Daschle, Thune and the Blog-Storming of South Dakota

Daschle, Thune and the Blog-Storming of South Dakota

BY Jan Frel | Tuesday, February 22 2005

"David Kranz and Randell Beck, are you listening? Why doesn't your paper pull out all of the stops investigating this story?" -- Jason van Beek in a January, 2003 entry on his blog, South Dakota Politics.

At the end of January, newly-elected South Dakota Senator John Thune briefed his colleagues at a closed-door GOP retreat in West Virginia about the importance of blogging in contemporary politics. Thune earned his bragging rights by defeating former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle this past November, in a race where conservative bloggers played a small but important role. But the story that Thune has to tell isn't anything like earlier political blog successes such as the Dean for America campaign blog or DailyKos.

The blogging efforts on behalf of Thune's Senate campaign didn't cause greater civic participation or bring in piles of small donations. Instead nine bloggers -- two of whom were paid $35,000 by Thune's campaign -- formed an alliance that constantly attacked the election coverage of South Dakota's principal newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. More specifically, their postings were not primarily aimed at dissuading the general public from trusting the Argus' coverage. Rather, the work of these bloggers was focused on getting into the heads of the three journalists at the Argus who were primarily responsible for covering the Daschle/Thune race: chief political reporter David Kranz, state editor Patrick Lalley, and executive editor Randell Beck.

Led by law student Jason van Beek and University of South Dakota history professor Jon Lauck, the Thune bloggers tormented and rattled the Argus staff for the duration of the 2004 election, clearly influencing the Argus' coverage. They also appear to have been a highly efficient vehicle for injecting classic no-fingerprints-attached opposition research on Daschle -- most of it tidbits that perhaps might never have made it into the old print media -- directly into the political bloodstream of South Dakota. What they did may turn out to be a "dark side of politics" model for campaign-blogger relations in 2005-06 -- made all the more telling by the fact that the Thune bloggers relied heavily on now-discredited Jeff Gannon/James Guckert of Talon News for many of their stories.

Arguing with the Argus
Jason van Beek started his pro-Thune blog, South Dakota Politics, in early January of 2003, about 21 months before the next general election. It was already assumed at the time that Thune would run again for the senate, despite just coming off a loss to Democrat Tim Johnson -- albeit by little more than 500 votes. Polls also showed early on that Daschle could be vulnerable. Van Beek's blog entries in the first year consisted of a mix of posting on news and national politics, commentary on the Argus Leader's political coverage, negative posts about Daschle, and generally supportive posts about Thune's campaign progress. Van Beek soon added a Kranz Watch feature, where he zeroed in on David Kranz's coverage of the Senate election for the Argus, and researched Kranz's past. In four long "bombshell" memos, Van Beek reported that Kranz and Daschle had college ties going back to the late '60s, and that in 1976, when Kranz was an editor at a small South Dakota newspaper, he met with one of South Dakota U.S. Democratic Senator Abourezk's staff and gave advice on how to do better PR. The Senate staffer that Van Beek cited wrote that Kranz was "a good Democrat" in his notes.

Some of the work that van Beek referred to in his “bombshell” memos was by James Guckert (using his nom de plume Jeff Gannon), the now notorious former reporter for the pseudo-journalistic, pro-GOP outlet Talon News. Starting with a few articles in 2003, Guckert would go on to write more than 20 articles about Daschle, David Kranz and the Argus' coverage over the course of the election season. It was Guckert who first correctly reported that Kranz and Daschle had co-organized a Democratic convention in college. Van Beek linked to Guckert's articles on his blog (as would many of the other South Dakota bloggers later on). Over the course of the election, van Beek praised Guckert's and his reporting as "indefatigable" and promoted his articles heavily on his web site. Now that Guckert has been shown to be a partisan journalistic disgrace, all of his reports have been scrubbed from Talon News' website. Links to Guckert’s articles on van Beek’s blog have since been removed, and a defense of Guckert’s reporting on Daschle has been posted.

Two of the bloggers who joined van Beek's crusade against the Argus were Steve Sibson, who started Sibby Online in May, 2003, and Professor Jon Lauck, who had worked on Thune's 2002 campaign as a lawyer. Lauck created his Daschle V. Thune blog in January of 2004, directly inspired by van Beek's South Dakota Politics. By the late spring the Thune bloggers had gotten familiar with each others' sites, posting links to their colleagues prominently on their sidebars, and nine of them formed the South Dakota Blog Alliance. Working in concert, the bloggers scrutinized every word and as much history as they could about the backgrounds of the Argus staff.

