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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Murder is still suspected

Early on Monday morning, Nov. 1, 2004--the day before the 2004 election-- a janitor for Seymour Hall at Northern State University came to work to open up the building. He found a body lying at one of the building's western entrances, which were in a courtyard enclosed by the building's two wings. It was the body of Prof. Morgan Lewis, a young professor of German, who had started teaching at the University that fall. Prof. Lewis had a gunshot wound at the back of his neck. Police later found the gun in a dumpster located on the southern end of Seymour Hall.

Initially, the coroner termed the death of Prof. Lewis murder. However, the Aberdeen Police Dept. equivocated. At the time, the Police Department was beset by internal turmoils. Factions within the Department were in constant dispute. A new chief had fired some officers--firings which later were determined to be improper. And shortly after the death of Prof. Lewis, the policeman assigned to patrol NSU resigned. Apparently he and the chief were in disagreement over the handling of the Lewis case.

The previous chief, also, had been fired for "personnel" reasons, which means the files are closed and the citizens cannot find out just what is wrong at the Police Department.

The office building where Prof. Lewis' body was found is where my office was for 20 years. I went in and out numerous times during the day. After I retired, I often walked by the building. The courtyard where Prof. Lewis died took on an eerie aspect, as I walked by the doorway and thought how many times I passed through it at all hours of the day and night. Like many professors who have tons of papers to read, I stayed in the office late at night, came early in the morning, and sometimes after a few hours rest, would come in at 3 or 4 in the morning to get the work done. Once a violent death occurs at such a place, it becomes a reminder of the event.

Prof. Lewis' death no longer has its marker. A few weeks ago, Seymour Hall was demolished. I am not sure why. The building had its problems. When first designed, it was a replica of a building on the Harvard Square. However, by the time the state legislature registered its preferences, the building was considerably diminished in cost and accommodations. When the University tried to upgrade the building to meet the standards established for access by the disabled, it found the costs prohibitive. At one point, its site was proposed for the University's new tech center.

Even with its inadequacies, the building had some merits. For many years, it housed the reading clinic. It provided offices for departments and professors in the humanties. Most of them have moved to the new tech center where the offices are so small, they are no improvement.

I strongly suspect that the decision to remove the building was motivated largely with the intention of removing the reminder of Prof. Lewis' death--which still in the minds of many remains "suspicious."

In 2005, the chief of police held a news conference in which he declared the death to be a suicide and the case was closed. The coroner subsequently changed the cause of death from murder to suicide.

The death is still suspicious because conflicting evidence and testimony were never reconciled. The case was closed and in South Dakota the records are also closed so that the people can never know the nature of the case or the process by which a conclusion was reached.

Suspicion and dissatisfaction remain. An anonymous commenter put a note on Todd Epp's South Dakota Watch recently which stated that the writer was a police officer who worked the case and said he/she still considered the case a murder. The writer alluded to another death on campus in which a young man died of injuries in the lobby of Jerde Hall, a dormitory. Charges were filed against another young man, but were eventually dropped and the death was termd accidental. The writer of the comment suggested that for public relations reasons, the community might find deaths by accident and suicide preferable to murder.

That may be so. Until the people of South Dakota have the right to examine the records of how the officials they hire perform, they can reasonably assume that something is being covered up. Striaghtforward investigations are made public.

Prof. Lewis' death remains suspicious. So do its investigators.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

At least two can play this game

Not to be outdone by The New Yorker, Vanity Fair features this cartoon cover of the McCains. A few more covers like this should keep the red neck intelligentsia pondering its meaning up to election time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Is the vulture the South Dakota state bird?

After being sidelined for the first six months of the year for medical reasons, I have much catching up to do. And I have a backlog of personal and professional projects that limit the time for posting on the web log. Most of what posting I do is about the stupidity and malevolence that dominates the corporate media and the blogosphere, the latter of which has become the province of the semi-literate and malicious twithood--
and desperate political partisans whose only hope of making a showing in the coming election is to plant personal misinformation and disinformation about their opponents.

