It’s hard to get reporters to cover the South Dakota Legislature and state government in general. The geographic isolation of Pierre, where the Legislature meets in the dead of winter, and laws that favor secrecy deter rigorous journalistic scrutiny and protect the insular (some might say incestuous) Capitol culture of corruption. The Executive Branch’s newfound hatred of local journalism isn’t helping. The lack of coverage of Legislative affairs is getting so bad that South Dakota newspapers are having to rely on charity to keep eyes on the Capitol.
Covering the Legislature is also like working in the sewer, and reporter Dana Hess just can’t take the stink any more:
I just couldn’t take the crazy any longer. I couldn’t take the effort wasted on legislation that’s designed to bully and hurt. I couldn’t muster the vigor it takes to write objectively about resolutions that are good for nothing more than political posturing.
…In journalism circles in South Dakota, we often bemoan the fact that there are fewer and fewer reporters writing about the Legislature. Now there’s one less and I feel bad about that. But not bad enough to force myself back into the press box and try to write objectively about legislation and resolutions that I know are by turns silly, symbolic, wrong-headed and cruel [Dana Hess, “Confessions of a Former Legislative Reporter,” Rapid City Journal, 2021.12.31].
When things are objectively bad—when legislation is proposed to force one woman’s religion on public school students, to bully children, and to whitewash the teaching of history—an objective journalist can and should report that those things are bad. Journalists like Dana Hess should not be shackled into some pretense that they are completely neutral and live outside the community that will be affected by bad laws. That pretense doesn’t stop Kristi Noem and the Republican Party from attacking the media for reporting facts. Instead of being cowed by an implacable and power-hungry Pierre elite, journalists should embrace their calling as advocates for basic human rights and a healthy, inclusive community.
When Pierre stinks like a sewer, reporters have no obligation to seek out parties who will tell us the Pierre elite are pooping daisies. We need newspapers and other reporting outlets to liberate their reporters to tell us, “This stinks, and here are the stinkers.” The opportunity to tell the truth, the whole truth, might make it easier to keep good reporters on the Pierre beat.