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The most transparent governor in South Dakota history? Well, only at the “appropriate time”

Kevin Woster

It’s no fun being called a liar.

Especially when it’s the governor of your state doing the calling.

To be fair, that’s not exactly what Gov. Kristi Noem did after I was quoted extensively in a South Dakota News Watch story criticizing the transparency, or lack of it, in her administration.

She didn’t say “Kevin Woster is a liar.” She simply implied it in a tweet about the story: “This story is a LIE.” Apparently the all-caps for “lie” was intended to show you it was a really big lie, not just a regular old lie.

Or maybe it was yelling. People seem to yell with all-caps words on social media a lot these days.

Noem then said in her tweet: “It’s one thing for the media to attack me for policies that they disagree with. It’s another thing entirely to just make stuff up.”

Before I go further, let me swear on the First Amendment that I wasn’t just making stuff up. And I didn’t lie. To lie is to intentionally make a false statement, knowing it is false. That’s a lot different than saying something that isn’t true or isn’t entirely true while believing that it is true.

I believe what I said in the New Watch story is the truth, based on decades of experience covering the news in South Dakota. Was it the whole truth, perfectly told? That’s hard to say. The whole truth is tough. And nobody’s perfect. I’m certainly not. Neither are the governor and her staff.

And the truth is, she and her staff have been and are being far from perfect in implementing the kind of transparency in government that Noem promised during her 2018 campaign.

Which is what the News Watch story by Bart Pfankuch was all about.

I was just one of a handful of sources in the story. Solid sources. Credible sources. They included Mark Watson, the editor of the Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, Dave Bordewyk, executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association and Michael Card, a political science professor emeritus at the University of South Dakota.

All talked about a more limited access environment for news reporters under Gov. Kristi Noem. All speak from many years of experience. I was the first source in the story and was quoted and paraphrased a number of times. I’m not sure if the governor thinks all of us were telling lies or it’s just me. She didn’t differentiate.

It wasn’t just Noem, either. Ian Fury, her director of communications, noted on Twitter — where he seems to spend a fair amount of time — that the “primary source for the article is longtime semi-retired reporter Kevin Woster.”

Actually he wrote “ @KevinWoster,” which is what you do on Twitter, er, X, as it’s now called, to drag someone into a Twitter exchange. I was at a Woster family reunion out on the Missouri and didn’t drag. Or even notice it. But a friend pointed it out.

Remembering the days when writing a story on GF&P was a lot simpler

Fury called the News Watch story a “hit piece” and said the narrative was “a total crock.” He also specifically labeled as a “total BS narrative” a portion of the News Watch story where I said I had never seen such reticence among state Game, Fish & Parks Department employees to talk to the news media, or such fear of losing their jobs if they did talk and said the wrong thing.

And Pfankuch quoted me further: “I think the agency today is the least open, and its employees are the most worried about their jobs that I can remember.”

I still think that is true. And I’m looking back over decades of coverage. Coverage I loved doing. I’ve covered many areas of news over the years, but most of my reporting has been on natural resources and politics/government.

I wrote my first wildlife story about a cooperative project between SDSU and GF&P on paddlefish n the summer of 1974, while I was in college. And I’m lucky to still be writing GF&P stories today, although certainly not as many.

Here’s the way it used to work most of the time for me in covering Game, Fish & Parks: I’d get a story idea. I’d make a call or two or stop by an office or two. I’d do an interview or two or three or more. I’d write a story.

Crazy, huh?

Sure, there were times when people would clam up on controversial issues, when access was more restricted. But that wasn’t the general way of things. It helped, too, of course, to develop a relationship of respect over many years of coverage.

At one time I knew pretty much everybody in GF&P leadership in Pierre, in the four GF&P regions and most of the conservation officers and fish and game biologists across the state. I had phone numbers for most of these people — work and home. And when cell phones became common, I had cell-phone numbers for many of them.

People usually picked up. They usually talked. Usually it was on the record. And that was how a lot of reporters were treated, not just me. That’s not the way it is now. Now pretty much all interview requests have to go through GF&P’s communications office in Pierre. It’s policy.

