SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On Tuesday morning Rolling Stone magazine published a story titled “The Covid Queen of South Dakota.” The article, written by Stephen Rodrick, a senior writer at Rolling Stone, is a +7,500 word depiction of COVID-era South Dakota as seen by a traveler, complete with a detailed look at the diversity of culture and thought surrounding the pandemic, as well as an in-depth view of the governor who has been more resistant to anti-COVID measures than any other in the nation.
The story, as it is told, does not depict South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem in the most positive light, painting a picture of a politician with her eyes set on a higher office, resistant above all else to the idea of admitting defeat at the hand of a global pandemic, or responsibility for nearly 2,000 deaths (1,912 as of writing).
The Office of the Governer meanwhile has struck back. Tuesday afternoon, Noem’s outgoing Senior Advisor Maggie Seidel issued a scathing statement via email, deriding the story as a sexist attack on “the only Governor in America who handled Covid appropriately,” and claiming that within the story “Rodrick and his editors outlined all the reasons why they don’t like strong women.”
Seeking further context for this story that has drawn such ire from the governor’s office, KELOLAND News reached out to its author, who agreed to speak with us about his writing and his time in South Dakota.
Rodrick says he doesn’t expect his story to change minds, but that he wants to show a national audience a view of South Dakota that they may be missing.
Rodrick says a thing that struck him heavily while traveling across the state is how much open space we have here. “There’s just so much vastness, which I find beautiful.” Rodrick makes reference to this distance in his story while pointing out that South Dakota’s 880,000 citizens are spread across the country’s 17th largest state, “providing built-in social distancing.”
Rodrick drew upon this statistic of population and area when discussing South Dakota’s death rate. “In theory, it should have a Covid death rate in the bottom 10,” he writes, “near fellow sparse states like Maine and Wyoming. Instead, there are now more than 1,900 dead — one in 470 South Dakotans.”
Rodrick’s story lays the blame for this death toll at the feet of Governor Noem, but also cites South Dakota’s increased penchant for going maskless. “Stopping in Sheridan, Wyoming on the way out here, I did see significantly more masks in that town than I would see once I got to Rapid City.” Said Rodrick. “I find in South Dakota it was more aggressively anti-mask.”
The story, though sharply critical of the Governor and some aspects of the citizenry, was not meant to demonize everyday South Dakotans. “I don’t like to put all estimated 880-890,000 people in the same bucket,” he said, “because, from the story you can see I did talk to a lot of people who were concerned and who were masking up, and who wanted stricter masking policies.”
Speaking to positive experiences he had in the state, Rodrick talked about his experiences on South Dakota’s reservations, and how welcoming he found their communities to be.
Rodrick made sure to highlight the situation South Dakota’s indigenous community is in, something he also focused on in his story. “One of the major problems that South Dakota, a really rural place, has — is being 200 – 300 miles from a ventilator,” he says.
On major stop along Rodrick’s route was Deadwood, a city that has not slowed business in the pandemic, and by some accounts, has only gotten busier. It was in this town he says, that he truly feared for his health. “This is Deadwood — there’s four or five states nearby — it’s a clientele that is aggressively anti-mask,” says Rodrick, “I did feel fear.”
Rodrick also spoke to what he sees as Noem’s political ambitions. The governor has stated on occasions that she does not plan to run for higher office, but according to Rodrick, she would have little reason yet to declare her intention if she did.
In her public statement, Seidel, as mentioned above, accused Rodrick and Rolling Stone of sexism, and stated that “they don’t like strong women.” We asked Rodrick directly, “do you think your story is sexist.” He replied, “I don’t even know where that comes from. I think there’s one point where we describe her as wearing a sleeveless red dress, which is color you would use to describe a male or female speaking at a large event, and I mention later that when she posed for a picture with Trump, he had a ‘too-long blue tie on’, so I’m not really sure where they’re coming from on that.” Seidel had charged in the statement that Rolling Stone “thinks it’s relevant to comment on Governor Noem’s physical appearance and choice of clothing.”
Seidel ended the statement by referencing Gina Carano, an actress who was recently fired by Disney for comments she made comparing today’s political divide to the treatment of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. “To borrow a line from Gina Carano,” wrote Seidel, “they can’t cancel us if we don’t let them.”
Rodrick smiled when asked if this story was an attempt to “cancel” anyone. “No.” he said, “The notion that a magazine could cancel anybody is hilarious, and it’s just a political trope to use.”
He also cast criticism at Noem’s public dismissal of the advise of experts like doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. “She’s taken shots at Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci, saying how many times their minds have changed or the information has changed. Well that’s the nature of a pandemic. You don’t know what’s going to happen 12 months or 18 months out. You do the best you can with the science and then you make changes on the fly, but she sees that as a fault, and she’s making no changes on the fly.”
Rodrick tells us that his concern going forward is about the potential damage that could still come. “Her policy is steadfast,” he says. “It’s like a battleship that can’t be turned around. The guns are facing one way, and no matter what happens, she’s going to keep facing that way and firing.”