Opinion: In digital age, political firestorms easy to create

With the convenience and affordability of e-mail, it’s entirely too easy to create a political controversy these days.

All one needs to do is read or hear something, experience a knee-jerk reaction and e-mail those reactionary feelings to the media in the form of a news release.

The following textbook example was issued last week by the South Dakota Republican Party.

“HERSETH SANDLIN HIRED BY SDSU: ‘WHOSE JOB DID SHE TAKE?’

“UNIVERSITY-SPONSORED ‘LECTURE’ FEATURES AWARD PRESENTATION BY SD DEMOCRATIC PARTY

“SD GOP Chairman Tim Rave called on SDSU President David Chicoine today to answer questions about SDSU’s close relationship with former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. SDSU announced last week that Herseth Sandlin would join the university’s political science department.

“ ‘In the same week that SDSU announced numerous layoffs, they also announced the hiring of Stephanie Herseth Sandlin as a professor,’ Rave noted. ‘Many South Dakotans are wondering: Whose job did she take?’

“Rave also expressed concern that Herseth Sandlin’s lecture on the Brookings campus went beyond an appropriate academic event.

“ ‘Stephanie used her lecture to tout her accomplishments and speculate on her next political move,’ said Rave. ‘Senator Frank Kloucek was even on hand to give Stephanie an award from the State Democratic Party. SDSU seems to be working pretty hard to advance Stephanie’s political future — and that is not why we give them $35 million a year in state tax dollars,’ Rave said.”

The release was cringeworthy on many levels.

• Politically, it was a misstep. Herseth Sandlin lost the U.S. House election to a Republican five months ago. To voters, browbeating a defeated candidate five months later looks tacky.

Also, when choosing an organization to attack for political gain, it’s best to choose one that is disliked by a broad segment of the attacker’s constituency. For South Dakota Republicans, appropriate choices would include organizations such as PETA, the EPA, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

Attacking South Dakota State University is a sure-fire way to spark a backlash. It’s the state’s largest university, with about 13,000 students and 75,000 alumni; its Cooperative Extension Service has a presence in every county in the state; it has the state’s highest-profile college athletic teams; and its dairy program produces ice cream that, within the state’s borders, is universally known and beloved. Nearly everybody in the state has a connection to SDSU, and slandering it with suspect allegations is one of the quickest ways to alienate your own organization.

• Factually, the news release was just plain wrong. Herseth Sandlin did not “take” anybody’s job. SDSU President David Chicoine has since said her adjunct appointment is an honorary, unpaid position.

• And, finally, it’s premature to base these kinds of bias-related judgments on one day’s evidence. Case in point: Five days after the Republicans unleashed their diatribe against SDSU for “working pretty hard to advance Stephanie’s political future,” SDSU announced that two of the state’s most prominent Republicans will attend the university’s spring commencement — former Gov. Mike Rounds will receive an honorary degree, and Sen. John Thune will deliver the commencement address.

In keeping with our partisan-tinged political climate, this is the point at which some Republicans might say SDSU is cozying up to Rounds and Thune out of embarrassment at the recent exposure of the university’s pro-Democrat bias. That would be wrong. I checked with university officials, and it turns out they sent an invite to Thune back in February and received Rounds’ nomination in early March. Herseth Sandlin was offered her position later in March and came to campus April 11 to deliver the Harding Lecture.

So you see that even as some Republicans were sitting down to type their venomous news release about SDSU’s “close relationship” with a Democrat, SDSU officials were at that very moment finalizing arrangements to bring two prominent Republicans to campus.

It’s a lesson for us all about jumping to conclusions.

Yet, now that I think about it, one does have to wonder about SDSU and its sudden closeness with Republicans, given the all-Republican lineup at commencement.

Don’t worry, Democrats. I’ll get you started:

REPUBLICANS AT SDSU GRADUATION: WHOSE SPOTS DID THEY TAKE?

COMMENCEMENT FEATURES “DEGREE” FOR ROUNDS, “ADDRESS” BY THUNE

See how easy it is? All it takes is a perceived slight, a Caps Lock key and some well-placed quote marks and you, too, can incite a political controversy.

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