During previous administrations I kept in touch with the public information folks at GF&P, too. They were great for background on issues, for proposing story ideas and for suggesting the best people within the agency to interview for a given story.

They sent out regular press releases, wrote or edited stories in the GF&P Conservation Digest. And sometimes I’d interview them about a story. But they typically preferred to send me on to the staffer with more knowledge and more direct work experiences on a given issue or program or project.

There were times on certain contentious issues when a designated spokesperson would handle media inquiries. Early on during the initial establishment of mountain lion seasons, for example, there tended to be a limited number of GF&P news sources. But they were good ones, with wildlife management experience and authority in the agency.

Mike Kintigh, then regional manager for GF&P in Rapid City, and John Kanta, then regional game manager, became the go-to guys for lion comments.

Looking for news and finding a “designated spokesperson”

I had both of their cell numbers. And when I’d call, they’d pick up and talk on the record, sometimes in the evening or on weekends if a lion story broke. And they did break. Regularly.

Many conservation officers were the same way. Their numbers were in the state hunting and fishing guides, along with the numbers of regional fish and game managers and law enforcement supervisors. And I’d often use those numbers to get interviews.

The numbers are still in those guides, although a reporter’s chance of getting an interview by using them these days is slim.

Fury admitted as much to Pfankuch, saying that GF&P’s policy under Noem is that reporters’ questions must go to designated spokespeople for the agency. That’s the policy across state government, in fact.

There has been some of that policy for years in state government. But it my experiences the public-information officers generally referred reporters to other sources within the agency, rather than speaking on the record themselves.

Now the PIOs seem to be the sources much of the time.

For GF&P, that generally means that conservation officers and fisheries biologists and wildlife mangers and other experts in their fields will not grant interviews. At least not without approval from the communications folks first.

Some of that has been done in the past. Now a lot if it is being done.

Most interview requests from reporters are channeled through designated spokespeople like Nick Harrington, the communications manager for GF&P. Harrington joined the department in September of 2018 as a digital content strategist. He became communications manager in March of 2021. He oversees a communications staff of four.

In an email response to my email on the policy, Harrington wrote:

“We are fortunate to have highly knowledgeable staff throughout our department, many of whom may be asked to assist with interview requests on specific topics of their expertise. GFP staff are also dedicated members of their communities, which means many will develop relationships with reporters in their communities.

“When a reporter contacts one of these staff directly, they are asked to share this request with myself so that GFP may respond as appropriate. It is wholly within my core job duties to respond to media inquiries – it is not within the core job duties of staff in the field. This organization is so that they have the flexibility to do their jobs, and they trust me to do mine.”

That makes some sense as a policy, if it’s handled with discretion and applied in a case-by-case way rather than a blanket imposition, Sometimes it’s fine for a public-information officer to handle a media request for an interview. Sometimes the request requires something more. Someone more. An expert in a given field, one of those “highly knowledgeable staff” that Harrington mentioned in his email.

Most of the time, I want to talk to those staffers, not PIOs. And I want to really talk, rather than exchange emails.

I also note that Harrington writes that GF&P may respond to reporter contacts “as appropriate.” I’m not quite sure what that means.

Fury used similar language, “at the appropriate time,” with Pfankuch in describing when Noem speaks to the media.

To me, “as appropriate” or “the appropriate time” should mean anytime a working reporter seeks information or interviews. Used and interpreted otherwise, it can easily be misused.

Then there’s the argument that the current process, which is unlike any I’ve ever experienced with GF&P, leaves the wildlife professionals free to do their jobs. Again, that notion makes some sense, but is also flawed.

Harrington seems to be a good communications staffer. He is apparently a talented and committed outdoorsman. And if I read one of his social-media pages right, he has a wildlife degree from SDSU. Here’s the problem: He’s not a fish expert. He’s not a pheasant expert. He’s not a parks expert. He’s not a boating safety or invasive species expert. GF&P has plenty of such experts, and for decades they were free to share their expertise and perspectives with the public through news reporters.

It worked pretty well. Really well, I’d say.

“Censorship by PIO” sounds familiar in South Dakota these days

Unless Harrington can answer every question a reporter has without consulting an expert in the agency, he has to take time away from those professionals doing their work to explain or clarify things to him, so he can then explain them to a reporter.

