Ethanol is a hugely important issue in this year's Senate race in South Dakota. Since ethanol is so important, it is illuminating to observe the coverage of the issue in the Argus Leader, the state's newspaper of record. Last fall, when the energy bill with its ethanol provisions was poised to pass in the Senate, and which the President was prepared to sign into law, the AL had a front page, above the fold, horizontally placed story with the headline "Daschle lends clout to energy bill" (Nov. 20, 2003). That is a laudatory, cheerleading headline, which goes far beyond reporting the fact that Daschle supported the energy bill, and into the realm of pamphleteering. Worse, the headline was misleading. The fact is, Daschle didn't "lend clout" to the energy bill. The National Journal quoted Democratic sources to that effect:
But Democratic senators and aides close to leadership today said Daschle feels he has done enough in announcing his support for the bill and will respect the fact that a majority of Senate Democrats strongly oppose it. "He doesn't owe [Senate Majority Leader Frist] anything," one Democratic source said today.
The energy bill ultimately failed due to a Democratic-led filibuster.
Today, when Tom Daschle's efforts to tack the ethanol amendment onto the internet tax bill failed miserably, the story about it in the Argus Leader did not make the front page, above the fold. It was relegated to a different section of the paper. There was no headline like "Daschle fails to deliver on ethanol." It seems that when Daschle succeeds, or is even on the brink of success on an important priority, it's front page news, but when Daschle fails, it's kept off the front page.
Clearly, the bias at the Argus Leader is institutional. The people making the decisions about story placement and headline writing know that what they do has a major impact on public opinion in South Dakota. Somehow, their decisions almost always cut in favor of Tom Daschle. Who makes these decisions? The editors. Who are the editors? The executive editor is Randell Beck, but the executive editor is more involved with the long-range visions and goals of the newspaper, and has less to do with the day-to-day decision-making. The managing editor and the assistant editor are involved in the day-to-day decisionmaking on things like story placement and headline writing. Interestingly, the assistant editor of the Argus Leader is a fellow by the name of Patrick Lalley, who in the early 1990's was the editor of the now defunct Sioux Falls Tempest, a free alternative weekly. I believe Lalley may have even founded the Tempest. The Tempest was known as the Sioux Falls version of the Village Voice, and advocated issues from a far-left perspective. There's certainly nothing wrong with advocating left-wing views, but there is something wrong with advocating left-wing views under the cloak of "objectivity." I'll be looking up old copies of the Tempest in the coming weeks to investigate whether Lalley has left a paper trail that might explain what's behind the institutional bias at the Argus Leader.