My senior U.S. Senator is taken to a hospital from the Capitol building. He remains there in critical condition following late night surgery for a congenital problem late night surgery for a congenital condition 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 basically 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 starting to dig a grave or reserve a nursing home 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 state 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, then politicians are great fodder too. 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 is “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 a diehard Tim Johnson fan. The last time I saw him was at a lunch shortly before the November election. Our discussion? I pointedly asked him how, as a Democract 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 or the impact on Johnson’s family
My bottom line reaction to all this? I wish the Senator 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.
Compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves.
Mason Cooley, City Aphorisms