Northern Valley Beacon
Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Saturday, October 28, 2006
Sen. Schoenbeck tries to keep hands off Gropegate--at first
Bob Mercer's coverage of the Gropegate business has received acknowledgement from two other blogs. And he added to this in Friday's Aberdeen American News with more evidence that suggests that Sen. Lee Schoenbeck is indulging in some political opportunism in handling the issue the way he did a few weeks before the election.
Todd Epp, who responded to one of my posts about Mercer's coverage and raised a question about whether the reporter had an agenda reprints an e-mail from Mercer
that explains Mercer's decision to become Bill Janklow's press secretary. In the letter, Bob states that he is registered as an independent voter. I, too, assumed he was a Republican, because press secretaries are usually chosen for their dedication and support of a viewpoint. Not the case here, Bob explains. His decision had more to do with the quality of communications between state government and the press.Mt. Blogmore
has also lauded Mercer's coverage and "bulldog" qualities in never letting the strands of a story get out of grasp.
On Friday, Mercer's story said that Schoenbeck had been aware of the rumors whirling around Dan Sutton since last winter. [You have to get the hard copy of the newspaper to retrieve the story.] Schoenbeck, the chief officer of the State Senate, did nothing until the page's father, Dennis Wiese, wrote a formal complaint. Neither did Schoenbeck attend any meetings of the legislative executive committee, which deals with disciplinary matters involving legislators.
Although a blog broke the story, Mercer has done the most comprehensive reporting on the affair. The Argus Leader has had some informing stories, too. But the story shows the fracture line between what blogs do and what genuine journalism does. Most of the blogs wallow in Sibbyesque whining and snarking about the mainstream media and their leftist leanings and dilatoriness in reporting stuff that does not conform to their anti-rightwing agenda.
We do have media in South Dakota that have a strict agenda in manipulating commentary and letters-to-the-editor to reflect their editorial bias. It is not hard to find party-line editing in the South Dakota media. They often suppress news that does not conform to their political affections. They justify this bias by claiming that they are serving the interests of their readers.
In this case, Mercer has produced stories that get beyond the personal preferences of bloggers into the real issues. And there will be plenty more to come.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Huge Brown County Democrat Rally on Sunday
- Sen. Tim Johnson
- Rep. Stephanie Herseth
- Governor candidate Jack Billion
- School and Public Lands candidate Bryce Healy
- PUC candidate Steve Kolbeck
- Attorney General Candidate Ron Volesky
- District 2 candidates: Sen. Jim Hundstad, Rep. Paul Dennert, Rep. Burt Elliott
- District 3 candidates: Al Hoerth for Senate; Tom Black and Ted Kneebone for House
- Brown County Commissioner Tom Fischbach
Time for the rally: 5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 29. Place: Aberdeen Eagles Club, 316 S. 2nd St.
Music, food, and it's free. We will pass a hat. A BIG hat.
However, the main thing is to come, talk to the candidates, get updated on issues, and get yourself primed to vote. Also get others primed to vote.
For those of you who want to help get out the vote, literature drop squads will gather at the Coordinated Campaign Office, 18 2nd Ave. SW, at noon Sunday. That's when we'll start serving pizza to fortify the participants. Sen. Johnson and Jack Billion will stop by the office at 12:45 p.m. to rally the troops and lead the literature charge.
You think it is time for something in Pierre to be done right? This is your chance to help make it happen.
Hell, yes, cut and run
Cut out the deception, the conniving, and the incompetence and run this war to a reasonable, honorable conclusion. America has been drug down far enough and America has lost 2,800 more of its finest people than was needed or in any way justified.If this war did one-tenth for Iraq and the U.S.A. as it did for Halliburton, we might give someone in the Bush administration a chit of credit. But this is insane. And obscene.
It is time we really honor our troops by not getting them killed and maimed. And it is time we honor the principles of our country once again by making reparations to those whose lives we have damaged. It may well be more than this country has the resources, moral or material, to do.
Wind: you might break it but you won't own it
It's called Tatanka Wind Power, LLC. That has a nice Dakota ring to it because "tatanka" is the Lakota word for bull bison. Tatanka Wind Power has announced plans to build a ten-mile power transmission line through Dickey County, North Dakota, to connect with a main transmission line owned by Montana-Dakota Utilities Co.
Tatanka plans to put up 120 wind turbines along the North Dakota-South Dakota border. They would be divided equally between the states so that each state will produce 90 megawatts of electricity.
Dickey County, for which Ellendale is the county seat, had a wind turbine project in the works about a year and a half ago. However, when a township drew up zoning restrictions to insure that the structures would not have an adverse impact on individual farmers, the companies involved in the scheme canceled the plans. The major company involved in that scheme was headquartered in Florida.
Tatanka Wind Power, LLC, is owned by Acciona Wind Energy USA, LLC, which, in turn, is a subsidiary of Acciona SA headquartered in Madrid, Spain.
The South Dakota turbines to be built by Tatanka will be located in McPherson County
Northwestern Energy, which is the privately-owned utility that supplies gas and electricity to the Aberdeen area, as well as much of South Dakota, has been approved by the PUC for sale to an Australian Company, Babcock and Brown Infrastructure, Ltd., headquartered in Sydney.
During the summer of 2005, interest in wind energy by individual farmers was spurred when Deere & Co. announced a program through its credit corporation to finance wind turbines for individual farmers who could join with neighboring farmers to produce megawatts of electricity through a network of turbines. Organization and support from farm organizations and electric cooperatives never materialized. Farmers and land-owners who were interested in supporting production facilities found it near impossible to obtain information on how to work with state regulations and get access to transmission lines. It became clear that the power industry is not interested in production facilities that are not wholly owned and controlled by private companies, many of them foreign.
While there is wind being generated about energy independence, the fact is that foreign corporations are moving into control of the U.S. energy market.
Here is an issue for Steve Kolbeck, candidate for the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Rep. Al Novstrup provides a taste of tyranny
For most people who are against Referred Law 6, the abortion ban in South Dakota, their concerns are that a totalitarian principle that is designed to exercise control over vital, personal decisions is being pushed on the people behind a humanitarian facade. Despite all the baby-killer shouts and fury from the anti-freedom forces, hardly anyone is in favor of abortion. But the aspects of tryanny are in the totality of the ban.
In the time of slavery, slaves were encouraged to breed and have children. As soon as a woman became pregnant, the slave-holders asserted ownership over the incipient child. The woman was required to bring the fetus to term because it represented a salable asset to the slave-owner. Often, after the child was born and was weened, it would be taken from the mother and put into a regimen to train it for slavehood. Slave-owners inflicted terrible punishments on women who did not carry the chattel to term, whether deliberately or accidentally.
This control over women's bodies and lives is the major objection to the abortion ban. It announces that the state becomes the owner of women's bodies when they are pregnant and reduces women to the status of slaves to the state--although the state avoids any pecuniary or moral responsibility for the offspring that are produced by forced pregnancies, even if they result from rape or incest. The ban makes it a criminal offense not to carry a pregnancy to term.
Rep. Al Novstrup, R-Disrict 3, gave a demonstration of the despotic attitudes and actions of ban supporters at a forum at Northern State University early this month.
United Campus Ministries sponsored two sessions, one at noon and another at 5:30 p.m., on the Northern campus for the purpose of discussing the abortion ban. John Baskins of the UCM could not find anyone to speak against the ban. While I was out-of-town on an extended business trip, he left two messages on my answering machine asking if I would speak against the ban. Because of the rush of work at this time, days passed after I returned before I played back the telephone messages. However, I would have declined to appear at the forums.
People who are against the ban know better than to engage the anti-freedom forces in any kind of discussion. The Vote-Yes-For-Loss-of-Rights forces have carried their campaign to the point that anyone who engages them can be guaranteed to be insulted, abused, and subjected to the most inane and insane level of name-calling and vilification. The proponents of the ban come armed with all manner of false information (such as the totally fraudulent "study" report sponsored by the state legislature), and the public interest is not served by allowing them to give a recital of their lies and accusations.
