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Manipulated journalism seeks to tarnish Indian voting

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The age of manipulative journalism is certainly upon us. Remember investigative journalism, when the idea was to find out the truth? Well, it has been replaced. Manipulative journalism is becoming the norm of the times.

This is how it works. Anything about your opponent that anyone has ever criticized, no matter how spitefully or how dishonestly, is fair game for scandal mongering. Once planted anywhere, no matter by what operative or other manipulative outlet, keep spinning the rumor and exaggerate it into popular reality. Fairness be damned; accuracy be damned. Make the truth fit your particular telescope at all cost. Some call this practice "spinning," but it is really outright manipulation. It is dishonest and without scruple.

The Democrats toy with the idea but their political discourse resembles a Tower of Babel these days. It is the right wing of the Republican Party that has this practice down to a tee. The right has accomplished a communications coup of tremendous magnitude, building steam for at least ten years. There is a strongly doctrinaire approach to news and commentary that flows back and forth from The Wall Street Journal editorial pages to the many right-wing pundits and the hordes of talk radio hosts - led by the ever-present Rush Limbaugh - who agitate the airwaves daily and incessantly.

The latest campaign to spin a minimalist story into national truth aims to stain broad corruption onto the South Dakota Indian vote that re-elected democratic U.S. Senator Tim Johnson. This was prominently and shamelessly fueled November 14, in the Wall Street Journal's Review and Outlook section, under the heading, "The Oglala Sioux's Senator."

Sprinkled with phrases that would suggest fraud but without introducing any evidence whatsoever that widespread fraud had taken place, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page editors once again gave indication of willing distortion and anti-Indian motivation. According to the Journal editorial, Sen. Johnson won re-election over Republican challenger Rep. John Thune, "the Chicago way."

The 2002 South Dakota senatorial race was decided in "highly suspicious, if not crooked, fashion," writes the WSJ, wondering out loud about the, again, "suspicious circumstances under which ? [Thune] ? lost by a mere 524 votes."

The editorial is obstinate disinformation at its best. Citing for its base a hocus-pocus statistical analysis by Michael New, billed as a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-MIT Data Center, it sets out to assume, against all real evidence on the ground, that fraud decided the South Dakota senatorial election. The vaunted researcher found something "fishy" in an increase of 89 percent in Indian voter turnout for Shannon County, which went overwhelmingly Democratic. New pointed out that Johnson picked up a hefty 92 percent of the votes cast by the largely Oglala Lakota voters of Shannon County. This, he exclaims, is the cause of suspicion. You want proof? Hey, this is 12 points better than Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., did in 1998. Definitely something fishy. That's the extent of it. This, The Wall Street Journal publishes as a serious fact-pattern.

The sorry editorial fails to point out, of course, that solid Democratic vote is the norm on the Pine Ridge reservation, that in 1996 against then Sen. Larry Pressler, as challenger, this same Johnson got 85 percent of the vote. Then too, in the 2000 election, 85 percent of Pine Ridge voters went for Democrat Al Gore over the Republican victor, George W. Bush. Again, it is the least of mysteries that Shannon County and the Oglala Lakota have always voted very much as a Democratic bloc. With 4,000 new Indian registered voters, turnout was up 20 percent or more in South Dakota counties neighboring reservations. Turnout skyrocketed to 44.6 percent in Shannon County (Pine Ridge reservation), 51.8 percent in Todd County (Rosebud reservation) and 56.7 percent in Dewey County (Cheyenne River reservation), according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

The Journal editorial brazenly implies that "Thune thinks the election was probably stolen," which Thune has not expressed directly. Given the "dubious details of how he lost," the Journal editorial castigated Thune for "throwing in the towel." The vanquished candidate, insisted The Wall Street Journal, "owed his many supporters [the demand of] a recount." It went on to claim that Thune would not because he was afraid to get "beat up by Tom Daschle's political machine."

Meanwhile, South Dakota Attorney General Mark Barnett, a Republican, denies the allegations of voter fraud, citing the miniscule examples that involved two voter registration workers, both of whom were immediately fired. Barnett, who expects to indict one registration worker, assigned 30 agents to review the issue in every county where possible misconduct could have occurred. Even before the election, Barnett's office identified 15 irregular absentee ballot applications, while reviewing as many as 1,750 absentee ballot applications. Signatures on suspect ballot applications are verified with the specific voter it belongs to. The Wall Street Journal claimed that "Thune's lawyers have affidavits from about 50 people attesting to voting irregularities, including from four Indians saying they were each paid $10 to vote." Barnett has asked to know the source of their information, which he labels, "rumor."

Attorney General Barnett is joined by South Dakota Secretary of State Joyce Hazeltine, also Republican, in attesting that there were no problems or improprieties during the voting. In fact, they asserted, no election-day complaints were filed with the state and there was no evidence that the highly publicized but minor incidences of fraud in any way tainted the vote. Lawyers from both parties were on hand in Shannon County on Election Day.

In typical "piling on" fashion, other right-wing ideologues have jumped on the fraudulent Indian vote bandwagon. The conservative magazine National Review commented on the fraud potential of the so-called bilingual voting factor even before the election. An article titled "Lost in Translation: Bilingual voting and the South Dakota Senate race," Oct. 22, by Jim Boulet Jr., assumes as reality a South Dakota "Indian reservation voter-registration scandal." Boulet, executive director of "English First," goes on to make a convoluted claim of potential would-be fraud by translators who assist non-English speaking Indians.

Boulet's point is that since "many Indian languages lack written alphabets ? This means their bilingual ballots are actually cast via oral translation." Translators working with non-English speaking Indians are thus prone to conduct fraudulent voting schemes with groups of Indians. Boulet's assumption, quickly becoming an across the board factuality for right-wing pundits - is that the voting fraud on reservations "has happened."

Boulet writes, "Given these two facts, all anyone needs to sway this year's South Dakota Senate race is a list of fraudulently registered Indian voters, a willingness to round up a few Indians and a bus to bring them to a polling place. The person with the registration list then claims to be translating for each person in the group and helps them cast their ballots for the candidate of his choice under the names registered earlier."

Recognizable hogwash, this kind of editorializing is grist for the scandal mill of manipulative journalism. Pile on enough innuendo through the printed media and soon there is enough for the right wing, talk-radio hosts to belabor the lie ad nauseam. The lie this time, eagerly activated and pursued by The Wall Street Journal before, is that Indians are easily corruptible. The implied insult: Indians are too stupid to vote independently.

Now, this is truth:

The South Dakota victory of Senator Tim Johnson, obviously produced by a highly effective voter registration campaign among Indian voters, is a grand and glorious chapter in American democracy. It marks one of those rare times when the national electoral process has actually rewarded Native participation and it should be a great source of pride for every American. The right-wing campaign now afoot to besmirch it is vindictive and un-American. That The Wall Street Journal editorial board has chosen to lead this manipulative, slanderous bandwagon is a point of continual shame for a newspaper that has now lost any and all credibility on American Indian issues. The man who ran the editorial page since 1972, the highly respected Robert Leroy Bartley, is now ending his active career. It's a shame that his colleagues are sending him out on such a low note.

Asked The Wall Street Journal editorial in increasingly recognizable bigot-baiting style, "But how many smoke signals does it take to wonder if there's also fire?" We might ask a similar question of The Wall Street Journal's senior editors. How is it that every time you put ink to paper on American Indian issues you lower the discourse?