that defeat. However, the Press Project found the blogs were largely publishing information that was in circulation in other forms. In other words, the blogs were "attenuations" of larger campaigns taking place within the Republican Party, churches, many special-interest organizations, and organizations, similar to the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry, set up to promote a particular mode of attack.

Some of the issues that seem to have led to the defeat of Tom Daschle were not prominently featured on blogs, while others such as his home in Washington, D.C., and his familiarity with national power figures were constant fodder. Blogs played a role in perpetuating the attacks, but they were not the motive force that they claimed. They were a minor factor in the dissemination of negative information. Some Thune-sponsored blogs assumed the roles of character assassins but they only did scattered sniping while organizations did the real combat.

We see that blogs can be used to raise the level of thought and discussion. But the Internet is going the way of television before it. Much on the Internet has formed another vast wasteland.

Our position on blogging is not in opposition to them. Our position is that they are untrustworthy and not valuable because they indulge in so much misinformation, scurrility, and --of course-- self-sucking. We think that blogs need the kind of criticism that press reviews give to the major media. We also think that if people were re-introduced to critical reading skills in our educational institutions, they would be aware of the deficiencies of blogs as information sources.

We do not have a vital media in our country anymore. News professionals have been displaced by investors who are looking for lavish bottom lines, not bare-boned facts. While the technology for delivering information is flourishing, the information itself is atrophying. And the collective mentality is undergoing a commensurate enfeebling.

You want to refute that? Just read the comment sections on blogs and discussion boards, and then try to make a case that our nation is in good mental health.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Another side of stupid

A proposed beef plant in Aberdeen is being vigorously opposed. Its promoters, including the city and the county, have a couple of law suits filed against them on the basis that the plant will generate noise, emit odors, and reduce the value of properties a mile away. However, in public hearings, discussion boards, and letters-to-the-editor, the main complaint is the kind of people that the plant might attract as employees. You know, Mexicans. And the assumption is that many of them will be "illegal." But here is a typical response from the local newspaper's discussion board:

You don't leave (sic) in Aberdeen, so don't tell the people here to "leave it alone". You could be safe where you live. We Aberdonians are about to know what crime is. My kids do not need to be introduced the trash that will brought to town and in our schools!!!

In recent years, Aberdeen has had number of racist incidents, which have been dismissed by some "leaders" as the customary reaction to people of color and different cultures in the U.S. The level of thought in the above quotation reveals the basic source of the problem. However, more than racism besets the mentality of the community. In the Sunday paper, a corporation which is funded by the county and the city published a half-page ad in favor of the beef plant.

Ostensibly, the ad seems like a straightforward expression of support for the beef plant. But if you take a close look, the second item under what a beef finishing and processing plant will mean is:

Vertical integration of beef industry, enjoying higher margins for South Dakotans.

The writers of that ad obviously do not known what "vertical integration" has meant and means now for agriculture. In agriculture the term integration refers to the absorption of farms into corporate structures. It takes two forms, in the jargon of economics: vertical integration and horizontal integration.

The online Britannica defines vertical integration as follows:

Form of business organization in which all stages of production of a good, from the acquisition of raw materials to the retailing of the final product, are controlled by one company. A current example is the oil industry, in which a single firm commonly owns the oil wells, refines the oil, and sells gasoline at roadside stations. In horizontal integration, by contrast, a company attempts to control a single stage of production or a single industry completely, which lets it take advantage of economies of scale but results in reduced competition.

The advertisement supporting the beef plant touts vertical integration as a good thing. The statement quoted above is clearly the product of total ignorance and verbal ineptitude. The participial phrase "enjoying higher margins for South Dakotans" does not indicate who or what is enjoying "higher margins," or what margins are higher. It is a piece of grammatical expression born in ignorance and compounded by a stupid obfuscation.

Or maybe not. It may portend the future of any beef plant, if it gets off the ground. The beef industry has undergone such consolidation that four beef packers (Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, Farmland) control 81 percent of the industry, as of 2001. If the Northern Beef Packers is successful, or if a major competitor just wants it out of business, the outfit will become a prime candidate for acquisition. And then it may be drastically changed or closed.

We have seen this kind of consolidation in South Dakota before. As of 2001, four firms controlled 59 percent of the pork packing industry in the U.S.: Smithfield, Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill. Until August 8, 1997, American Foods owned the pork packing plant in Huron. On that day, it completed the sale of the plant to Smithfield. The following day, Smithfield closed the plant, putting 850 employees out of work. Then, it set about to dismantle the plant to insure that no other company would ever use it for pork processing again.

