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Slandering the Red States, Part V: Why Won’t NPR Tell the Real Story? Help Me Ask!

We are nearing the end of my investigation into NPR’s disgraceful three-part series on South Dakota’s Department of Social Services. NPR alleged that the state agency “kidnaps” Indian children from Indian reservations, and places them in white foster homes because it profits by doing so, and because this kidnapping scheme financially benefits South Dakota’s current governor, Dennis Daugaard. I deconstructed these absurd accusation here, here, here and here. NPR’s story was, to put it politely, a tissue of lies and deceptions. In a sane world, South Dakota’s responsible officials would be able to sue NPR for defamation. That, of course, is not the world we live in.

Apart from all of NPR’s specific misrepresentations and errors, a broader and more important point looms over the series on South Dakota’s Indians. There is, indeed, a terrible problem, but NPR didn’t have the courage to identify it honestly. Unemployment on South Dakota’s reservations runs around 80%. There are hardly any jobs, other than manning convenience stores. Tribal leaders have estimated that the alcoholism rate also runs around 80%. Think about it: who would want to live in a place where there are virtually no jobs? Only those who are content with dependency and happy to live on welfare. There are plenty of hard-working, ambitious Indians, but few of them live on reservations.

If you imagine a place where 80% of the people are unemployed and 80%–not coincidentally–are also alcoholics, do you suppose that there will be serious problems involving children? Problems like abuse and neglect? Of course. Hence, by virtue of requests that it gets from tribal law enforcement and directives from tribal courts, South Dakota’s Department of Social Services has the unenviable task of trying to rescue some of those abused or neglected children.

That is the real story, but NPR didn’t have the courage to tell it. NPR would have been hampered, of course, by the fact that state employees are barred by confidentiality laws from talking about the facts of particular cases. So it was much easier for a lazy NPR reporter–in this case, Laura Sullivan–to simply take the tall tales that she was told on the reservations as gospel. That was bad enough, but she added her own endorsement of those fables, and worse yet, her own fabrications.

In two emails (so far) I have asked Laura Sullivan a series of questions which she has not yet deigned to answer:

1) Why did you tell NPR’s listeners that DSS “kidnaps” Indian children from reservations, when in fact DSS can act only pursuant to an order of a tribal court or a request from tribal law enforcement?

2) My second question was more of a request: Will you send me a copy of the tape of your interview with Kim Malsam-Rysdon and Vergina Wieseler of South Dakota’s Department of Social Services? I believe they told you, among other things, that the “kidnapping” claim is ridiculous and that DSS acts in response to requests from tribal authorities, and that you deliberately suppressed the information you got from them so that you could peddle a false but more sensational story. I think the tape will demonstrate this.

3) What is the source for your claim that South Dakota receives “almost a hundred million dollars a year” from the federal government for foster care?

4) What calculations did you carry out that supported your conclusion that South Dakota makes a profit by “kidnapping” Indian children and putting them into foster care?

To those questions I would add:

5) What efforts did you make to check the accuracy of the stories you were told by the Native Americans you interviewed for your series? In particular, what did you do to verify the information you got from Peter Lengkeek, who evidently lied to you? Why did you pass on his misrepresentations without verifying them?

6) There are obviously grave problems on South Dakota’s Indian reservations that impact Indian children. Why didn’t you talk about those problems and the real reasons why Indian children sometimes have to be removed from their homes, rather than trying to demonize South Dakota’s state employees?

So far, Ms. Sullivan has ignored my questions and refused to defend her false and misleading series. No doubt that is because it is easy to ignore emails from one person. But it is harder to ignore hundreds of emails. Laura Sullivan’s email address is LSullivan@npr.org. I suggest that you send one or more polite emails to Ms. Sullivan, asking her to respond to my questions and to comment more generally on the posts I have done.

I have also written NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, to ask him to review my series and correct the inaccuracies in NPR’s programs. You can do that too, although it may not be so easy since you have to try to figure out his email address. After some research, I concluded that the best we can do is go here: http://help.npr.org/npr/includes/customer/npr/custforms/contactus.aspx?omb=t

It will be interesting to see how NPR responds to our questions. I will no doubt have some follow-up once we have heard from them. Please help us to keep up the pressure.

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