David Lias

A column written by Chuck Raasch, a Castlewood native and classmate of mine decades ago in the journalism school at South Dakota State University, came to mind while covering the Southeast Lincoln Day Dinner, held at the Muenster University Center on the USD campus last Thursday, April, 25.

The main speaker was Charlie Kirk, a guy who apparently makes a living by going from one campus to the other to tell students that liberals are bad and conservatives are good.

Midway through his talk to both grown-up Republicans from Clay, Turner and Union counties, and to members of USD’s chapter of College Republicans who organized and served the banquet meal, Kirk said he’s concluded that, with a few exceptions, the media are the enemy of the American people.

That, in itself, was upsetting to hear. What followed was rather heartbreaking, to be honest.

The Lincoln Day audience responded with applause.

“When you start a disinformation campaign – do you know that 44 percent of Americans still believe that Trump colluded with Russia?” Kirk asked. “They’re not naturally misguided. They’re misguided because their sources of information are intentionally misguiding them.

“I don’t blame the American people that believe that,” he said. “I blame the Washington Post and the New York Times and MSNBC and CNN – the 96 percent of all consumption of information that intentionally misleads everyone here and it’s worse than you might think … the left controls all of it.”

About a year ago, President Trump told members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people,” pointing to the assembled media in the back of the room, Raasch reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Some in the audience booed. The VFW later apologized. As Raasch noted, chances are some veterans of war had shared dangers with unarmed members of the press who risked their lives to be with them on battlefields, to tell the combatants’ truths in the best ways they knew possible.

He shared a bit of history while reflecting on the continued attacks President Trump and his cohorts launche on the media. In the darkest days of the Civil War, the head of the U.S. Census Bureau, Joseph C.G. Kennedy, cited two rising institutions he said were essential to the enduring character of the struggling, flawed, at-war democracy.

One was railroads, which even in war were connecting once-distant cities and towns in a new age of steaming mass transportation.

The other was newspapers — that age’s “the media” — which Kennedy said were almost solely responsible for an explosive growth of a literate middle class. Debates and issues once considered the sole provinces of kings and royal courts had in the 19th century become accessible to the average American for a penny a day.

Long before Trump added the “again” to the red hats, newspapers helped make America great in its aspirations while exposing the inevitable challenges and problems that despots and dictators ignore or deny, Raasch noted.

“A free press has thus become the representative and, for the masses, the organ of that free speech, which is found indispensable to the development of truth, either in the religious, the political, the literary, or the scientific world,” Kennedy wrote.

In our cold civil war of today, Raasch notes, it’s old news that “free press” is under siege from the highest elected office in the land.

Trump repetitively attacks journalists as “enemies of the American people” in the same tweet streams in which he calls Vladimir Putin, who imprisons journalists and who is trying to undermine American democracy, a potential friend.

At home, Trump has powerful attack-dog friends, from well-known names, like Sean Hannity at Fox News, to those who aren’t quite household names, like Kirk.

Our news report elsewhere in this edition shares the same bit of background about Kirk that the Lincoln Day Dinner audience heard last week.

What the banquet crowd didn’t hear is that Kirk, or at least his organization, has faced allegations of racial bias and illegal campaign activity.

Turning Point casts itself as a grassroots response to what it perceives as liberal intolerance on college campuses. Kirk has called college campuses “islands of totalitarianism”; he and his supporters contend that conservatives are the true victims of discrimination in America, and he has vowed to fight back on behalf of what he has called his “Team Right,” according to a Dec. 21, 2017 report in “The New Yorker” magazine.

Jane Mayer, a reporter for the magazine, wrote that internal documents she had obtained, as well as interviews with former employees, suggest that the group may have skirted campaign-finance laws that bar charitable organizations from participating in political activity.

“Perhaps most troubling for an organization that holds up conservatives as the real victims of discrimination in America,” she writes, “Turning Point USA is also alleged to have fostered an atmosphere that is hostile to minorities.”

There were moments that dripped of irony in the MUC ballroom last Thursday. Kirk and another speaker praised the South Dakota Legislature for passing a new law earlier this year. The legislation codifies free speech and also requires the South Dakota Board of Regents to promote intellectual diversity among the faculties and staffs of its six universities.

It was inspired by a Hawaiian Day themed party late last year at USD that was renamed to Beach Day amid concerns from a fellow student that “Hawaiian Day” was not “inclusive.”

Not long after lauding South Dakota’s mission to promote inclusiveness at its public universities, Kirk noted that universities are terrible places.

Kirk said a common component shared by left-leaning members of politics, media, religion and entertainment is education in a university setting.

Other comments he made that remain in my notebook include his observation, and I’m paraphrasing here, that it’s good that people who attend Ivy League schools have acquired heavy student debt because they've learned to hate America.

He also told his Vermillion audience Thursday that college students have never heard that America is great country until they hear him speak.

His barrage of comments included criticism of the Pope, who in recent years has warned that history will judge climate change deniers. Those comments, about the Pope of all people, drew a small smattering of applause.

I learned two things from the April 25 event:

1) Kirk is as big of a liar and grifter as our president.

2) The Republican Party has morphed into something that would be unrecognizable to past GOP leaders like Jim Abdnor and George Mickelson and Bill Janklow. And that’s really, really sad.

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