Staff members of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families were invited to speak to the forums, but they declined. They did set up an information table in the lobby of the Union where the forums were to be held. They put up a sign on the table that said:"The views of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families will not be represented here today."
After the afternoon forum, Al Novstrup took it upon himself to remove the sign. As the sign did not advocate anything but merely informed people in the Union that the group would not be speaking, no one can figure why Novstrup did that, other than to put on a demonstration of tyrannical power.
When the noon session was over, Lindsey of the campaign staff approached Novstrup, who had the sign rolled up under his arm, in the lobby and asked if she could have the sign back. Novstrup held it out to her, but when she reached out to take it, he withdrew it and put it back under his arm.
This is the quality of representation District 3 has in Pierre.
The forums were not well attended. In fact, no one who opposes the ban appears to have shown up other than Campaign staff members who came to monitor the proceedings.
For the noon session, the attendees were Novstrup, his son David (also a candidate for the state house), David's wife Holly, attorney Rory King, Martin Albl of Presentation College, and two or three people wearing Vote Yes t-shirts.
At the evening session were Al Novstrup, his wife and daughter and a friend, two other women from Vote Yes, and a man who did not identify himself.
Novstrup recited his cant at the evening session. He stated that there were 30-50 women who had abortions and testified against before the state legislative committee. He did not mention that they were carefully pre-screened to insure their testimony supported the contrivers of the ban. He claimed that the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision announced that "abortion is good for women." He said the ban is a matter of due process. If a fetus had the same rights to due process that a serial killer has, he said, he would vote against the ban. If a fetus had the same 20-year window of appeals and delays that a convicted serial killerhas, the ban would not be needed.
He spoke against the evils of Planned Parenthood. He said they make their money from abortion and tell women that the fetus is "just a clump of tissue." Women counseled by Planned Parenthood do not see a doctor, he claimed, until they are on the operating table. He stated that 96 percent of abortions are for convenience and 80 percent are for birth control.
Attorney Rory King took a theological tack. He claimed that churches preached that abortion was wrong until the 1960s when they were infected by radical feminism. He claimed that pastors who were against the ban had abandoned God and scripture and had surrendered to the abortionists.
Thus are the actions and incisive minds of Al Novstrup and his merry band.[This account is from interviews with and notes taken by Lindsey and John of the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families.]
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
This is journalism: a lesson from Bob Mercer
Nobody has worked the Gropegate story with the thoroughness and enterprise and accuracy that Bob Mercer has. Plus, he has the contacts in Pierre to get questions answered.
Today he gave a lengthy account of the whole affair in the Aberdeen American News with Sen. Lee Schoenbeck's letter of ultimatum to Sen. Dan Sutton run as a sidebar.
The letter read in context with the facts stated by Bob Mercer show that Schoenbeck was clearly pushing and did not have all the facts correctly.
So, the state senate has a chance to work this out.
Bob Mercer wrote one of the best feature stories for the American News when he was its statehouse and political reporter that I have seen in a newspaper. On his way to work early one morning, he saw a bunch of hoboes gathered around a little campfire along the railroad. He bought a six pack and joined them to get a story of who they were and what the life of a hobo was like in the late 20th century.
I admire the story. Although I have been told that my own journalistic cajones would be my death, I do not have that mix of personality and enterprise that could get such a good story from tramps I happened to spot on my way to work. Bob Mercer does journalism.
Thank God for Bob Mercer and the true professionals in the South Dakota press corps. They clean and clear up the informational messes dropped along the way by bloggers.
I think we need to start a Golden Pen and Shovel Award for the journalistic professionals that can give us orderly, straight facts in the midst of web log chaos.
And the Eppilogue
has another nomination in the offing in from an interview with Jonathan Ellis who explained the reasons of verfication that caused the newspaper to play the Dan Sutton story differently from the Bob Sahr story.
If we aren't careful, we might find government proceedings in South Dakota getting full and accurate coverage.
While bloggers like to form mutual admiration societies and tell each other how important they are in poltical discussion, they are really creating only more work for the real journalists. They could help. But most of them have neither ability or interest to go beyond inflicting the political environment with their little opinions.
This episode shows who does the real, heavy work.
The Gropegate mob still feeling around for the issues
The Argus Leader carried a story today that the Governor has been requested to convene a special legislative session to deal with the misconduct charges against Sen. Dan Sutton, a Democrat from Flandreau. It asked for a reaction to the request from Sutton's attorney, Mike Butler:
Butler, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who represents Sutton, said the idea "borders on an anti-Democratic power play."
"People are attempting to influence the outcome of elections," Butler said. "And I hope the governor exercises some restraint here and trusts the investigative process of the attorney general's office and the Division of Criminal Investigation to do their jobs ... and not act impulsively as some people are inclined to do."
In the minds of some bloggers, the quotation from Butler about "an anti-Democratic power play" got contorted into the charge that the father of the page who made the misconduct complaint is trying to destroy the Democratic Party, and that the Argus Leader is promoting that story. Aside from quoting Mike Butler on the power play idea, we can find no mention of an attempt to destroy the Democratic Party. Some bloggers have demonstrated a prodigious abililty to treat news stories like Rorschach blots on which they impose their own fantasies and designs. Actuality is seldom anything like they represent it to be.
The power play idea is brought up by Bob Mercer, who has worked as a political reporter for the Aberdeen American News, the Rapid City Journal, and now reports political news and writes columns as a syndicated correspondent. He was Bill Janklow's press secretary. In his Capitol Notebook column which appeared last Saturday in the Aberdeen American News, he recounts that reporters had heard the rumors that Dan Sutton was under investigation last spring, but did not pursue the story when no action was taken by officials. Mercer outlines what he sees as a power play by Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the state senate majority leader. He leads his story this way:
"The blunt threat that Sen. Lee Schoenbeck made to Sen. Dan Sutton was supposed to be an offer that couldn't be refused."
He picks up the story this way:
"Then a month before the Nov. 7 elections, with Republicans in danger of least at least some seats in the Senate, and their majority possibly in danger, the father of the page--a prominent Democrat--took his complaint about the matter to Schoenbeck.
"The letter sent by Schoenbeck, R-Watertown, to Sutton lit the fuse for an explosion of publicity about the case. The follow-up letter by Senate Democratic leader Garry Moore of Yankton to the rest of the Democratic senators blew the matter wide open.
"Suddenly an unsubstantiated rumor became a news story because of the course of action taken by Schoenbeck in his role as the Senate's top elected officer.
"Schoenbeck's official letter, explaining to Sutton this his resignation would mean no Senate investigation, was an ultimatum. When Schoenbeck officially threatened a sitting senator with possible expulsion, Schoenbeck's action demanded a news story, regardless of what the underlying reasons might be.
"Hindsight suggests there could have been better ways for the Senate's leadership to handle this matter. With his letter Schoenbeck, who has made no secret of his desire to run for governor in 2010, put himself in a no-win situation right alongside Sutton.
"To some people, Schoenbeck's Godfather-like threat to Sutton looked like a Republican playing power politics a few weeks before the Nov. 7 elections.
"Among other people, an opposite question was being asked.
"Why would Schoebeck be willing to let a senator, accused of serioius improper conduct, resign rather than face official disciplinary action by the Senate? With the congressional page scandal looming, the last thing Schoenbeck wanted was to be accused of sweeping under the rug a complaint from a page's parent.
"But Schoenbeck's letter to Sutton also put Moore in a no-win situation.
"Moore said he didn't know about the allegations against Sutton until two weeks ago, when Schoenbeck called him. Moore said he preferred that the Legislature's executive board look into the matter, rather than proceed directly on the route that Schoenbeck took.
"By refusing to join Schoenbeck in signing the letter to Sutton, Moore faced the potential accusation that he wanted to cover up the matter. So Moore's subsequent letter to his fellow Democrats served as defense for himself while also making his caucus members aware of what was happening.
