Friday Mailbag: Cops as soldiers, performative politics, consultants in governance, and that weird thing I'm holding during live streams

You can reach me for feedback any time at

EMBED: Rob's squeeze toy
Rob Port's squeeze toy, a gift from his daughter so he'd stop clicking pens during broadcasts.

MINOT, N.D. — I'm writing this column on Thursday because, this same day, I'll be getting my second shot of COVID-19 vaccination.

I chose Moderna, mostly because that's what was available when I made my appointment, and the first shot knocked me for a loop for about 36 hours. I'm hoping this second shot won't be as bad, but I took Friday off anyway, just in case.

Hopefully, I'll just end up with a nice, long weekend. By the way, if you're still on the fence about getting vaccinated, I hope you don't listen to anyone on social media, or any politician, or even some lowly columnist who is telling you what to think about vaccinations. Instead, go have a conversation with your doctor, who not only has good information about the vaccines but knows better than anyone else what's best for your specific health situation.

With that sermon over, to this week's feedback! You can always reach me at Submissions used in the column may be edited for clarity and brevity.

Grant writes, in response to my column about civilian law enforcement handing out medals with military names: "Just wanted to express my disappointment of your 4/3/21 Grand Forks Herald article which was critical of police officers Torok & Holte for receiving the Purple Heart and Medal of Honor. You are blurred in your vision as to 'cops patrol our communities to promote public safety. Soldiers attack our enemies.' The streets where cops work are exactly the territory where the enemy resides. Police officers actively promote community public safety 24/7/365, however during that time, evil and horrific things will occur and the police are expected to professionally mitigate these threats under tremendous scrutiny, even at the cost of their own life, like GFPD Officer Holte did that fateful day. This is the battlefield, they are the soldiers and warriors! Unless you are willing & able to badge up and head straight towards the threat in defense of others with courage and discipline, you should perhaps not be so judgmental of those who do. It's easier to be a keyboard critic than the tip of the spear!"


Before going any further, I should note that my column was not at all criticism of officers Holte or Torok. In fact, I wrote just that, right in the second paragraph .

People who see law enforcement as the military, and cops as soldiers, shouldn't be in law enforcement. Full stop.

Our communities are not a "battlefield." The uniformed civilians who police them are not "warriors." That sort of militant attitude among the men and women of law enforcement is what gets people hurt and killed unnecessarily.

America has a very long tradition of drawing bright lines around the way military can be deployed domestically, from the Third Amendment to the Posse Commitatus Act . Americans, traditionally, recognize a very important distinction between civilian law enforcement and the military.

It's frustrating that many in law enforcement communities (Grant says he's a retired cop), as well as some in the general public, are turning their backs on that distinction. Still, it remains important, even in something as symbolic as what we call the medals we give cops.

Jonathan writes, in response to my 'What happened to Rob Port' column: "Surprised it took you so long to realize that politics is performance. It may be worse today than in the past, but only because the press is more likely to be watching, and reporting in real time. When politicians think they are being watched, they perform. If they are always watched, they always perform. This is why studies suggest that real debate ended in Congress when C-Span started broadcasting those debates. While I admire your insistence that you won't tolerate mere performance anymore, I don't believe it. Modern journalism depends on fostering outrage. You've always (at least as long as I've read you) favored stories and rhetoric encouraging people to be angered, annoyed or offended. Educating readers on the pros and cons of issues simply isn't in your wheelhouse. So, in the end, you'll befriend the performers again because, to put the matter simply, you practice performance journalism. Birds of a feather will flock together."

It's one thing to make outrage a product to be packaged and sold to the masses. It's another to be justifiably angry. I do think there are people in this field — and I would count myself among them — who aren't trying to be outrageous. For some, this is all professional wrestling, and they're playing at their roles of heel or hero. What I write is always an accurate reflection of what I'm thinking on a particular issue. It's not contrived to make people upset.

What I'm trying to tell you is that there are times when anger is legitimate.


When a cop ends someone's life needlessly? We would be angry.

When trillion-dollar budget deficits become the norm? We should be angry.

That sort of outrage isn't the problem. The problem is when outrage is a performance. "The cultivation of hysteria for fun and profit is a fine way to program a talk-radio station but a terrible way to run a country," Kevin Williamson wrote this week .

That's what I'm talking about.

Mike writes, in response to my column about the "skeezy" use of a consultant by the Grand Forks School Board: "You are absolutely right about this. As a retired superintendent, I’m not familiar with the Grand Forks case, but I know many districts in Minnesota and North Dakota are using these companies. In the cases I’ve seen, Detroit Lakes and Wahpeton, they are allowed to assume the role the superintendent should be assuming. They form huge committees of, 'stakeholders' with interests varying from more gyms to swimming pools to music and drama, even though what the district really needed in the first place was more classroom space. Ultimately they come up with a plan exponentially more expensive than originally planned, which works out well for them because their fees are percentage-based. As you elude to, they have a conflict of interest. I don’t know that they intended to, but I think Wahpeton ended up with some of the highest taxes in the state."

I was having a conversation with a statewide elected official about this topic after my column ran, and he made the point that using consultants is not necessarily a bad practice. "A lot of that is driven out of the legislature and the budget process. If we just do one-time spending we don't ever need to hire anyone and we can just rely on consultants," he told me. "If the effort to shrink government (which I'm a fan of for the most part) the trade-off in some spaces has been hiring co tract consultants."

That's fair, but in Grand Forks, we have a consultant makes money from building schools hired to help the school district decide whether to build a school. That same consultant tried to launch a "vote yes" campaign for the bond that will fund the new school, they're involved in the planning of that new school, and their original contract with the school district provides a financial incentive for choosing them to build the new school.

That's what we might call a self-licking ice cream cone.


As a general rule, consultants have become a bit too involved in the governing of our state, and we ought to be looking at aways to roll back their influence.

Penny writes: "Love the live streams, but what are you holding in your hand while you're talking?"

I'm happy to hear some praise for Plain Talk Live. It's basically the Plain Talk podcast , only streamed live on YouTube (click the link to subscribe to the channel).

People who like visuals can watch the video episodes. For people who prefer audio, all of the interviews and discussions are still available through your favorite podcasting service . I'll be doing newsmaker interviews as I book them during the week, and every Wednesday there will be a discussion-themed show with smart people who tend not to agree with my political outlook.

As for what I'm holding, you can see what Penny is talking about in my most recent live stream with former Democratic-NPL executive director Chad Oban:

It's a squeeze toy. Or a stress ball, I suppose. For most of my writing and broadcasting career, I've worked from home. My kids are used to hearing me broadcast. I'm a fidgety person while talking, and one day, when she asked why I had taken all of my pens off my desk, I told my daughter it was to stop me from grabbing one while on air. I had a tendency to hold a pen and click it rapidly while talking, and my mic was picking it up. The only way I could knock it off was to remove the pens.

Layla, who was eight at the time, went running to her bedroom and brought back this heart-shaped cupcake squeeze toy and told me I could hold that while on air.

I've used it ever since, as you can tell from the wear-and-tear, and now I can keep pens on my desk while I broadcast.

EMBED: Rob's squeeze toy
Rob Port's squeeze toy, a gift from his daughter so he'd stop clicking pens during broadcasts.

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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