Smithfield is a vertically integrated corporation. It owns facilities that farrow hogs, feed them, and then process them. (Anyone who wants to get some insight into the purpose and goals of vertical integration can review testimony presented at a U.S. Senate hearing on Smithfield's consolidation efforts.) The upshot of the Huron closing is that it eliminated a good portion of the market for regional hog farmers. It meant either high shipping costs in selling hogs or going out of business.

Farmers in North and South Dakota are looking forward to Northern Beef Packers. They will have a convenient market for their cattle and will realize some additional profits in terms of much lower shipping costs than they now pay. In fact, some cattle producers in the region are upgrading and expanding their feeding facilities in anticipation of the plant.

But then, before the concrete foundations are even poured, you have some outfit which purports to be involved in economic development advertising the advantages of vertical integration. The authors of the ad apparently have no idea of what they are talking about, but that makes the outlook for any true economic development even more bleak.

The Aberdeen Development Corporation is a strange entity. It says its mission is to "maintain and support primary job creation" in the city and county. It gets funding from both units of government. But just try to find an annual financial statement or report of activities by the Corporation.

A former colleague in the field of economics was infuriated by the corporation. His major complaint was that the organization insinuated itself into all sorts of development schemes, but never knew what it was talking about. My colleague often assailed me as a professor of journalism about the fact that the corporation put out statements to the press of its accomplishments but there was never any hard data about what it did, how many jobs it had created, or how many contacts it made with prospective employers and what the outcomes were. He asked me if I could come up with an annual report from the corporation or any line items in the city and county budgets detailing the contributions to this non-profit corporation. Up to this time, I have not been able to do so.

When an alleged economic development outfit promotes "vertical integration" as an outlook for a new company trying to get started, the community has some real problems. For a half century, agricultural analysts and reporters have seen integration as the force that is turning family farms over to corporations and making farmers "serfs on their own land."

For farmers and potential employees, Northern Beef Packers is a new opportunity for the community by adding a competitive element to the free market. But if it is seen by an outfit that presumes to speak for economic development as a candidate for "integration," we may well be setting up Aberdeen for a Huron experience.

We truly wonder if the originators and proprietors of Northern Beef Packers want a future of vertical integration to be part of their message.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Credentialing bloggers or certifying dingbats?

PP at the South Dakota War College has posted that he is in quest for press credentials. Like many bloggers, he seems to think that his politically oriented opinions and his gossip, often mean and snarky gossip, is news.

Unfortunately, the South Dakota media do not present much of a contrast in the content and writing to blogs. But there are journalists in the state who are concerned about thoroughness, accuracy, and who subject their stories to the kind of rigorous evaluation and fact-checking that is fundamental to the profession. Sometimes blogs do come up with some items before the professional media do, but I have still to see many blogs, except one, post a story that contains the verifications, the qualifications, and the searching for facts that is a requisite of professional journalism.

PP argues that the White House gave some bloggers press credentials. That episode is, in fact, a discredit to the White House as it assembled a ministry of propaganda within the White House press room to promote its policies and its people as an antidote to the skeptical and inquiring habits of the professional media. It even paid a talk show host to pimp its policies.

While I, like many people who have been members of the working press, deplore the general performance of the state's media, I would caution against giving partisan bloggers press credentials. They are not trying to determine what is news. They are looking for tidbits that they can contrive into partisan propaganda or lubricants they can use in the masturbation of egos that are desperate to get off.

I wish some of these bloggers who assume their I-am-as-good-and-as -important-as-any-other-journalist would read a text book or two on the subject. If most have breached such a book, they obviously haven't made it past the first paragraph.

But there is another angle to this. Bloggers like to call themselves citizen journalists. So why should they want privileges that are not available to every other citizen? Why should government not be open and information accessible to all people who have legitimate inquiries and concerns? That some bloggers want press credentials is an indication that they consider themselves in a class above the ordinary citizens (although most ordinary citizens write better than they do), and they have a higher political calling.

Press credentials were originally devised as a way to manage the requests for information and to try to get timely and accurate information to the people through the Fourth Estate so that government agencies are not besieged and stymied by hordes of citizens when the information can be more efficiently, promptly, and accurately disseminated.

As for the news standards of blogs, the South Dakota bloggers' handling of the Dan Sutton matter and Sen. Johnson's illness show clearly that they are media in quest of sensation, mean gossip, and whatever else they can filter and contrive to inflict damage on their targets. If they subscribe to any journalistic practice, it is the practice of tabloid journalism.

However, if bloggers are given credentials, I'll be among the first in line. Maybe we can open up a crack in the walls of government and let a few rays of sunshine into those dark halls of political connivery.

Friday, January 5, 2007

There goes the beef

A participant on a recent panel on national energy independence went through a mass of statistics to support his claim that we have the resources to replace foreign imports of oil with our own energy right now. And it is in forms of energy that do not pollute. The only things lacking are the plan and the will.