Such tactics are the only thing the Republicans in South Dakota have going against Sen. Tim Johnson. Although the Senator himself has not equivocated on the fact that the brain hemorrhage from which he is recovering limits his ability to walk and has left his speaking ability not as robust and quick as it was, he still is able to get around the state, show up on the Senate floor, and engage in the legislative business of the Senate.
Above, Sen Johnson is participating in a radio interview. If you click this link, you can play a number of videos that show Sen. Johnson doing his job. Since his return to the Senate last August. Sen. Johnson has not missed a Senate vote on the floor and he has fully discharged his duties on the important committees he serves:

  • Appropriations
  • Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
  • Energy and Natural Resources
  • Indian Affairs

Still, the partisan media and the blogging dipwings try to keep Sen. Johnson's health the main issue. For example, Pat Powers at South Dakota War College suggests "that he’s possibly unable to effectively performs some of the functions of the position, which could include debating those opposed to measures benefiting South Dakota in the US Senate." This question is raised despite the Senator's performance of the last year and the appraisals of his doctors and colleagues. The sententiously expressed concerns about the Senator's abilities are too thin a veil to obscure the mean and petty partisanship from which the question arises.

But the blogs are not as offensive as the commenters. Under the cloak of cowardly anonymity, they join the cry with a malevolent fervor, like the cowardly sheet-wearers in a lynch mob. They are more redolent of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. In their "political fervor," they singled out 69-year-old American Leon Klinghoffer who was wheelchair bound, shot him in the head, and dumped him overboard.

These commenters pose the real issue in the campaign: Do we want a Senator who has the support of people of this ilk?

We've already got one such Senator in John Thune whose campaign against Tom Daschle was largely lying slanders and character assassination. In a state where the town cafe and its malevolent gossips is a major cultural institution and malicious tavern talk is considered a form of discourse, this kind of campaigning has its appeal for some.

Do we really want this kind of thinking and behavior to influence our national policy and the quality of our democracy?

Once again, the decent people have the opportunity to exercise their voices and their votes--or lose them.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The vulture culture is flapping away

The Aberdeen American News has amassed an incredible record for incompetent journalism. Its editorial page and its handling of news both radiate the regressive agenda and the petit-fascist philosophy that it is okay to censor news that does not fit its political agenda and to hype up news that does. The American News has decided to abandon any but a few pretenses to journalism for a role as a partisan medium.

On Sunday, June 29,the rag's editorial called into question Sen. Tim Johnson's health.

It's time to start asking some tough, yet very legitimate, questions. Primary among these questions are: What exactly is Sen. Tim Johnson's state of health? Is he ready - physically, mentally, emotionally - to tackle another six years in
the Senate with the energy and vitality that South Dakotans expect and deserve?

The public has a right to know - and to ask - if the senator's health will allow him to be as effective in 2009 as in 2003. The senator has a responsibility to make sure he makes a full disclosure about his health.

Roland Walter, chair of the Brown County Democrats, pointed out the journalistic errors in the editorial both in a letter-to-the-editor and in an e-mail to the Brown County party members. A former journalist, Walt stressed that the editorial suggested that Sen. Johnson's health and ability to serve are called into question even though the facts--some of which have been published in the American News--are readily available and clear. Walt points out:

  • Tim has made numerous public appearances since returning to the Senate last August.

  • Tim has not missed a vote since his return.

  • Doctor's tell him he will continue to make progress physically, and that his speaking ability will improve greatly over time.

  • With the exception of the time spent in initial recovery, has there been a noticeable difference in the performance of the Johnson office?

  • The American News asks if Tim will be as effective in 2009 as he was in 2003. In fact, he can be far more effective despite any physical limitations. His is now the majority party in the Senate which enhances his power and thus his effectiveness and there is little chance that will change in November. Plus, Tim has an additional six years of seniority which also adds to his effectiveness.

  • The editorial says it is legitimate to ask if the Tim Johnson of today can provide the same energy as the pre-AVM Tim--implying he must do this in order to be worthy of our vote. That is not the question faced by voters and is not a legitimate comparison. The legitimate question for voters is whether Tim Johnson or his opponent will do the better job representing South Dakota over the next six years.