"But the Moore letter also back-fired on him and the Democrats. His letter made it appear to some reporters for other news organizations that Moore and his Democratic caucus led the charge against Sutton.
"That worked to the short-term benefit of Schoenbeck and the Republicans, by putting the spotlight on the other party. Moore was left to issue a statewide announcement Thursday clarifying that he wasn't calling on Sutton to resign.
"Now that it's partially out in the open, this matter could vibrate far beyond what did or didn't happen in Sutton's motel room in Fort Pierre, where the page was staying with his parents' permission.
"Much more significantly, the matter might turn attention to the failed Ridgefield Farms beef-processing project, and the roles of key people involved in it, as efforts for its start-up failed first in Huron and then in Flandreau.
Mercer goes on to explain that Dennis Wiese, the former Farmers Union president, was the lead figure in bringing the Ridgefield scheme to Flandreau and worked as a paid consultant for the firm. The Flandreau city council appropriated $750,000 to entice Ridgefield to Flandreau and the Flandreau Development Corp, of which Sutton was the president, gave the firm $100,000 to move its offices to Flandreau. As president of the Development Corp., Sutton sat on the board of directors of Ridgefield Farms. The Flandreau interests, led by Sutton, are trying to recoup the money provided to Ridgefield.
"Here is the connection between the page matter and the Ridgefield matter: Schoenbeck's ultimatum letter to Sutton was also sent by Schoenbeck to Wiese.
"A number of key legislators were involved in the run-up to the decision to send the ultimatum letter to Sutton.
"It has become evident in recent days they were not aware of the full background of events unfolding in Flandreau involving Wiese and Sutton.
"The story regarding the page father's complaint against Sutton could become much bigger, and much less clear cut , as more of the background and identities of the people come to light, in both the page complaint and the politics of Ridgefield in Flandreau. "
The power play, if any, involves Republicans using some fractiousness in the Democratic Party to political advantage. With a post-election special session on the horizon to investigate a sitting Democratic senator, the Republicans can hope for some votes to fall their way.
Before the June primary, we were aware that people who had worked with Wiese in the Farmers Union kept their distance from him in his run for the governor candidacy. And some routine questions about the Ridgefield Farms relationships in Huron and Flandreau were met with snarls.
But we still can't find any reference to attempts to destroy the Democratic Party, except on few blogs, whose Rorschach blots seem to have the story.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
When Deep Throat gets confused with Lower Colon
Attention spans seem to have been conditioned by the length of time a computer CPU can hold some digits. Human memories that are connected to cyberspace cannot seem to hold information from one web log post to another. And so, now I am accused of being a defender and apologist for the main stream media. This is because I am very critical of the handling of Gropegate by the the South Dakota blog mob. But I have written more posts critical of the press than I have of web logs.
First of all, there is no main stream media in South Dakota. Two newspapers do rise occasionally to the level of reportage and writing that characterizes the best and most prominent journalistic enterprises, but the rest of the media float on the backwash of village gossip. A few weeklies practice a level of community journalism that tries to rise above the mean and terribly destructive fractiousness that courses through the villages and turns them into fuming wastelands. Mostly, the media suffer from insufficiency of intellects and discerning knowledge. They are caught between trying to emulate their perception of what the truly influential media does and serving a declining revenue source of advertisers. The news business has been debilitated by competing for audiences with entertainment and by trying to serve the fractious interests of people who divide the world into two classes and form their identities on one of those sides. This is the brain-soft mentality induced by the media that Orwell tried to warn us about.
I am no defender of the news media. I am a defender and an advocate for the media as the Fourth Estate, a virtual arm of government that informs the public what their government is doing and is ever vigilant for signs of incompetence, dishonesty, and tyranny. The press is given an inordinate amount of freedom and power to serve that end, and when news media compromise that function, I get testy. And when news media do not maintain the standards of performance established by 400-some years of practice in America, I get a hopeless, sinking feeling.
I am very critical of web logs. My criticism is that web logs are either the products of a partisan agenda or individual egos. Usually both. As such, they make no pretense of trying to discern what is true and what is not. My colleague Dr. Silas, who directed the information-gathering and categorization for the Press Project, which examined the integrity of information that compromised the election campaign of 2004, has likened many web logs to the writing on public restroom walls. And the issue is not whether the blogs adhere to the rules of journalism. The issue is that they don't follow the basic requisites of expository writing and writing which purports to advance viewpoints based upon a review of facts and the application of reason. Dr. Silas confirms what most of us observe: that most web postings are ad hominem
attacks and fabrications and misrepresentations of what other people have said, thought, or done.
So, when some bloggers contend that blogs perform a function that the media does not, I take issue based on the facts. My concern is not that I am inherently against blogs. What the hell are you reading here, if you've gotten this far? My contention is that blogs can be an immensely valuable addition to the exchange of information, but not when one must assess every utterance for its competence, its accuracy, and its integrity of purpose. A great many blog posts can be filed in the false information category. And most of the rest can be filed under one of the categories of rhetorical fallacy. The answer offered by some blog promoters is that we should turn on our bullshit detectors and turn up our critical thinking apparatus and decide for ourselves. The fallacy in that is who has time or resources to check out facts to that degree? That is why writers and editors are so important to the flow of information. They do the critical work of establishing some standard of truth and reliability.
A recent comment suggested that I may be hung up on an English professor's fussy definitions of what comprises an acceptable piece of writing. I admit that I am repulsed by the bad writing in many blogs, and I don't mean just the typographical errors and grammatical mishaps. Slovenly writing denotes slovenly minds. But before I ever ventured into a college classroom, I spent about 13 years behind the typewriter (remember those?) and on editorial desks. Journalists who mishandled information in the way that the Gropegate story has meandered very quickly became ex-journalists. And I helped quite a few find their way to the street.
My last full-time position as a working journalist was as the editor of the farm and business sections of a newspaper in a fairly good sized metropolitan area that had three other daily newspapers (I started out on the sports desk of one of the others), and I also coordinated the coverage of higher education, coordinated opinion surveys with other media, and was coordinator of investigative reporting projects. Much of the investigative reporting was done in concert with reporters from the competing media, and because I was reporting and editing matters concerning the economy, most of the leads we developed on stories for investigative work involved the business community. However, on occasion I was assigned to work on political stories, too. I had training in finding documentary evidence that corroborated what witnesses could tell us.
Investigative teams I worked with produced stories that led to 18 convictions for major crimes, and 70-some law enforcement actions, mostly involving consumer fraud. In preparing those stories, I think we spent as much time in the corporate counsel's office as we did developing the information. Our publishers would not let us get anything into print that was not absolutely nailed. While news media have the right to say what they want in the form of an opinion on the performance of public officials, entertainers, and anyone else offering something for public consumption under the fair comment and criticism rules, they do not have the right to make false or erroneous statements of fact. Journalistic investigative pieces have to be prepared with the same care as court cases or the media can end paying liabilities that will drive them into bankruptcy.
Major newspapers are approached every day by attorneys who represent clients who claim they have been unfairly damaged by news stories. In most cases the claims are dismissed because the stories are true and the reporters have the records and evidence to support them. In a number of other cases, the complainants have been stung by a criticism that falls under the fair comment and criticism rule. In the few cases where media realize they have committed an error, they work hard for an out-of-court settlement. Few cases make it to litigation. But journalists work under that kind of stringent requirement for accuracy.
The self-preening and crowing of bloggers over how they have displaced the news media in breaking important stories and forcing them to play catch-up is inane. They perceive that they are a force that drives the new age of information and they crow like the roosters that assume that their noise is what makes the sun come up. The people working on the data categorized for the Press Project say evidence shows that blogs are the effects not the motivators of political dialogue. Dr. Silas says that what shows up on blogs are like the skin eruptions that are symptoms of some virulent strain coursing through the body. They are often the public expression of some political strategy that has its origins in the fetid precincts of political operatives. Communications analysts can trace the provenance of many political blog posts to such origins.