In short, he pointed out that wind-power is now making substantial contributions at this time to our electrical needs and can do more if support is given to the development of the grid. Ethanol is being produced in amounts that are making it available throughout the country, and bio-diesel fuel is being produced in quantities that make it cost-effective. Plants are being built and scheduled to come on line this year that will add billions of gallons to the supply.

Solar technology has advanced to the point that it is affordable and can pay for itself in the savings it will create for users.

The panel participant pointed out that if tax breaks now given to petroleum companies could be diverted to other energy producers, the weaning away from foreign oil could be swift.

The problem is in the bureaucracies--both government and corporate. Major energy companies are looking for ways to insure that they will have control of energy distribution in whatever form it takes. Global corporations are jockeying to take control of energy production and distribution in the U.S. as they look at the profit potential of newer forms of energy.

In our own area around Brown County, two developments are in the works. Northwestern Energy, which supplies electricity and natural gas to Aberdeen, has been purchased by an Australian company. When Northwestern went bankrupt, Aberdeen and some other cities explored the possibility of operating municipal utilities, but that has been abandoned. So, now any profits garnered from the Northwestern operation will go to another country. Not all customers in Aberdeen are serviced by Northwestern. Northern State University and some businesses are served by the rural cooperative, Northern Electric Cooperative headquartered at Bath.

To the north of us, a wind energy farm and power transmission line is under construction by a company called Tatanka. However, it is a wholly owned subsidiary of a Spanish firm whose American operation is Acciona Wind Energy USA. Again, any profits from this operation will be channeled out of the country.

American companies are not involved in these developments, except as customers.

The ethanol boom, if it fulfills predictions, is not all sunlight.

In fact, some of the new plants being constructed will be power by coal. The emissions from coal-powered operations are a grave concern to the people who are monitoring the sources of pollution and greenhouse gases.

Another complication is the use of corn as the primary ingredient from which ethanol is made. If all the planned ethanol plants go on line, some states which have been exporting corn, such as Iowa, will have to import corn from other states to meet the demand. There will be no corn left over for international export.

However, corn is not the only ingredient from which ethanol can be made. Other bio-mass crops which have little use as animal or human feed can be used, and they can be grown and harvested more cheaply than corn.

The diminished corn supply also has the potential for affecting the livestock industry. Livestock requires high-quality, nutrient-laden feed grains. If corn production is diverted to ethanol, livestock feeders will either have to be able to produce their own feed or pay premium prices for contracted feed. Now that South Dakota is producing corn used for livestock feed, packing plants are in the works to make use of the regional supply of cattle and hogs. A shift in agriculture to biomass and cheaper grades of corn could change the economic feasibility of processing plants.
That could mean that beef production from other states and even other countries could undercut regional supplies.

The biggest problem with energy independence is that corporations have been dictating what is feasible and shaping plans to their benefit--not to the benefit of the nation. Even university researchers find themselves beholden to special interests.

We need the testimony and advice from energy experts. But we need people who are not tied to corporate and special interests to do the analysis and planning. As matters sit now, we are headed for chaos and a huge energy disaster.

We need a commission like the 9/11 Commission and the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq to look at our energy situation. It is another of the huge problems our legislators, national and state, should be taking the lead on. But there are other items on the political agenda that will displace energy--like the 2008 election campaign.

NVB Person of the Year

Joe Darby, right, joined a military police unit in the Army Reserves. He ended up on active duty as a clerk at the Abu Ghraib prison. When he asked some buddies if they had pictures of the site that he could show to the folks back home, he received a disk that had the infamous photographs of GIs abusing Iraqi prisoners on them. Joe Darby did what law and duty required. He turned the pictures over to the adjutant's office.

Although Joe Darby received many commendations from the Pentagon, the military, and Congress, many people out there felt that he betrayed the U.S. by exposing what was going on in the prison.

The commander of his hometown VFW said: "He was a rat. He was a traitor. He let his unit down. He let his fellow soldiers down and the U.S. military. Basically he was no good."

The reason that I cite Joe Darby as the person of the year is the abuse inflicted upon him and his family by the numerous people who condone criminal acts and think it is some kind of patriotism to cover them up. It harks back to the theme of that Spencer Tracy movie "Bad Day at Black Rock." There is an element in America that thinks patriotism is tkhe violation of every principle of decency and fair treatment that our laws and our history militate against.

At this time when we have been acknowledging the lives of decent and honorable men, such Gerald Ford and Tim Johnson, there is a danger in getting too comfortable and forgetting that some insidious, malignant seeds are sprouting and growing in our own society.

