Friday, September 29, 2006

What a newspaper should be

So WTF is up with the Argus Leader's new format? Compare this to The Times' format. On which site can you actually find the news?

This is just the latest in what has been an unpleasant, six-year relationship between me and the Argus Leader.

It began when I moved here and read a headline that was something to the effect of "What those Jewish people do in their temple." OK, I'm embellishing just a bit. But it was clear from the tone of the piece that the Jews in town - people who subscribe to the paper and who are part of its regular readership - were "other."

And it didn't help that in the past, on more than one occasion, I had unpleasant dealings with the subscription department (which I suspect is one woman who is really, really bad at her job). She didn't know the rates, she didn't know the different deals (when I tried to get the Friday-Saturday-Sunday delivery at the special reduced rate, she didn't know what I was talking about, said so, and said she'd charge me more for it), and clearly wasn't interested in working with customers. I wasn't exactly impressed.

I thought our relationship had hit its lowest point when the paper, in the face of everything that resembled common sense, endorsed Bush for president in the last election. Even for South Dakota, that made little sense. And it was clear (to us on the outside, but I actually heard it from someone on the inside) that this endorsement was not the true sentiment of the editorial board, but rather a decision that was made so as not to alienate the people with the money.

But that's nothing. The Argus Leader is also the paper that refused to take a stand on the abortion ban. The ONLY newspaper of note in the region. The one that does indeed publish editorials on a regular basis. Apparently, the folks at the Argus Leader decided that it would just be too risky to take a stand because either way, that stand would cost them. And this is just not acceptable. If you are going to run a newspaper and publish editorials, then you have a professional obligation to comment on the important issues of the day.

This caving in under political pressure is evident, not just to South Dakotans, but to people across the country. As Katha Pollitt wrote about the Argus Leader in her column for The Nation, "Showing the strength of antichoice sentiment...The state's largest newspaper, the Argus Leader, announced in an awkward editorial statement that it would take no position on the ban. Given that this was probably the only chance editorial board members will ever have to stand in the national spotlight, you know that had to hurt."

And now, the Argus Leader is failing to report stories that one would think journalists would be lining up to cover. When Dr. Maria Bell spoke about threats to women's health under the abortion ban - certainly an issue of interest to readers and just as certainly an issue that has been underreported - the Argus Leader didn't even bother to run a story.

And the last straw: the Argus Leader ran a story yesterday on Sen. Tim Johnson's automated calls to SD voters asking them to oppose the abortion ban. This isn't news; we've known since forever that he didn't support the ban. What IS news, but is nevertheless buried in the story, is that JOHN THUNE opposes the ban. The Argus Leader headline for this story was "Johnson adds voice to debate on abortion law." Nothing at all about Thune. If you didn't read the story carefully all the way through, you'd miss it.

But in contrast, let's look at how station KTIV in Sioux City, IA, covered this same story: Thune Favors Abortion-Ban Exceptions. See? They're focusing on the part of the story that is actually NEWS.

While I was writing this, I got a phone call from my father-in-law, who thinks I'm being too hard on a paper that is most certainly worried about its survival if it appears to be too liberal. And I'm sympathetic to this concern - I really am. Perhaps the problem is that I think journalism is - or should be - a noble profession. It's supposed to be about reporting the truth, about telling the people what is going on. We, the people, depend on our news media to do this, and instead of real reporting from the Argus Leader we are getting a confusing website with few actual news stories, pulled punches, and a refusal to cover unpopular issues. This is not what a newspaper ought to be. People have died for the right to print the truth. If journalists can walk, literally, into the line of fire in Iraq and elsewhere to cover a story, can't the Argus Leader take a stand at home?

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