A Newspaper Weighs All Views — and Then Punts

While editorial boards at newspapers of assorted sizes in assorted states went on record with a view of some sort on the high-profile doings of the South Dakota state government, the editorial page of South Dakota's major newspaper sat it out -- and offered a lame explanation for its silence.

On Monday, the governor of South Dakota signed a bill banning all abortions except in cases where a woman’s life is at stake (no exceptions for rape or incest). This law — House Bill 1215 — is something about which most people have an opinion.

And so — as is their wont and duty — editorial boards at newspapers large and small around the country weighed in, stating in no uncertain terms their take on the development.

There have been editorials denouncing the bill as an affront to personal liberty:

USA Today: “Unless checked, the process South Dakota is starting could lead to the most draconian rollback of personal liberties in U.S. history.”

Rutland (Vermont) Herald “The bill itself represents a new advance in cruelty to women.”

LA Times: “[It is a] mangled bit of lawmaking — disastrous in both its intent and its potential political fallout.”

(Idaho) Mountain Express: “South Dakota’s rush to stir up a challenge to Roe v. Wade looks to be just the latest chapter in an unfolding plan by advocates of a more authoritarian state in which their ‘values’ can be imposed. It’s a plan that could shake the foundation of the nation.”

There have been editorials faulting the bill as misguided and pointing out potential unintended consequences:

Indianapolis Star: “Our position: South Dakota ban is a misguided strategy doomed to backfire against opponents of abortion…comparable to the charge of the Light Brigade, a momentarily rousing but doomed frontal assault that defies reason and wastes resources, [the strategy] not only will fail but in doing so will slow the momentum of the entire anti-abortion movement.”

Chicago Tribune: “In signing a bill Monday virtually banning abortion, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds has created an unworkable law—and almost certainly damaged the anti-abortion cause…Roe vs. Wade was a legally dubious decision that deprived the states of the power to make policy on abortion and caused a lasting polarization of the debate. What the South Dakota legislature has approved, however, does not promise to change that state of affairs.”

But what, we wondered, are they saying in the Mount Rushmore State itself? And so we turned to (well, clicked on) the editorial page of the state’s largest newspaper, the Argus Leader, expecting to read an opinion of some sort.

To our surprise, we found none.

While editorial boards at newspapers of assorted sizes in assorted states went on record with a view of some sort on the high-profile doings of the South Dakota state government, the editorial page of South Dakota’s major newspaper sat it out.


Instead of an opinion we found an editorial explaining why the Argus Leader will not be editorializing on this particular development. It read to us like a cop-out — and a strangely defended one at that.

To wit: “In the emotional and escalating debate over abortion, Americans find themselves bound to faith and conviction, a deeply felt sense of what is right. No editorial, no matter how deftly written, will change that. That means there will be none in the Argus Leader on this most profound of subjects, or on the legislation fashioned by the state’s 81st legislative session.” And: “Given the intractable divisions in our state and nation, nothing we could say on our editorial page would change anyone’s mind — and it could well jeopardize the credibility we have worked long and hard to establish.”

In other words, South Dakota is so polarized there’s no point in taking a position that will alienate at least half of our readers and change no one’s mind. In other words, although editorial pages exist to proffer opinions on thorny issues (and then brace themselves for hate mail, cancelled subscriptions, etc.), we are an editorial page afraid to editorialize (lest we lose “credibility”). To our mind, an editorial page “jeopardizes its credibility” when it declines to take a position on the high-profile, far-reaching actions of its own state government. (The author of this editorial — the Argus Leader’s executive editor, Randell Beck — could not be reached for comment).

This is editorial writing — or, rather, not writing — by focus group. Not exactly, we’ll wager, what Benjamin Franklin had in mind when he launched this grand experiment more than 200 years ago.

And in an unintended irony, someone just called the Argus Leader “brave” because it this week launched its own version of reader-written “Wikitorials,” an idea recently attempted and abandoned by the LA Times. Perhaps the Argus Leader is preparing to delegate to its readers the writing of all future editorials on those highly divisive topics that the newspaper’s editors are too timid to weigh in on.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.