They are more responsible for the ills in our society than Lynndie England. She was our person of the year last year. She is doing three-years in a military prison for the part she played at Abu Ghraib. Here is an update on by Tara McKelvy in
Marie Claire magazine:

Lynndie England smells like soap. She rubs her hands constantly, and her
cuticles are raw and bleeding. Her hair is pulled back in four tortoiseshell
clips, and it's streaked with premature gray. She is no longer the waiflike girl with a devilish grin who appeared in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. On this warm fall afternoon, England, 23, now 30 pounds heavier, wears short-sleeve Army fatigues and black, waffle-soled boots. Her name is stitched across her chest. Dangling from her waist is a yellow-and-white badge that reads, "PRISONER."

Most of the people who were in command of Lynndie and her fellow soldiers and had responsibility for the way they discharged their duties did not get any discpline.

Next year, I would like to report a better outcome for Joe Darby.

But has long as we are mired in this obscene and immoral war, I am not counting on good outcomes for any of us.

Perhaps if the new Congress takes the mandate from the people seriously, we can occupy ourselves with such trivial matters as equality, freedom, and justice for all. In the meantime, Lynndie England and Joe Darby will be the NVB persons of the recent years.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

George McGovern voted for Gerald Ford

This evening on Larry King Live, George McGovern sent the jaws of journalists Bob Woodward and Bob Shieffer agape when he said he voted for Gerald Ford rather than for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. In fact, it turns out that most of his family voted for Ford.

He further added that he suggested to President Ford that Richard Nixon be pardoned. He had approached Barry Goldwater, he said, to make a bi-partisan plea to President Ford for the pardon, but Goldwater did not think much of the idea.

Is that a kind of thinking and attitude that is forever gone?

Monday, January 1, 2007

Gerald Ford was not ordinary. He was extraordinary

Over at Mt. Blogmore, Kevin Woster raised a question which recalled the 1976 presidential election between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Gerald Ford's presidency was served in the penumbra of Watergate.

Over the 30-some years since Watergate, the real sense of alarm it caused among the general public has been forgotten. That alarm was to find that vicious and devious tactics in election campaigns were not confined to a few places, like Chicago, but were being practiced on the national level. It was a stunning relevation to most voters to learn that there was actually such a thing as a dirty tricks squad, let alone campaign-funded burglars.

When President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, it was very difficult for most people not to assume it was not another act done in the spirit of Watergate. Both Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter campaigned as devout democrats who eschewed the trappings of elevated status, privilege, and power. The winner even made a display of carrying his own suit bag to the White House and, after settling in, talking to us from his new home wearing his folksy sweater, not unlike Mr. Rogers. (A great day in the neighborhood. We wonder if he wore sneakers, too.) It was a time when voters were looking for a sign that their politicians would talk to them again and be accountable to them, rather than deceive, manipulate, and betray them.

But Watergate changed politics. While dirty and vicious campaigns have existed as long as politics, Watergate made it clear that on the national level, such tactics had become a standard of operation. While some politicians may have resorted to such tactics, they were careful to hide the fact from the voters. But as time went on after Watergate, people began to accept its campaign standards as a customary way of doing political business. Some political operatives openly and joyously proclaim deception and attack as a key to their political acumen. Just read some of the partisan blogs for examples of such exuberance over meanness and deception.

At his death, Gerald Ford has been noted to have risen above that kind of politics. Although some news accounts claimed that he had a close and intense friendship with Richard Nixon, suggesting that it may have motivated his pardon of Nixon, people close to Gerald Ford have quickly said that is not true. His former chief of staff, his biographer, and a journalist who wrote extensively about Ford have stressed that he had a friendly relationship with most politicians of his time, and his friendship with Nixon was no different. It was the respectful regard with which he treated everyone. His claim that he issued the pardon to get a terrible political obstruction out of the way and to restore the country to political viability has assumed credibility over time. That move, which did cost Ford the election, was consistent with Ford's eminent sense of decency and political intelligence.

We live in a time when feudalism has resurged throughout the world, as is evident in in Islamic countries. But it is also apparent in American popular culture. We, too, look to celebrate royalty, survivors, power-figures, connivers. The obsession with celebrities, with power figures, with cult leaders, with chicane politicians is a betrayal of those democratic values of competence, integrity, effectiveness, and decency.

So when eulogists celebrate Gerald Ford's "ordinariness," they are being merely smarmy and foolish. Ordinary means of common occurence, of no exceptional ability, degree, or quality. The fact is that Gerald Ford was never like the majority of us. He practiced his politics with decency, intregrity, and graciousness. He was not pretentious, or ego-driven, or power-mad. He was not ordinary.

It may be nice to think of him as being ordinary, but even though we may profess an esteem for his kind of honesty and decency, few of us make an effort to emulate it. Gerald Ford was extraordinary. We are fortunate he rose to power when he did. Perhaps a knowledge of him can restore some of our regard for decency.

He was extraordinary.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States