Bloggers, like members of the press, are on safe ground as long as they confine their remarks to opinion. When they begin to report facts, the rules of accuracy and evidence kick in. And that leads us back to Gropegate.
We were given notice last M0nday that storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and a state senator was targeted for a lightening strike. In that "teaser" for things to come SDWC mentioned a letter that set the matter in motion:
This letter from President Pro Tempore Schoenbeck in turn set off a letter in support of Schoenbeck's position from Senate Minority Leader Garry Moore. I'm told he sent this to other members of the Democratic Party.
This was the first mistake. It misrepresented the reaction of Sen. Minoritiy Leader Moore and I, among others, took the statement on its face value. Sen. Moore did not support Schoenbeck's position. He shared the concern over the complaint that had been filed and acknowledged that it had to be dealt with, but in every other aspect, he rebuked Schoenbeck.
It turns out that Schoenbeck had issued a letter to Sen. Dan Sutton that was what reporter Bob Mercer called a godfather-like offer he did not think Sutton could refuse. He told Sutton he could either resign from the Senate or be subjected to an investigation through which he could be the subject of a special session. Sen. Moore did not "support Schoenbeck's position," but instead called for procedures for due process to be put in place should such an occasion ever arise again.
While many bloggers and some reporters claim to have been aware of the allegations made against Sen. Sutton since last February, Sen. Moore appears to have been blind-sided by the whole business. He did not join Schoenbeck's call for a resignation, but was perturbed that the matter had not been reported to him. This was misrepresented, and we were led to think that Moore endorsed Schoenbeck's tactic.
Some of the bloggers are pointing their querulous, shaking fingers (Work on that one, BOJ.) at the news media for sitting on the story while publishing news of allegations against Bob Sahr. I know nothing of the details of all this. All I know is that Bob Sahr withdrew from his race for the PUC, but Dan Sutton is standing firm in his race for the Senate.
And some bloggers are giving sanctimonious testimony that the blogs did not attach any names to their rumor mongering. The journalists did. That is not hard to understand. In journalism, there is no story if there is not an identity. Things don't happen to figments and figments are not perpetrators. To report a story without a name is like reporting an earthquake that happened on a planet somewhere. One does not have to get past the first chapters of a good journalism text to understand why that principle is an imperative. Names of victims can be withheld for discretionary reasons, but when they are the effective accusers, the accused has a right to face them and the public has right to know who they are. Juvenile protections expire at the age of 18.
Bob Mercer is the only journalist I am aware of right now who says he heard the rumor nine months ago. He claims that the media was not given any reason to believe that the story was other than "unsubstantiated gossip." In that nine months, the Attorney General's office apparently did not think the charge merited formal action.
The story broke with Lee Schoenbeck's letter, which he copied to Dennis Wiese, Sen. Garry Moore, and other legislative leaders. He says his action was spurred by Dennis Wiese deciding to push the matter because of the notoriety given the Mark Foley's antics in the U.S. House. The only documentation offered was a paragraph from Garry Moore's letter to Schoenbeck, and it was misrepresented in content and context.
This was not a case of a brave blogger sitting in his jammies revealing true events. It was a case of someone getting a smidgen of information and building all manner of inaccuracies and speculations on it.
News accounts have since pieced together the sequence of events and reported what the letters actually said. But the merry little band of bloggers have been so busy congratulating themselves and celebrating that they have still to notice.
The fact that the page was sharing a motel room with Sen. Sutton through an arrangment with his parents, and the fact that Sutton and Dennis Wiese who were collaborators in the beef plant project in Flandreau are, of course, dismissed as irrelevant because such information emphasizes the absence of even the most casual and cursory checking in getting a context for this story. The beef plant project collapsed and Dan Sutton is involved in trying to recover some money--to the tune of $850,000--that people in Flandreau would like to have back. The two men are now adversaries. Of course, that is irrelevant.
If this exercise is a demonstration in seeking truth, then pigs can indeed fly and we will await the Sibson Revised Standard Version of the Bible so that we may know the truth
The blogs have done what they do well. They have unleashed gossip, speculation, accusation, and condemnation. They have set in motion a story for which they feel no responsibility for supplying the complete facts.
This is not a contest between blogs and the traditional news media. If a blog broke this story in an accurate, credible, and responsible way, I would be the first to congratulate its authors. This story broke a few weeks before an election. I suspect that it is a boil on the ass of a raging political corpus.
I am still waiting for a complete account, whether from a news medium or a blogger. At this point, there will be hell to pay no matter which way this story breaks.
Let's see who can truly serve the truth. If bloggers can suspend their self-aggrandizement long enough to do the job, more power to them.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Gropegate turns into a fumble
Bob Mercer, in today's Capitol Notebook in the Aberdeen American News (the story is not online) tells why the professional media did not touch this story. When reporters learned that a complaint was made about a state senator making sexual advances to a page, they also learned that the complaint was turned over to the Attorney General's office for investigation, and when no charges or further action were taken, they dismissed the charge as "unsubstantiated gossip."
Just a month before election, the story was ratcheted up when the father of the page pursued his complaint and Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the state senate majority leader, sent a letter to Sen. Dan Sutton telling him to resign or be subjected to a legislative investigation. Sen. Sutton did not resign, but is fighting the charge. Sen. Gary Moore, the minority leader, refused to participate in the ultimatum and instead recommended that the legilslative body pursue investigation and due process in resolving the matter.
Bob Mercer does not mention the role that bloggers played in pushing the story, but from the outset there were many very basic things wrong with the facts and context they presented. The errors and general botching of the story by blogs was compounded by the degraded meanness of the comments added. Two blog commentators perceived the dangers in the story as presented. Jerry Hinkle cautioned that the charges had not been substantiated and that Sen. Sutton still had the right to a hearing and the procedures of due process. Prof. Jon Schaff warned that if the allegations were found to be untrue, there would be hell to pay.
None of the blog posts which purported to be breaking the story contained the basic ingredients of verfication, meticulous citation of the facts, or statements from people involved that would be required in a legitimate news story. Although they referred to the letters from the senators, they did not accurately characterize how the letters pursued the legal responsibilities of a legislative body in monitoring its affairs or what positions were stated by the senators involved. Their reports were based upon vague charges inflated by prurient innuendo and implication, and, of course, downright mean and trivial-nasty partisanship.
Some salient facts not reflected in the report are that the page, the son of former Farmers Union president and gubernatorial candidate Dennis Wiese, was sharing a motel room with Sen. Sutton with his parents' consent. Dennis Wiese, as president of the Farmers Union, was involved in locating a beef packing plant in Huron that would share the water and waste disposal infrastructure with the new turkey processing plant that opened there this year. For reasons that are unclear because of South Dakota's rules that protect corporations and their interactions with government agencies, the deal between Huron and Ridgefield Farms, the packing plant operator, was broken when local investors withdrew their money. The proposed operation was moved to Flandreau. As president of Flandreau's development group, Dan Sutton sat on the Ridgefield board of directors to promote the group's interests. Flandreau provided $750,000 to the project and an additional $100,000 to finance the move of the Ridgefield offices from Huron to Flandreau.
Dennis Wiese was a key figure in the Ridgefield schemes and was a paid consultant for the outfit. The project collapsed this past summer and Wiese's job was no more. Dan Sutton has figured prominently in trying to recover the Flandreau money that was contributed to the scheme.
Bob Mercer further points out that Dennis Wiese was given a copy of Schoenbeck's ultimatum letter to Dan Sutton. He says that the more information revealed on the matter the more unclear it will become. And Prof. Schaff's warning that there might be hell to pay seems accurate, because the flames are lapping the asses of a lot of people.
And once again the blogosphere appears to be the realm of partisan hacks and dupes.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Oh, where are the palatial, fellatial halls of yesteryear?
