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A View From The Cheap Seats On Noem, Her Staff And Conflicts With Reporters

We decided to settle it without fisticuffs. Which was a good thing, especially for me.

My last fistfight was 56 years ago. And I lost. It was my first clear indication that I was destined to be slinger of words, not fists— a talker, not a fighter.

And I do talk, sometimes more than I should, in an age when “talking” is often really typing, as it was when I typed a tweet that energized and sort of aggravated my former Rapid City Journal newsroom colleague Jeremy Fugleberg.

My tweet was about his tweet, which was about an unwise group email that a senior adviser to Gov. Kristi Noem — Maggie Seidel — sent to a bunch of us reporters critical of some reporting by the Associated Press. I still say “us” when I “talk” about the South Dakota news crew, because I still consider myself part of the gang, even in my more-inclined-to-fish state of semi-retirement.

And I care about the profession as it is practiced here and the people who practice it as much as I ever did. More, perhaps, because I have more time to consider it, and how important it is. It’s possible, too, that I might have a more nuanced perspective on some things than I did when I was engaged in the hair-on-fire grind of daily news.

That is an honorable, essential, not-so-revered way to make a not-at-all-lucrative living. And Fugleberg is deep into the grind these days. He’s much younger than I am. Bigger, too. Which means he’d have the edge in that fistfight we didn’t have, and we’re never going to have, of course.

But a guy’s got to get into a column somehow. And it was kind of a fun writing prop, don’t you think?

Covering a disease that’s no joking matter

What’s not so fun is the coronavirus and the serious business of governmental leadership in a time when more South Dakotans each day are sickened — some of them critically, some of them fatally — by COVID-19. What reporters do in this difficult time is not quite as important or quite as difficult as what the governor and other leaders must do.

But it’s pretty important. Pretty difficult, too.

Fugleberg felt, with some justification, that I was making things more difficult in questioning him about the tweet he sent out about Seidel’s email, along with a copy of the email.

While he didn’t criticize Seidel specifically, I think it was clearly implied, and with justification. He also included a previous group email she had sent out critical of a previous story by KELO TV.

Challenging Seidel on that is fine. I just asked in a reply tweet to Fugleberg if he had considered criticizing Seidel personally rather than going with the public forum of Twitter. Sometimes I think we share too much on social media. And in that, “we” includes me.

Fugleberg didn’t much care for my inquiry. He noted that he had spoken with Seidel previously (not on this issue but on others). He also offered me a suggestion: “Noem's people are just fine policing journalists themselves. My suggestion for you: don't help.”

Point taken. I suppose I had it coming. And it’s true that “Noem’s people,” in particular Seidel and recently transplanted Communications Director Ian Fury, seem overly focused on policing reporters, which never does any good and is often counterproductive.

In the string of tweet replies to Jonathan’s tweet presenting Seidel’s email, my brother, Terry, made an observation: “Kneip, Janklow, Mickelson, Miller and Janklow again all called me when they thought I’d done them wrong. Times change, I guess.”

Terry’s words have historical weight. He still holds the record for most South Dakota legislative sessions covered (40), although Bob Mercer might be closing in. And it’s true. Bill Janklow called to yell, usually. George Mickelson could yell but usually spoke forcefully a level or two below the top of his lungs. And his staffers also reached out on his behalf, as did Janklow’s on occasion.

I don’t remember ever getting an unsolicited call from Walter Dale Miller, or from one of his staffers. But I was mostly engaged in East River agriculture coverage for the Argus during Miller’s two years as governor, with politics secondary.

Mike Rounds and Dennis Daugaard? They would usually handle concerns, to me at least, about news stories through staffers.

Rounds had more concerns than Daugaard, as I recall. I don’t remember any of them, or any on their staff, firing off group emails to reporters picking on one or the other or praising national writers.

Hey, Gov. Janklow is on the phone, and mad

Like most reporters, I had some shouting matches with Janklow. And knowing some of his staff, I’d guess we had prickly exchanges a time or two. Especially during his early years as governor, Janklow regularly challenged reporters in front of other reporters, usually pretty specifically and sometimes during televised news conferences. He sometimes trashed reporters behind their backs, too.

The trick was to not take it seriously, or at least personally enough to let it affect your coverage and your working relationship.

Usually things got worked out, most of the time outside of any public platforms. But then, there wasn’t Twitter back then — although had there been, Janklow would have been a tweet monster. If I had something to say back then, I said it in a news story or a column or my rambling reporter’s notebook feature, with time to reflect and a series of editorial eyes looking on before a word was printed.

Later in my career, I’d say some of it on a blog, too. But even that required more time and more thought than a quick-draw tweet. And when I started blogging, talented colleagues Bill Harlan and Denise Ross were great sounding boards.

There’s danger in the autonomous immediacy of the tweet, or even the retweet. Donald Trump proves it every day. There’s also amazing coverage in real time by real reporters. I’m regularly astounded by how some of these younger, tech-savvy, tweet-inclined reporters cover a complicated meeting with a burst of tweets, sometimes stretching out for a half hour, hour or more.

I couldn’t do that. And it’s real news, real time.

I’m impressed by Bob Mercer’s tweeting, too. He manages to mix competent tweet flow with old-school caution in ways that instruct as they inform.

Sometimes these days I look at things really good reporters at all levels tweet beyond straight news coverage and cringe. But as I said to Jeremy, I’m an old timer, maybe sticking my nose in places it doesn’t belong.

Of course, isn’t that what reporters do? Even if sometimes that place is their own tent? And aren’t conversations about things like this good? I think so.

