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Home / Sen. Tim Johnson Ails And The Media Vultures Circle
A lifelong South Dakotan looks askance at the media in light of the illness of the state's senior U.S. Senator

Sen. Tim Johnson Ails And The Media Vultures Circle

My senior U.S. Senator is rushed to a hospital from the Capitol building. He remains there in critical condition following late night surgery for a congenital problem that caused bleeding in his brain. What does it mean? An opportunity for the media vultures to feast.

The news of Sen. Tim Johnson's potential stroke flashed almost instantaneously across the news wires and the internet. Not knowing exactly what was wrong with him and grasping for "news," the media pressed forward. What did it want to know? What would happen if Johnson dies.

And it certainly was not just the national media. The South Dakota press is equally guilty. South Dakota Public Radio called the South Dakota Secretary of State asking what the process was if Johnson no longer held the office. The first story I saw online Wednesday afternoon from the state's largest daily newspaper dealt with the state's Republican governor having the power to appoint a replacement in the event of a "vacancy" in Johnson's Senate seat. Even today they are reporting that Johnson's health "sent state officials scrambling to determine how [Johnson] would be replaced."

Vacancy? Replaced?  Excuse me. Our U.S. Senator and a man I respect despite some philosophical differences is in a hospital and the media wants to know what's going to happen if he dies or doesn't recover. If state officials were "scrambling," it was because of calls from the news media asking what would happen if Johnson left office. The media displayed far more interest in who a Republican governor might appoint and whether there might be a 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate than concern for Johnson and his family.

The U.S. Senate has operated with a 50-50 split before and the republic survived. Nor are health problems for a U.S. Senator from South Dakota simply recent news. Karl Mundt, who served 10 yerars in the U.S. House and 24 years in the U.S. Senate, suffered a stroke in November 1969 midway through his last six year term. He served the balance of his term despite being incapacitated.

How about if we let Sen. Johnson get treated for his condition before you start digging a grave for him? How about if we show some concern for a man and his family instead of immediately focusing on potential and entirely speculative political ramifications?

Notably, South Dakota politicians seemed to be the last ones wondering about the ramifications, at least publicly. Responding to a question from the Associated Press about "a possible replacement" for Johnson, the newly elected chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party said he "would not dignify that with an answer," rightfully calling it an "inappropriate question." Even the outgoing chair of the state GOP refused to answer a question about "potential replacements" if Johnson's seat became vacant. "I'm not even going to go there," he told the AP. "We are hoping for his full and complete recovery. We are not vultures, circling."

But don't ever doubt the vultures are out there. It could not be the simple need for news that led to these questions. Rather, it is the perverse interest the media shows — and the public too often fosters — in tales of tragedy.  And if you can't have celebrity tragedy, politicians are great fodder. Of course, South Dakota's largest daily newspaper today has the audacity to run an editorial saying talk about the political implications of Johnson's health are "premature" and we should "put politics on the back burner." True, but who put politics front and center to begin with?

My comments are not simply the bellyaching of someone unfamiliar with politics and the media or a diehard Tim Johnson fan. With joint degrees in journalism and political science, I spent several years as a political reporter for both a wire service and a daily newspaper, covering local, state and national elections and politics. The last time I saw Tim Johnson was at a lunch shortly before the November election. Our discussion? I pointedly asked him how, as a Democrat and a lawyer, he could vote for the Military Commissions Act that, among other things, stripped certain individuals of the right to habeas corpus.

Yet politics is meaningless when it comes to someone's life and health. Vultures, though, could care less about that, let alone Johnson's family.

My bottom line reaction? I truly and sincerely wish Senator Johnson and his family all the best. And thanks to the media for reminding me why I left the news business and grew to hate politics.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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