The congregation was assembled in the sanctuary naked with the priest. The sanctuary had been converted into a huge sauna because the guitar masses no longer worked at speaking to the youth, or to those who thought they knew what spoke to the youth. The congregation was sweating. Some had towels in their laps. It was a congregational rule that erections had to be kept under wraps. For teenage boys, erections are a constant. They need no provocation. So mounds of towels were piled in the laps of some who also were bearing sullen faces. But not in the laps of teenage boys. None of those had shown up.
There was no provocation among the congregates. Most of them were swathed in sagging flesh that provoked only thoughts of the gargoyles on the eaves of the church. The appropriate meditation was from the Bethel AME church down the street: God sure do love ugly. But no one in the congregation knew the text.
The kiss of peace was modified into a group grope. It was a way of saying, we love you, you ain't so ugly after all, and who else will do it?
Of course, this never happened, as far as I know. But while our young people are being wasted on the streets of Iraq and Iraqis are being wasted by the dozens each day, it is the kind of thing we are talking about.
This is a meditation on groping. Most people do not know the efficacy of a good grope. I do. As a young man, I knew the office building elevators in Chicago's skyscrapers at 5 p.m. on a Friday night. The elevators were packed. To keep people off your feet or from rubbing their rancid bodily juices on you, a good grope or pinch on the ass was a defensive measure. To get access to your transportation awaiting to chariot you off to your weekend revels, a good grope kept fat, dragging asses from impeding your egress. It also produced shrieks. Some of indignation. Some of delight. Some gropes were purely accidental, like when you tried to reach into your pocket for your keys, your el fare, or a handkerchief. They were a fact of life.
When a young man was the recipient of a well-aimed grope, he had two choices. Maybe three. He could unzip his fly. Or he could punch out the perpetrator. He most definitely would not go home and tell his daddy. If I were to report to my dad that someone groped me, he would ask what kind of situation I had gotten myself into and what the hell did I expect him to do about it? One took care of those matters oneself. It was hard enough to explain to dad how the muffler got blown off the car, and other life-threatening situations.
I do not make light of sexual harrassment. I have served on review panels that examine evidence in cases of sexual harrassment and decide whether the charges have merit, have no merit, or are downright false. About half the cases are compelling. I know of three deans who were discharged from one college for sexual harrassment. I also know of cases that were exaggerated, false, or vengeful. It has been very difficult to get legitimate due process into the determination of sexual harrassment complaints. Make no mistake about it: I believe that people who are guilty of sexual harrassment should receive appropriate discipline. I also believe that people who make false charges should be held liable.
I also believe that the procedures for dealing with sexual harrassment complaints should be specific, rigorous, and swift. When such a complaint is reported and the investigating office takes nine months and produces no determination, but the gossip mongers and eventually the press gets ahold of the accusations and turn it into a drool circus for the vicarious groping fanatics out there, society becomes the perverse offenders. That is what has happened in the case of the complaints against Sen. Dan Sutton in the South Dakota legislature.
When a grope allegation gets the kind of public notice and press that the latest episode in gropegate has received, there is really something demented and dysfunctional in our entire culture.
Oh, and you know what worked better than a grope or a pinch on those rush hour elevators? The shock unit off a cattle prod.
But with the images of priests and altar boys lolling nude in saunas and adults consorting with goofy adolescents, it is truly hard to take the world very seriously. People do dumb things. Are we going to design a criminal code around stupidity? Or can we somehow bring some intelligence and proportion into these matters?
It is doubtful.
Dumb and Dumber grope for news
Bloggers in South Dakota are having a suckfest telling each other how great it is that blogs broke the news on a legislative groping allegation while the main stream media diddled around with their fingers up...well, you know the drill. The blogs do one thing, even though it is inadvertent. They emphasize that state government in South Dakota is at its most benevolent a Three Stooges business, and at its most menacing a closed frranchise modeled after the meanest banana belt dictatorships.
First of all, there is no main stream media in South Dakota. Even the best journalistic efforts, the Rapid City Journal and Sioux Falls Argus Leader, operate with the small-minded peevishness of the back-country provincials as their dominant editorial concern. It has to be that way. They have to sell advertising to the perpetually peevish to survive. But with their tabloid mentality, bloggers drag the airing of public issues to even a lower, meaner, more petty level. A few try to keep their posts above the level of constant personal attack and witless insult and abuse, but most eventually are subsumed by the pernicious intolerance and stupidity that characterizes most political blogs. No media in South Dakota, especially web logs, are trying to set standards of thought and expression that can lift humans out the mean morass that is politics today, especially in South Dakota.
The abortion issue has rendered many people into a state of non compos mentis
from which it is doubtful they can recover. Our Libertarian candidate for the U.S. House has the best take on the subject: it is impossible to discuss it in South Dakota with reason and intelligence. It is one of those sham issues that inspires hatreds and animosities rather than any workable solutions to the problem it alleges to address. In actuality, it is part of that phalanx of diversions of mind that George Orwell described in the softening of the human mentality in preparation for its total subjugation to a totalitarian state. These include the obsessions with slandering, accusing fellow citizens of all the ills and evils in the universe, the lewd, salacious, sensational, even if viewed from a self-righteous indignation. It is the technique of misdirection.
While the pubic clamors over the allegation of a state senator groping a page, it ignores the fact that its government and its fourth estate are dysfunctional.
The case in question is said to have been reported in February. We say "is said to have been reported" because it is all word of mouth. No one has produced a record of the complaint or just what it accuses. It is said to have been turned over to the Attorney General's office for criminal investigation. In South Dakota, such matters are at the discretion of the officials in mini-Kremlin at Pierre. There is no way for the people to know if their interests and the interests of accountability and justice are being served. No one knows how the AG handled or responded, other than to say it is under investigation. Investigating alleged gropes is tough, we know. There might not be any DNA involved.
Then when the Mark Foley matter heated up, a father is said to have been excited into inquiring more aggressively about his grope allegation. This resulted in letters sent to the accused senator and exchanged between senate officers. A blogger got a hold of one of these letters, did a National Enquirer-type hyping of the fact that something bad was about to break in Pierre, and then published a paragraph from Sen. Moore's letter, which spoke to the need for the allegations to be handled through procedures that guarantee fairness and due process for both sides.
Perhaps, the gossip vine did motivate newspaper journalists into more aggressively digging into the story. Whatever. But now the names of both the accusers and the accused have been revealed and the game is getting rough. The bloggers are complaining that names are revealed and people are being subjected to public humiliation. Brilliant bloggers.
There is a rule in law and, therefore, in journalism that crimes and other things do not happen anonymously. Perpetrators are not anonymous. Victims are not anonymous. Names make news. They make news because they identify the specific and actual. The accused are presumed to have the right to face and respond to their accusers. But, oh my, in South Dakota, the media is being irresponsible and nasty when it spoils the malicious gossip game by citing actual people and actual accusations and tells a real story. Where the hell did the bloggers think their precious story was going to go? To a Mother Goose anthology?
While citizens now have some specific names around which they can weave their malicious conjectures, they also have evidence of how competent and efficient and honest their government is. But we can rest assured that the quality of government will not get mentioned while the bloggers and other gossips congratulate themselves on breaking the story, counting the hits their sites get, and offering their precious opinions, while letting the facts the languish.
It is tempting to point out that we have some high-priority issues in the state like a regressive tax system, closed and repressive government, an alarming number of people without health insurance, an inadequately funded education system, a pubic besieged by sham issues. But given the level of thinking demonstrated by most political blogs in the state, it might be better for us all if they confined themselves to the contemplation of groping allegations and the mean and nasty accusations they will surely assert.
People with some real interest in building the state will have to learn to get their information elsewhere. Actually, they already have.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Education in Districts 2 and 3 and the need for it elsewhere
Or does the Newspeak language of contemporary politics and grammar mix?