Considering the email that shouldn’t have been sent

I certainly didn’t think I was out of line when I emailed outside the media tent to Seidel and told her what a bad idea her group email was. In it, she criticized, in front of many other reporters’ eyes, established professional AP reporters for ‘inaccurate claims,’ while not listing the inaccuracies.

Of course, she and Noem are mostly irritated by the anonymously sourced perspectives on Noem’s alleged infatuation with winning a place on the Trump team or a future White House bid, and how she’s going about that with D.C. style staffers, including Seidel. There were also details about her growing political relationship with former Trump campaign staffer and all-around obnoxious guy Corey Lewandowski.

This is unconfirmed stuff from anonymous sourcing. Some of it makes sense to me and seems likely. Some of it doesn’t. But much of it was reported earlier by Tom Lawrence, an old news pro with solid reporting skills. And the AP guys added sources to what Lawrence provided and must have felt comfortable with the results.

Speculation is part of the political game. Noem and her staff might as well get used to it. As for her future, well, I don’t think you could haul Bryon Noem to D.C. with a John Deere. And during her eight years in Congress, Noem sure spent a lot of time running home to South Dakota, for someone who loved D.C. so much.

I tend to doubt Noem will surprise us with any monumental political moves over the next 2 1/2 years of her term. Bill Janklow liked to call being governor of South Dakota “the best job on earth,” because of the everyday impacts it can have on people’s lives.

I think Noem would agree. But it’s also clear that she misses the D.C. sparkle at least a bit. And she fires up the speculation every time she appears on a Fox channel. That’s especially true when she’s not granting private interviews to South Dakota news outlets.

As I said Thursday morning on In the Moment with my friend and colleague Lori Walsh, Noem has been pretty accessible with daily news conferences on COVID-19. That’s admirable. And she has reason to appear on Fox. It’s the president’s channel. And a relationship with the president can be good for a governor, and that governor’s state.

This state, by the way, is where 62 percent of the voters in 2016 picked Trump. And lots of those Trump voters, maybe most, are Fox viewers at one time or another.

Still, there are times when Noem seems positively enchanted by what my late lawyer friend Pat Duffy used to call the “love light” being shined on her by Fox News. And I’m OK with that, as long as she and Seidel and Fury don’t forget the news reporters who matter most at times like these: our own.

The people who live here. The people who know us. The people who are us.

So, yes, I think there's a better way for reporters to maintain working relationships with executive-branch staffers than fighting over public forums like Twitter. But there’s also a better way for staffers to work with reporters than by blasting one or two through mass emails.

When you praise Hemingway’s writing, please make it Ernest

Particularly unfortunate in the email was Seidel’s decision to hold national conservative opinion writer Mollie Hemingway out as a journalism example that South Dakota reporters — real reporters, in the daily grind, trying to present facts not opinions — should follow. There is a difference between reporters and commentators.

As I said to Seidel, in trying to refute the “Noem-goes-all-conservative-media” insinuation, she strengthened it by praising coverage from a national conservative opinion writer.

To her credit, after I sent my email, Seidel asked for a phone exchange. I won’t share many details, but we discussed the sometimes-bristly relationship between Noem and some of the reporters covering the COVID-19 story in South Dakota.

I said relations between South Dakota governors and local reporters tend to get rubbed raw at some point, especially during hard news cycles. There were the Janklow brawls, of course. And for a year or two when Mike Rounds was governor, he was so displeased with some of my coverage that I was about as likely to get a solo interview with him as I was to win Powerball.

Conflict is part of the game. And how it’s handled by both sides matters. What Seidel did with the email blast was a mistake. And I told her that, directly.

I’m still trying to figure out what I think of offering that email up for public view on Twitter. Fugleberg points out that it was hardly a private email. Seidel used a mass email to reporters to attack a couple of them. A friend who isn’t a reporter said it was justified because people outside the reporter pool need to know how Noem and her staff operate.

I see those points. They’re valid, I guess. But do most people outside the reporter pool understand, or care? And does it advance the ultimate goal of better news coverage on a life-and-death issue, or simply intensify the conflict? I’m not so sure.

I am sure it’s worth talking about, inside the journalism tent and out. I know Fugleberg well enough from our time together in the Journal newsroom to ask. And he responded in a couple of ways I understood, and one that bothered me, a little, when he suggested I was helping the other team.

It was one of those Twitter things that might have taken off, and even gotten mean, with neither side really understanding why. It happens. A lot. But it didn’t.

As social-media exchanges go, our conflict was mild and brief. And Fugleberg encourage me to reach out for an actual chat, to “catch up.” I did and we did, by phone for a half hour or so Wednesday afternoon, as I was puttering along on gravel roads somewhere between Belle Fourche and Bear Butte.

What started out as a bird-watching, fly fishing trip to Crow Creek near Beulah evolved because of muddy stream flows and access problems into a 20-mph meander through ranch country on narrow gravel roads. The passing landscape offered perspective to me and perhaps — even through fiber optics — somehow to Fugleberg.

We had a great chat, about this particular issue and its complexities but also about news in general and his family and staying sane in a time of COVID-19. I think I learned some things. I hope he did, too.

As we talked, I recalled how much I liked him back when we worked together, and what a great future I figured he had, one he is now living and building upon. And he spoke kindly of some of the things about journalism he learned from me and still finds useful.

So, it was good, that phone call, that catching up, a comfortable conversation of significance.

I wasn’t surprised, though. Things tend to go better when you speak through your mouth instead of your fingers.