O'Day's Opinion: NYC magazine carpetbags southwest North Dakota
Jason O'Day opines on an Esquire article he believes portrayed North Dakotans unfairly in concern over sexually explicit content in public libraries.
DICKINSON — I was mentioned in an Apr. 24 Esquire Magazine article, regarding my story on a book “Let’s talk about it: A teen’s guide to sex, relationships and being a human” that was listed in the Dickinson Area Public Library’s online catalog. I felt obligated to write this response in defense of those who were portrayed dishonestly and unfairly.
My article, another by former Valley City Times Record editor Ian Woessner, and the outcry of many concerned citizens prompted state lawmakers to draft legislation seeking to regulate sexually explicit content in public libraries, in the form of HB 1205 and a stricter senate version SB 2360. Gov. Burgum recently signed the former, but vetoed the latter. Woessner, an exceptional journalist, deserves the lion’s share of credit for all of this as he broke the initial story.
When asked, Woessner told Esquire, "I stand by my reporting, what was reported, and what was published." — Ditto on that.
In the approximately 5,000 word article, “Inside the Battle for North Dakota’s Bookshelves,” author Abigail Covington starts with an unfair presentation of ND Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, and how he talked about obscenities mentioned in these books: butt plugs, anal sex, mutual masturbation and rimming; then recommended viewers watching with children turn the sound off.
She narrates teenagers laughing and the presence of a small child near Satrom to disingenuously suggest he's a hypocrite. It's a state legislative hearing, which I suppose he should've held in his garage and closed the door. Perhaps check the legislative agenda before bringing children to the capitol gallery, but I digress.
Covington seems to lionize resigned library director Rita Ennen, while taking a skeptical or perhaps cynical view of anyone supporting legislation they believe will protect children from obscenity. She uncritically regurgitates whatever Ennen says that’s useful to her pro-LGBT agenda.
Take this excerpt referencing the Oct. 11 library board meeting: “'Man, that was a day,' Ennen recalls. We’re sitting together at a table in the library’s community room, near the spot where the person yelled, 'Sodom and Gomorrah!' during the library board’s first meeting after the article ran."
This was taken wildly out of context. I reviewed my recording of that meeting. The young man in question was not yelling at random or even speaking out of turn and only spoke up when a library official asked him if he’d like to speak next.
Here’s what he actually said.
“That book says ‘education for teens.’ So obviously it's not targeting adults. Unfortunately it says porn is okay to watch,” he said. “A lot of times, the women in the pornographic videos are victims of sex trafficking. It’s immoral and it’s wrong. It’s hurting our society to talk about these things like they’re acceptable. Somebody had mentioned earlier that there's sodomy and stuff in the Bible. That is what it's about. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of it. Understand that.”
To his point, the book's official recommended reading age is 14-17, and he cites the scripture passage in which God rained sulfur and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah because of wicked sexual deviancy committed by the townspeople.
It’s not my job as a reporter to pontificate whether "Let's talk about it" should be on a library shelf or not, but it is my job to inform you. Perhaps public policy should not be influenced by religious sentiments. There's a counterargument that we live in a nation founded explicitly on Christian virtues, and to ignore this in lawmaking would be our demise.
Both tenable positions.
My point is this man and others were painted unfairly by a woman I believe to be a carpetbagging, left-wing Brooklyn political activist masquerading as a journalist. It seems to me she only came here to peddle her intolerant narrative that conservative North Dakotans are backward hicks who hate gays and transgenders.
Covington prattles on about Ennen's worries for the community. "'Concerned for their safety?' I ask. Ennen pauses to consider the question. She does this a lot. 'Possibly for their safety.' She pauses again. 'Definitely their mental and emotional stability.'”
Several individuals were passionate, and some a little too loud; but no one was vitriolic. I'm proud to be part of a community where the people cherish civility. Covington claims threatening voice messages were left on the library's answering machine, but provides no detail as to what the messages said and no supporting evidence.
In an email to The Press, Dickinson Police Lt. Mike Hanel stated, "We were never made aware of any 'threatening' phone calls made to staff during that time period. In fact, the only response our office took regarding the topics in the article was to a library board meeting on 10/11/22 that was claimed to be 'getting heated.' I and several other officers responded, and at no time would I have categorized the interactions as 'heated.'"
Autumn Richard was portrayed dishonestly in this article, as Covington suggests she’s somehow unqualified to compile a list of books potentially concerning to parents, even though Richard holds a bachelor’s degree in social work.
The article states: “The problem is, Richard’s list has helped her build a reputation as some sort of expert. In November, state legislator Lefor promised to work with her to ‘sponsor a bill to eliminate’ children’s access to books deemed objectionable, as if her list were a rigorous, even scientific compilation.”
I guess only big city journos perched in high rise ivory towers are qualified to create such lists.
In further vindication of my assertion that Covington is unable to discern basic facts she wrote, “Two weeks after Woessner’s article ran, something similar happened in nearby Dickinson…”
Right. Valley City is a hop, skip and 231 miles away — almost the exact distance between Brooklyn and Baltimore.
Also, did you know I'm biased? I attended a Nov. 17 meeting of a the Southwest Patriots Coalition. I made a mistake (this is why I don't work for Esquire) and forgot to put the next library board meeting's date/time in the article. So I told meeting attendees when it was. If the book's supporters held their own meeting and I was made aware it, I would have been there too and covered it fairly.
I attended the SPC meeting because they often feature speakers such as prominent state and local elected officials like Scott Decker, Mike Lefor and Rick Becker. They welcome people of all political persuasions and any reputable journalist would attend such meetings. Dickinson City Commissioner and Library Board member John Odermann, an early and controversial figure in the library debacle, was actually scheduled to be the guest speaker for the meeting in question, but canceled very close to the day of.
Unlike Covington I did my best to steelman the well-intentioned arguments found on both sides of this debate, rather than strawman the side that doesn’t align with my personal politics. On the rare occasions my reporting has drifted into biased territory, I’ve been reminded by my editor of our professional duty to readers that we maintain objectivity.
This lady is a stain on my profession. Angry rhetoric about "FAKE NEWS," understandably resonates with millions of Americans because of people like Abigail Covington. Esquire promotes her as a “journalist.” In June 2022 she authored a piece titled, “Proud of What, Exactly?” In this equally long and seemingly unfiltered screed she discusses "cis-white privilege" and her "lesbian awakening." She postponed her wedding she says in order to “distribute supplies" to anti-police rioters in May 2020.
Well, glass houses and such.
Covington's overly descriptive writing style is used incessantly by those in her bubble. Take the account of her first meeting with Ennen.
“I spot her in a maraschino-cherry-colored raincoat by the entrance. I wave, and she hurries toward me, clasping her purse so that it doesn’t jingle on the way over. ‘Hi, hi,’ she whispers loudly as she sits, wiping a strand of her wavy gray-brown hair from her face. ‘Have they voted yet?’ She’s just in time,” Covington wrote.
This purple prose feigns sophistication and substance by noticing details utterly useless to the reader. It's so pretentious. If you want thoughtful yet concise journalism, look to your local newspaper instead of the vapid space, full of empty words, found between the wintergreen breath mints and almond chocolate bars in the bustling Cashwise grocery store's evening checkout line. (See, I can write like that too. It's not hard or compelling ;)
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Dickinson Press, nor Forum Communications ownership.