Politics have gotten so f#@&ing
stupid of late that one is not merely ashamed at times to be part of South Dakota, but of the whole human race. But that is a reminder, just as is the Hamas control over Palestine, that democracy does not always work out for the best. Sometimes the people screw up. Or are terrifyingly ignorant.
However, we have some self-appointed campaign experts in South Dakota who often posture as informed consultants when they frame their petty, mean, and often absurd political attacks. One of the lastest concerns my district, District 3, which is the product of the Republican legislature gerrymandering the Democrats out of the picture. As a result, District 3 resembles a bull snake trying to have sex with an octopus.
A post on South Dakota War College cites a television feature broadcast by KELO-TV that is one of those side-bar stories about the fact that the two Republican candidates for the State House are father and son Al and David Novstrup. We saw the KELO video truck outside our house last week taping the campaign signs across the street from us because, we assume, they feature signs from the two candidates in juxtaposition (which might be a good name for what a horny bullsnake might try with a coy octopus). KELO did not tape our forest of yard signs, which feature the opposing candidates. The theme of the KELO report was the matter of name recognition and that a Novstrup in the House might be worth two in the Bush-oriented state legislature.
Democratic candidates Ted Kneebone and Tom Black were interviewed and went along with the theme on how they are dealing with the name recognition matter. Ted asked how could anyone forget a name like Kneebone? Tom talked about knocking on doors in the district and getting to meet as many people as possible. Then the story deals with how the Novstrups are trying to project separate identities to the electorate.
SDWC reproduces the entire transcript in its Saturday post
. It follows it with this comment:
It looks like the Dems are trying to insinuate that the Norvstrups [Well, so much for name recognition.) live in the same household, which couldn't be further from the truth. They live across town from each other with their respective spouses..
We cannot for the life of us find any place in the story where the Democrats insinuated anything in the nature of a family stance on issues. Furthermore, KELO, not Democrats, wrote the story, and if there is any implication, it is theirs. But we could not find what qualifies as an insinuation anywhere in the story, although people with a few operational brain cells who have lived on the planet long enough to know the nature of families might make a surmise on their own.
And I might make that surmise on the basis of a performance that the Novstrup family singers, which included Al and David, made at the Brown County Fair when they converged en chorus
on the booth of the Committee for Healthy Families. When they chanted their anti-choice cant, they were clearly on the same page and really sounded like they were singing with the same voice. But we would never insinuate anything from that.
If you need a good example of an insinuation, read this:
The Grapes of Wrath?
One reader reported to me today that they observed State Senator Duane Sutton's daughter at the Gypsy Day parade in Aberdeen wearing an Al Hoerth t-shirt and handing out stickers for same.They were kind of surprised, because they thought she was a member of the Teenage Republicans.Of course, this comes after Isaac Latterell defeated her father in the Republican primary.
Now that is as good an example of insinuation as we can find. It comes from a Sept. 30 posting on SDWC.
This kind of campaigning gets damned tiresome. It is so petty, mean, and ignorant. With the real issues facing South Dakota, we don't need any more campaigning on the level of town-cafe character assassination and malicious gossip. We hope the voters out there recognize that there is one party which bases almost its total campaign on stupid accusations and mean representations about other people. There is a choice.
In South Dakota, education is a perennial issue, largely because the state is at the bottom of the list of 50 states for the way it funds and supports education. Our teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. Many districts are coming up short and having to cut programs and services.
So what is Al Novstrup's answer? Merit pay. On the candidate's forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters he said he has an abiding interest education and would like to see the best teachers get rewarded.
Merit pay has been a favorite topic during the last quarter century among politicians. It has been tried. Why is it still a topic to be proposed? Because it does not work.
Why doesn't it work? Because the vast percentage of teachers do their jobs competently and diligently. When administrators cite some teachers for merit pay, they find that they have created a divisions among their staff and anger and alienation supplants the kind of cooperation and cohesion that is required of a faculty to administer effective educational programs.
We have no doubt that education has problems to solve and needs to meet. It always has. It always will. That's the nature of the educational enterprise. But dividing teachers into groups of superior and inferior and creating alienations never addresses the real problems. Such tactics are a major part of the problems.
South Dakota Districts 2 and 3 have Democratic candidates who can address education with more knowledge and more proven expertise than any slate of candidates in the state.
District 2 Senate candidate Jim Hundstad, now a farmer, taught for many years in Brown County schools before taking charge of the family farm. Rep. Burt Elliott is a current teacher at Aberdeen Central, and is thought so highly of that he was asked to give the commencement address at graduation this past May. Rep. Paul Dennert has farmed all his life, but he has been active in 4-H and school business and is well steeped in the processes and programs of effective education. Paul is also the County's resident expert on state finances and budget.
In District 3, Senate candidate Al Hoerth just retired as a teacher at Aberdeen Central, and is well respected by students and parents. That just might be why young Ms. Sutton was working in his behalf at the Gypsy Day Parade. Ted Kneebone is a retired librarian and worked last at the South Dakota School for the Visually Handicapped, where he taught and worked closely with the special education programs. Tom Black is not a teacher, but trained as one.
In education, we have a lot to talk about and many people in Districts 2 and 3 who are qualified, able, and willing to address these issues with vast knowledge, intelligence, and respect.
We cannot help but contemplate what a change in atmosphere and attitude can be brought to Pierre if they all got elected. We might get some important things done. Like straightening out the bull snake and chasing the octopus back to its appropriate habitat.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Just because you can't fix stupid doesn't mean you have to endorse it
At one time I wrote columns for the Aberdeen American News. I did so fully aware that it was designated by the press review at the old Northwest Database, one of the first online bulletin boards, as the worst newspaper of its size in the upper Midwest. It earned that epithet not only because it sacrificed its editorial integrity to its small-minded politics, but because it was so doggedly incompetent. Over time, it has had many competent workers, but they have never been able to outweigh what seem to be the glandular discharges of its core battery of duds. Someone there propagates the idea that incompetence and mental insufficiency somehow speaks to and for the loyal readers, and it does that by appointing editors who insure that any piece that threatens to assert some intelligence will never make it into print.
I quite writing columns for the American News after it allowed another of its columnists to violate the most sacrosanct rule of journalism by allowing him to misquote and falsely portray what someone else had written elsewhere. The editors response was that, well, it was his opinion of what was said and he expressed it. Quoting and paraphrasing what someone says is not a matter of opinion. One either gets it accurate and clear or one doesn't. In this case one didn't. But that rule of journalism seems far beyond the ken of the collective intelligence at the American News.
And I admit I quit for another reason. Professional ego was at stake. As a local columnist, I was being identified with some of that incredibly incompetent thinking and writing and general intellectual failure that is the stuff that the editors at the American News think is what their readers clamor for. And when I quit writing for the American News, I let my subscription lapse. I don't know what its going on there. That is like not living next door to a feed lot. I enjoy the freedom from stench.
But occasionally one of the American News exercises
in stupid is noted by another newspaper. This time an editorial was cited at the Rapid City Journal's web log Mount Blogmore
under the title "Aberdeen disaster-aid editorial." Mount Blogmore posted links that gave access to the American News editorial and the material it was reacting to.
The Aberdeen American News editorial on Sunday, Oct. 6, was headed "Get facts straight beforre slinging political mud." It was objecting to the fact that the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., had issued a press release on the fact that there are a significant number of farmers in the Great Plains who are near-perpetual recipients of disaster aid. The news packet from EWG specifies that South Dakota ranks third behind Texas and North Dakota for payments to operations with chronic disasters, like 11 or more years out of the last 21. Actually, there are some farmers in South Dakota who have received disaster payments for 15 out of the last 21 years. The state ranks second in the number of farmers who received such aid in at least 11 of the last 21 years.
The American News editorial claims that EWG slimed South Dakota farmers in presenting its statistics and did not look at the facts. And it ends it editorial with the threat that if we don't continue the disaster-aid payments, we will all end up paying more for food.