  • There is an implication that Tim's long term medical prognosis is somehow being hidden by staff. His doctors have stated publicly that there is no danger of a second AVM and that continued recovery will be steady, but may be slow. The question isn't whether his recovery will be fast and complete, but whether he capable of doing his job. Every indication is that Tim and his staff are fully capable and all Senators of any account do rely heavily on staff. Nothing is being hidden and there is nothing to hide.

  • The editorial states "Senator Johnson has served South Dakota well for years." Indeed he has and what is there to indicate he will not continue to do so?

When Tim was in Aberdeen last Saturday for a fund-raiser, he told the people present that his doctors said that in terms of continuing to recover from the AVM, he could only get better. For the sake of fluency, Tim generally addresses audiences--as he did at the State Democratic Convention and at the fundraiser--by reading prepared remarks. He goes to this effort in extra preparation to communicate efficiently with his audiences.

However, last Saturday after reading his remarks, Tim invited questions from his audience. He received some tough inquiries about issues before Congress, such as point-of-origin labeling, bio-fuels, and the economic downturn--and he answered them with a command of the issues, knowledge about where the Senate is in addressing them, and clear, concise language.

As Roland Walter points out, Sen. Johnson has demonstrated this kind of performance since his return to the Senate floor last August. An organization which purports to be a news medium would be well aware of these facts.

Newspapers have the right--and the responsibility--to express opinions. But they do not have the right to ignore, distort, or falsify the facts. Distorting the facts was the purpose behind the editorial questioning Tim Johnson's state of health.

The tactic used in the editorial is the same one used in the archetypal question "When did you stop beating your wife?" The purpose behind that prosecutorial question is not to elicit an answer, but to plant the assumption that the person being questioned beat his wife--whether he did or not.

The question about Sen. Johnson making a full disclosure about his health is not to elicit information, but to plant the assumption that he is hiding something about the state of his health. The editorial contains no summary and analysis of facts. Its sole purpose is to plant the idea in the public mind that the state of Sen. Johnson's health is being hidden from the public.

The real question is raised by this old, cheap, and malicious tactic. It concerns the state of intellectual, moral, and health of the Aberdeen American News.

The editorial stance of the American News is clear. While its editorial page gives token space to progressive commentary, it has assembled a stable of local regressive columnists that range from those whose writing displays severe symptoms of dementia to those who use their professional offices to give credence to tiresome and foolish regressive cant. At this point, that is all their political party has going, and they spout it endlessly.

But the opinions of the editors and columnists are not the issue. The fact that they habitually ignore, suppress, and often misrepresent the facts is the issue. In northeastern South Dakota, the Aberdeen American News has no competitors covering the area. So, it is the major source of information and its pretenses to reporting news are far outweighed by its partisan agenda--both in the opinions expressed and the news covered.

When John Thune last ran for election, the American News reported his stump speeches and slightest utterance in great detail when he came to town. When the Democrat candidates came to town, the American News "reviewed" their speeches for their repetition of campaign issues and their performance.

When the Knight Ridder company, which owned the American News, was dismantled, people hoped that a new owner would improve the journalism in the newspaper. It was purchased by Schurz Communications, whose major newspaper is the South Bend, Indiana, Tribune--the home of Notre Dame. Schurz owns 13 daily newspapers, 7 weeklies, 9 television stations, 13 radio stations, 2 cable companies, plus some regional magazines and shoppers. Its holdings in South Dakota besides the American News are 5 radio outlets in Rapid City and one in Sturgis. As is true of the news business nationally, Schurz is not as interested in the quality of journalism as it is making a dollar or two in markets where straight and competent news reporting has little entertainment value for audiences conditioned to having diversions, not sound information.

During his recovery from his AVM, Sen. Johnson earned some enmity from the press by not revealing where he was undergoing his rehabilitation and by being selective about which journalists he worked with concerning his health issues. He, his family, and his staff realized that it is not good for one's physical or political health to let the journalistic vultures cast their ominous shadows.

The Aberdeen American News has given us a demonstration of why that is so.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States