Jon Lauck explained the bloggers' rationale for going after the Argus in two postings April 2004. In one entry Lauck wrote, "While South Dakota used to be a state rich with newspapers, now there are only 11 dailies left in the entire state, and only two of them are owned by South Dakotans…. Many of these dailies depend on the Argus Leader for political news…." A few days later, Lauck would also write that the "Argus Leader is read by tens-of-thousands of people in the Southeast corner of the state, where the largest concentration of the state's people live. The state's small town dailies and weeklies often run Argus stories in their pages -- or Argus stories which are picked up by the Associated Press -- because they don't have political reporters. The ripple effect of an Argus story, therefore, is large. The newspaper's reporting and selection of stories determines, to a large extent, the information available to the citizens in the state. The Argus, in short, is critical to the proper functioning of the democratic process in South Dakota."

The Argus is the Grey Lady of South Dakota, in other words, went Lauck's thinking.

Pressing the Coverage
In mid-August, Lauck organized a small conference in Sioux Falls at Augustana College sponsored by the Alliance. About forty people were in attendance, along with an AP reporter and other local reporters. Lauck kicked off the event with a lecture that considered whether blogs are a new kind of populism. Jason van Beek's lecture was "The Dakota Blogs and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Beyond Conventional Wisdom." John Hinderaker, of the Powerline blog (who was soon to be one of Time Magazine's bloggers of the year), delivered the keynote speech.

The Dakota bloggers at the conference even agreed to a formal platform, which wasn't about South Dakota or its citizens, or even about trying to help John Thune win. The platform was about the coverage of the most important newspaper in South Dakota and its positive treatment of Tom Daschle:

"WHEREAS, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader has become a powerful print media monopoly in Southeastern South Dakota; WHEREAS, a pattern of chronic political bias has been uncovered at the Argus Leader; WHEREAS, many stories reported nationally which are critical of US Senator Tom Daschle are not reported by the Argus Leader;" ... and so on.

As the Argus went to press each day, the bloggers would have their scalpels out, though their findings were scarcely the stuff of scandal. Some typical fare:

  • John Lauck, Aug. 25: "The Argus does its best to spread the 'Daschle-as-victim' meme today with this story, which is 1A and top of the fold. While the story should be about what Daschle claims in his current ad -- which is untrue and features some odd speakers -- the Argus report goes on about ads that might happen down the road which might hurt Daschle."
  • Jason van Beek, Sept. 17: "Ah, there's nothing like the Argus Leader double standard. Republican college kids get skewered [for calling South Dakota Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth a witch] while what Kranz and Daschle did in their college days 'doesn't mean anything.'"
  • Steve Sibson, Oct. 16: "In yesterday's debate, John Thune was head and shoulders above Tom Daschle. With David Kranz as moderator in Sunday's debate, what questions will be asked, or not asked, to turn the tide in favor of David Kranz's college buddy… Tom Daschle? From the Argus Leader's ethics web page: When unavoidable personal or business interests could compromise the newspaper's credibility, such potential conflicts must be disclosed to one's superior and, if relevant, to readers. [Argus executive editor] Randell Beck is not fulfilling this obligation to his readers, which only leads one to suspect that the pro-Democrat bias of the Argus Leader is institutional."

Additionally, the Alliance bloggers posted dozens of arcane documents, dubious factoids, and .pdf images of old newspaper articles about Daschle, which had all appearances of being campaign opposition research. Lauck told me that he did not get research from the Thune campaign, but added that some of the best material he posted came from Charlene Haar -- a former high school teacher of Lauck's -- who ran against Daschle in 1992. Most of the oppo research-style blog postings concluded with sentiment along the lines of "Where's the Argus on this story?" Jason van Beek for example in late October tried show Daschle's manipulation of the federal government for his own interest... so that he could use his cell phone:

"Apparently, Senator Daschle didn't like it that his cell phone would cut out when he commuted through Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. So he rammed through an amendment that allowed Bell Atlantic to erect two cell phone towers in the middle of Rock Creek Park, effectively circumventing six separate federal statutes and regulations and precluding judicial review. It seems Daschle uses his 'clout' for Bell Atlantic, not South Dakota. Whose side is Daschle on, anyway?... And, of course, the Argus Leader never reported this story."

Daschle had accepted contributions from Bell Atlantic in the past, so his support for this measure may have had more to do with favors for special interests – or perhaps a federal vs. local government battle with D.C’s city council -- than his own desire to use his cell phone during his commute.

More temperament and less pedantry on the part of the South Dakota bloggers might have given them broader legitimacy in their campaign to prove the Argus' bias, but it’s clear that they had an impact regardless. And the absence of a counterforce on the Internet made their impact all the stronger. No South Dakotan blogger made it his or her mission to defend the reputation of the Argus, and pro-Daschle blogging efforts in the state were amateur in comparison to the scale, organization, and political savvy of the Thune bloggers.