The Aberdeen American News misrepresents and misquotes the EWG news releases. EWG goes to great and careful length to support disaster-aid payments to farmers, but it questions those whose operations are in a chronic state of disaster. And most farmers will tell you that they resent operations which make more from agricultural welfare programs than they do the production of crops and livestock. But the American News chose to ignore that part of the news packet. Instead it goes into its petulant, stupid whine about maligning South Dakota farmers.
It also ignores the fact that the farmers who are the chronic recipients of disaster-aid are listed
by name, the number of years they have received the aid out of the last 21, and the total amount they have received. In South Dakota, 2,550 farmers received disaster payments for 11 or more years between 1985 and 2005 totaling $266,038,999. You can click on the link provided above and see who they are and how much they have received. And, yes, you might find friends and neighbors among them.
EWG did not slime anyone. It laid out some disturbing facts. And it provides information as to why many Congress people, both Republican and Democrats from urban areas, are under pressure from their constituents to cut some of the excesses in farm aid. Put this information together with the fact that $1.3 billion in farm subsidies last year went to people who don't farm.
Now this next statement is one of the type that the Aberdeen American News, its columnists, and its editors have the greatest trouble with. It is called a qualification. It goes like this: EWG is not against disaster aid; neither am I. What I fear is that legitimate family-run operations are being lumped with operations that farm the government more than they do the land. Congress is having trouble coming up with disaster-aid legislation. The National Farmers Union is pressing for it to help those who have been damaged severely by drought. But what is making it difficult for that legislation is the knowledge among many lawmakers that so much of what they appropriate seems to be subsidizing operations that simply are not viable agricultural enterprises. They survive on constant payments by the government. Urban taxpayers see money going to farm welfare when then have schools and infrastructure in need of attention and help.
I posted it elsewhere. Ronald Reagan brought this attitude to form when he chided the welfare queen driving to the welfare office in her pink Cadillac to pick up her welfare check. Well, in urban centers, there is an image of the man in the big hat and cowboy boots driving to the farm services office in his white Town Car to pick up his subsidy check.
In order to keep the farm economy stabilized and to keep farms from being abandoned to corporate entities, we need farm programs that deal with the real issues of agriculture.
What we don't need is a bunch of raging incompetents misrepresenting the discussion and facts about something as important as agricultural policy. There is no professional excuse for misrepresenting the EWG report in the way that the Aberdeen American News did. The general tenor of malicious and stupid politics today is fed by reports like that. The democracy is dependent upon journalism that is honest, accurate, and at least minimally competent.
The Aberdeen newspaper has new owners. We wonder if they expect reasonable levels of journalistic competence.
They could contribute much to the quality of our democracy if they did.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Saving Northern State University
Last week was one of those weeks of the kind that was rough when I was half the age I am now. It was preceded by an intensive week of 16-hour days catching up on and finishing an editorial project due Oct. 1. I got it submitted electronically at 1 a.m. Oct. 2, and then at 6 a.m. left for a trip that involved more academic work. It was busy, hectic, but enjoyable because I got to visit a number of universities and the Henderson Mine that is in competition with Homestake for being the site of the national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory.
During one of the low-key moments, I was on a campus with some time to spend before an appointment when I was invited to sit in on a rehearsal of a concert wind ensemble. The small-world syndrome was at play. The ensemble included a player who attended Northern for a time and the conductor had applied for a job there, but was turned down. That rehearsal was a revisit to the reasons a university campus can be such an exciting and invigorating place. For an hour and half, I watched some of the most intensive and productive work I have witnessed in some time.
First of all, the players were selected by audition, so they had the essentials of musicianship under command. Then they were expected to come to rehearsal knowing the music and giving it their total concentration. The conductor worked through four compositions during the session. He would stop the group, say a few words about what he wanted refined or played differently, refer to the measure in the arrangement, count off the tempo, and they played immediately. Usually, they played what he asked the first time. It was both an exhausting and exhilirating experience to see people work that hard and that successfully.
After the rehearsal was over, a colleague I was with commented that if professors held that level of expectation and worked students that hard at Northern, they would be considered abusive and unresponsive to student needs.
NSU experienced an 8 percent decline in enrollments this year. It has been in a trend of decline for some years. The level of expectations and the work required of students has much to do with its reputation and the reason students come there.
During the 20 years I taught there, I was well aware of the culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-achievement that pervades the NSU campus. However, students and faculty with talent, purpose, and the desire to learn and work kept the anti-achievement forces in check. Still, I recall vividly a commencement address by a highly respected member of the Northern faculty in which the humanities requirements for the liberal arts degree were derided and ridiculed. I recall those Friday afternoons when the drinking age was 18 and students had refrigerators stocked with beer in their dorm rooms, and the beer breath in the classroom from the few who showed up could make your eyes water. And I recall when, as an officer in a faculty organization, I was asked if our legal counsel could help two young women in a residence hall terminate their rental agreements. They were harassed by other students because they spent time in their rooms studying. Their floor mates said that by being prepared for classes, they were making life difficult for other students. We got them moved out and into an off-campus apartment, but that did not end the problem. Some of the students from the residence hall converged outside their apartment and rang the door bell and made a commotion in the neighborhood that did not end until they were hauled off in police cruisers. And I can remember the campus being stunned when two major companies declined to come to an employment fair. They said they had not found the campus to supply the level of talent and knowledge that they required.
Perhaps, the most difficult moment I recall came at a college recruiting fair in Sioux Falls. Various colleges and universities put up tables and booths in a large convention center so that high school students and their parents could shop around and talk with faculty from the schools. Groups of giggling and smirking students kept going by our booth making comments about Northern State Junior High School. Despite the credible work of faculty and students at Northern, its reputation was being formed by the anti-achievers and the perpetual partiers. The moment was a stunning and revealing one for the faculty who were present.
Northern's primary problem is the Board of Regents. The Board is composed of political appointees who hold the requisite views for the party in power, but few have any knowledge or experience of how education actually works. In a word, most of them are bean counters. They hire administrators to carry out their dictates to run the campus like a business, not to lead it to a high level of academic performance. Over the years I have been connected with Northern, the programs have been cut and the faculty treated like low-level academic serfs.
In order to generate tuition to keep the university running, the school accepts almost anybody who applies. Although it, like its sister universities, states entrance requirements, it ignores them. ACT scores, high school transcripts, and grade point averages are set as criteria for college admission, but they are overlooked in favor of filling classrooms with relatively warm bodies that can pay tuition and fees.
As a faculty who was involved in the design and administration of placement tests for students, I worked with the statistics. In one freshman class I recall, 54 percent of the incoming freshmen did not meet the admission requirements stated by the university. The absurd part is that the Board of Regents complain about how many incoming students need remedial and development work because of inadequate high school preparation. They set a practice of accepting anyone who can pay tuition, to subsidize the "real" students, and then they contend that the high schools are not doing their job. If the high schools have provided a fair assessment of student performance and potential on their transcripts, they have done their job. Another ploy of the regents is that they admit hordes of students who need developmental course work, but they put a limit on how many developmental programs can be offered. Consequently, a great number of students who are not prepared for college-level work are admitted into college courses.
However, in most places, students who have not performed well in high school have a route to college. They generally attend community college classes to bring their language, math, and science skills up to a level that permits them to enter college-level classes with some chance of success.
At Northern, we offered remedial classes. Students resent deeply being placed into a "bonehead" English or math class. So we tried the laboratory route to try to deal with the resentment and obstinence that being stigmatized by the "remedial" label creates. Every scheme we tried was crippled at the outset by the limitation of funds. One of our more successful programs had regular faculty on duty in the writing laboratory to oversee the work of assistants who worked with the students. When it comes to writing, we know that a great majority of students improve to the college level if they are required to write every day and if their writing is reviewed by competent instructors. That program devolved into ineffectiveness when the university decided it could not afford to assign regular faculty to supervise the instruction.