It’s a lot more effective for a reporter to talk to the actual source and be able to ask questions and follow-up questions. Apparently that process is worrisome, these days, at least.

And it’s not just in South Dakota. Reporters in other states are finding themselves pushed to deal with public information officers rather than the agency specialist they would prefer. In his story, Pfankuch referred to a term used to describe this trend by the journalism trade group the Society of Professional Journalists: “censorship by PIO.”

I saw more of the PIO push across state government in the last decade or so of my full-time news work. Until I read the News Watch story, I’d never heard the term censorship by PIO. But it seems like a fair description of what’s happening in Game, Fish & Parks these days.

Having said that, I admit that I do sometimes still see live TV interviews or newspaper stories with GF&P staffers, not always limited to public information officers. Reporters also have access to GF&P staffers when those staffers speak before the GF&P Commission at its regular meetings, which are valuable sources of news.

And I give GF&P credit for doing a lot to expand its online presence and improve its website in really creative ways. It’s amazing what you can find on GF&Ps social media platforms and the website. It’s helpful to outdoors lovers and valuable to the state.

So that’s all good. It’s just not good enough.

Real openness in government means the willingness to deal with difficult issues in a free-flowing public forum and do it regularly. That gives taxpayers, fee payers and license purchasers a clear view of how their money is being spent and how their public resources are being managed.

That kind of openness can be a messy, challenging process, kind of like democracy itself. Gov. Noem does engage in that process sometimes, generally in the settings she and her staff pick for the reasons they want. Or, “at the appropriate time,” as Fury said.

And, of course, it always seems to be an appropriate time for Noem when she is contacted by the national conservative media, which tends to be fairly fawning toward her.

But even in more challenging interviews and press conferences, Noem typically performs quite well. She could and should do more of them, with South Dakota reporters.

Fury argues that Noem is the most transparent governor in South Dakota history because she uses other forms of communication — social media in particular — in ways that others did not or could not. And, yes, there is a flurry of communication coming from the governor and the governor’s staff and from other state agencies, often on behalf of the governor.

But it’s mostly one-way communication, an ongoing barrage of one-sided, self-serving news releases and tweets and Facebook updates, along with brief media appearances in friendly settings. It hardly compares in terms of transparency to regularly facing sometimes-difficult questions from professional reporters on issues that the governor might prefer to avoid or hopes to present in a more one-sided way.

It’s also important to remember that many, maybe a majority of older South Dakotans don’t use Twitter — whoops, I mean X — at all and use Facebook sparingly. They’re more likely to read weekly and daily newspapers, watch and listen to public broadcasting and catch the local commercial TV news and radio.

No, seriously, I just want to do a good-news story

It was especially telling that even in trying to refute the New Watch story about the restrictions on reporter access, Fury still wouldn’t give Pfankuch an actual interview. Neither would he agree to give Pfankuch an interview with Noem.

Instead, Fury sent Pfankuch a statement. Likewise, Harrington limited his responses to Pfankuch to email.

As I noted in the News Watch story, I reached out to Harrington a couple of months ago with what I assumed would be a simple request for an interview on a fencing project on a section of Castle Creek below Deerfield Reservoir. Other than a temporary hitch over a gate on the project, the project showcased cooperation by GF&P, the U.S. Forest Service, the Black Hills Fly Fishers, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to protect a section of stream and adjoining riparian habitat while still allowing restricted water access for cattle to water.

Yet, it took me weeks to get the comments and information I needed. I started with Harrington because someone close to GF&P said I’d have to do that. When I finally got connected through Harrington with the project coordinator Kris Cudmore, he was very helpful, by email.

But I initially had to send a list of questions to Harrington before my exchange with Cudmore could start. I was a little uncomfortable with all that, but I figured that’s how I’d get the story. And I wanted the story.

Again, never in decades of covering GF&P have I had so many delays in reporting a simple, good-news story. There were times in the past on complicated, controversial issues where people would refer me to their supervisors, division directors or even the department secretary. Mostly, though, I just made calls or stopped by offices and did interviews.

That’s different from what we have today. Much different.

And that’s no lie.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.