When regular faculty supervision was dropped, the instruction was left to other students who often did not engage the needs. One student told me her sessions in the writing laboratory were taken up with her tutor bragging ab0ut the fact that she was teaching other college students in writing.
The drag-down is that underprepared students are admitted into regular college classes. If the faculty maintains high standards of performance and gives grades that actually reflect student performance, they are rebuked for their teaching by administrators and complained about by students who can't handle the work. And so, they dummy down the courses. One of my advisees who wanted to major in science told me that in a year of a college course at Northern, she had not covered any material that she had not had in high school.
That conflict between bringing the underprepared up to par and meeting the levels of better students is Northern's major problem.
Many schools in the past quarter century have raised their standards by establishing enrollment caps. They do not admit students who show no record of academic success or interest, and they do not hesitate to flunk out those who can't or won't do the work. But when a school is financially tied to admitting the underprepared, it does have some obligation to offer them a chance.
Northern is not to be faulted for admitting students with poor high school records. It has traditionally been an institution that has offered students of meager backgrounds some knowledge and skills that permit them to compete in the larger national community. While admissions policies set the stage for academic success, they are not the only factor. The reputation of a college or university is not built upon the level at which students enter, but the competitive level they have achieved when they graduate. And that means offering enough courses at a level of instruction that enable students to be competitive with graduates from the more prestigious institutions.
When Northern graduates are vigorously recruited and show a high level of matriculation into graduate schools, the university's reputation will change. For most of my tenure at Northern, I spent many hours writing letters of reference for our education majors who were going into language arts instruction. They were considered competent, well-prepared, and were sought after throughout the nation. Our students were placed from California to Massachusetts, and no institution had as many graduates teaching in South Dakota schools as Northern. But problems at the administrative level soon trickled down to the faculty level, and a reputation that had been built up over for almost a century was wiped out in a decade.
As suggested above, Northern has not had leadership that has promoted genuine academic achievement among faculty or students. One of the recent presidents believed that image was everything. While he was tinkering with staffing and programs that were hidden by public relations programs, he insisted that "you are what you appear to be." One history professor earned the president's everlasting ire when he said, "And we appear to be liars." The fact is that in education, public relations and image cannot disguise the actual level of achievement of faculty and students.
Savvy guidance counselors tell students and parents what the tell-tale signs of an inferior institution are:
1. A faculty that competes for eminence by demeaning other faculty, whether on the individual, departmental, or division level. Insitutions with faculty who do not respect each other and engage in back-biting and fractious politics are never academically strong.
2. A student body that shows little sign of academic activity. Check out the library and the computer laboratories, the counselors say. If they are busy, that means students are working. If they are sparsely populated, that means not much intellectual activity is taking place.
3. Where do the school guides rank the insitution and on what basis? NSU ranks in the fourth tier of the U.S. News ranking, for example. That means it ranks with the bottom one-fourth of U.S. colleges.
Northern has been a valuable asset to South Dakota and the region. It has served as a cultural beacon and educational opportunity. It distinguished itself recently when it helped many of the 800 employees of Imprimus, a computer peripherals manufacturer, develop skills and credentials that made it possible for them to find good employment when the company closed its plant in Aberdeen and moved to the Pacific Rim. It performed a similar service during the agricultural crisis of the late 1980s when many farm families were displaced and had to reestablish their lives on a different basis.
The question with Northern is all academic. It simply needs to let the achievers, not the connivers, set the pace and determine its reputation. Then students will come.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Old professors never die; they end up in mine shafts (but maybe not Homestake)
Colorado has a higher education corridor. Within a distance of 65 miles between Denver and Ft. Collins along I-25 are three major state universities: Colorado State in Ft. Collins, the Universitiy of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and the University of Colorado in Boulder. In Denver itself is the Auraria Campus which is home to a community college, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and departments of the University of Colorado. West from I-25 on I-70, just a few miles outside of Denver, are a couple of routes to Golden, home of the Colorado School of Mines. About 50 miles west of Denver just off of I-70 on route 40 is Empire, Colorado, where the Henderson Mine (photo above) is situated.
The Henderson Mine is the competitor with South Dakota's Homestake Goldmine, which the state now owns, for the site for the national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. Homestake and Henderson have been announced as finalists as choices for the site by the National Science Foundation and were each given a half million dollars to come up with detailed proposals for such a laboratory.
The National Science Foundation had originally planned to announce the site in December, but has postponed that decision until early in 2007. Last week it announced that it would accept proposals for other sites until January 9, 2007, and make its announcement of the final selection in the spring. In actuality that last call for proposals is to make sure that all factors that have to be taken into consideration for locating a single research and experiment site are brought to the attention of the Foundation and given thorough consideration.
When the DUSEL was first proposed by scientists who were using Homestake, it had no competition. A long list of factors made it an obvious and advantageous site. But the State of South Dakota got embroiled in negotiations regarding liabilities with Homestake's owners, Barrick Gold of Canada. The owners shut off the pumps that keep the mine dry and it started filling up with water. Most of the scientists who had supported Homestake realized that they had better look for other sites if they were ever to carry out the experiments and the research that require a deep underground facility. And so the competition was opened up with Homestake and Henderson being selected as finalists.
Homestake has been turned over to South Dakota and is under the supervision of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, headed by Dave Snyder, which has responsibility for its development. The Authority has solicited experiments from scientists and is working on a proposal details. Sioux Falls philanthropist T. Denny Stanford has pledged $70 million to Homestake if it is selected as the DUSEL site. Some scientists have suggested that the Stanford offer makes them wary. The DUSEL proposal for Homestake has been largely touted as an economic development project for South Dakota.
Many nations, including Canada, have established deep underground laboratories, and scientists fear that the kind of delay with legal issues and shaft flooding by Barrick Gold that obstructed the Homestake plans will cause further delay when private interests with economic development or political agendas get involved. The development time line is a crucial issue to scientists with experiments and research that need the underground laboratory.
The history of the development of the Henderson Mine proposal contrasts sharply with South Dakota's Homestake proposal. The Henderson plans are being formulated by a consortium of interested parties called the Colorado Alliance for Underground Science and Engineering (CAUSE). Cause consists of mine owner Phelps Dodge corporation, faculty from Colorado State University, whose physicist Bob Wilson is coordinating the project, the Colorado School of Mines, and a nonprofit group called the Arapahoe Project. The Arapahoe Project has contacts with scientists from other prominent university systems in places as far off as New York and California. CAUSE has a time line in place for the laboratory that calls for construction to begin in 2010 and the lab to be operational in 2015.
The proposals asked for by the NSF necessarily deal with matters of geology, engineering, and technical aspects of the laboratory, but the scientists emphasize that intellectual environment plays a huge role. Research universities along Colorado's higher education corridor have taken a leadership role in developing the Henderson plans. In South Dakota, the state's professors and scientists are not much involved. South Dakota ranks at the bottom of states in regard to its support of research, and this factor has a huge aspect for scientists who want to get on with their work.
CAUSE has made careful connections with the academic and scientific communities in developing its proposals. In contrast, the South Dakota proposal is largely a political enterprise with the governor using it prominently in his re-election campaign.
In a story by Pat Ferrier of the Ft. Collins Coloradoan, reviewers of the Henderson plan were quoted as saying it offered a "first rate scientific and engineering research program." Dave Snyder of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority declined to comment on prospects for the Homestake proposal other than to say work was continuing. However, rather than comment about how much South Dakota universities could contribute to the program, he said that the selection of Homestake as the DUSEL site could "enhance our universities and even the K-12 population of students."
South Dakota has neither the history or the current attitude regarding intellectual work that makes it very attractive for intellectual workers. On the other hand, the Colorado higher education corridor offers the physical access to higher education institutions with vigorous research programs, and it offers the intellectual and cultural environment that supports and augments research and intellectual work.
From the standpoint of the people who do the academic research and work, Homestake seems to have been flooded out of contention.