As the tightness in the polls of the most important Senate race in the country drew national attention, van Beek and Lauck's postings were increasingly read and linked to in the larger conservative blogosphere. Well-known right-leaning blogs, such as Instapundit and Powerline Blog, linked to their entries. Andrew Sullivan eventually linked to van Beek's Kranz Watch. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt brought them on his nationally syndicated radio show to talk about the Argus. Traffic to the South Dakota blogs grew as well. Lauck estimated that he was getting 8,000 unique visitors a day to his Daschle V. Thune blog during the last five weeks of the campaign season, with a little over half of his visitors from in-state.

After watching an article about Daschle he linked to fly through the Internet, Lauck exulted that his site "was the first link. Then South Dakota Politics. Then Drudge. Then Powerline. Then Instapundit. Quite the little blogo-storm." Lauck's explanation was later echoed by Michelle Malkin's account of the blogger-led takedown of CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan this February. After a blogger posted his account of Jordan's remarks from a forum at Davos and got some initial coverage, "a few standout bloggers picked up on the story and refused to let it die," Malkin wrote. "The [Mainstream Media] calls it a lynch mob. I call it a truth squad. Ed Morrissey, Hewitt, La Shawn Barber, Jim Geraghty, and LGF kept 'baying' -- which got the attention of the blogosphere's most powerful player, Instapundit. Bill Roggio quickly created the group blog, Easongate, to keep on top of the story. Legions of smaller bloggers, too numerous to mention, kept the heat on. N.Z. Bear pitched in with a helpful Easongate tracker. The relentless Hewitt used his blog, radio show, and… column [on the Weekly Standard's website] to press the mainstream media and media critics Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis to cover the story, observing, "You can't cover the press if you don't press the coverage."

There's no evidence that the greater publicity that Lauck, van Beek and the other bloggers received from larger outlets was part of an attempt to prop up their work by outside groups. Rather, the South Dakota election was a natural draw of attention from bigger conservative bloggers and news outlets. Though if bloggers continue to find success with impromptu alliances and loose networks in their campaigns to praise or attack public figures, it's likely that their coordination will formalize and that their cooperation with institutional politics and larger media outlets will become more extensive.

Head Games
The Dakota bloggers got the attention of the larger conservative blogosphere with their press of the coverage. But did the pressure that the South Dakota bloggers applied affect the way that the Argus covered the Daschle/Thune race?

Argus Leader Assistant Managing Editor Patrick Lalley -- who was the paper's state editor for the 2004 Senate campaign -- told National Journal reporter John Stanton in November that he didn't "think there's any way to say they didn't [affect the paper's coverage]." Stanton also quoted a source at the Argus who said that the constant comments from the blogs created a "siege mentality" at the paper, and that the bloggers forced the hand of the paper to cover things it wouldn't have otherwise.

Lalley told me that he didn't make any decisions based solely on what the Dakota bloggers were doing, but that their blogging was part of the mix that influenced his editorial coverage. He said that he started paying attention to the blogs when Jon Lauck started blogging in January of 2004, yet he knew that Lauck had worked for Thune in 2002, and that he thought of Lauck’s work as akin to that of a campaign operative. "They were part of the din of the operations and the campaign. The voters of South Dakota weren't reading these blogs," Lalley said, "and these blogs weren't aimed at the voters either. These blogs were a window into Thune's campaign strategy. They were for the most part aimed at the staff at the Argus responsible for covering the election."

It's clear that the Argus staff was following what the South Dakota bloggers were writing from early on and that the bloggers to some extent had succeeded in provoking the paper. For example:

--In April of 2004, Argus executive editor Randell Beck was on South Dakota radio attacking the South Dakota bloggers for publicizing the Talon News reports and memos that alleged David Kranz's strong ties to Tom Daschle and the Democratic Party establishment in the state. Beck questioned their use of the facts. "There is somewhere out there in internet-land a small cabal I call them -- and they're small--and they're a cabal of folks whose hatred of a certain political affiliation is so strong and so violent that they'll stoop to any level to muddy the waters and confuse the issue. And employing one of the time-worn tactics they shoot the messenger, in this case the largest newspaper in the state and more specifically Dave Kranz, the best political reporter in the region, and to a certain level myself. I care little about myself. That's why I get the big bucks to take the hits and I can certainly do that. What I find mildly tiresome is the attacks using twisted language, using selected, um -- I hate to even use the word facts -- statements to malign the character of one of the finest, most honest, credible reporters in the region." Kranz later told the National Journal after the election that some of the things that van Beek and others had published about his ties to Daschle were correct, but that they did get a lot of their facts wrong. However, Kranz never responded to the specifics of van Beek’s "bombshell" memos. In some part, Kranz was reined in by Randell Beck, who said he didn’t want Kranz to get in a "pissing match" with the bloggers.

--In August of 2004 the Argus ran an article questioning the legitimacy of blogs as a journalistic source and quoted Lauck, Sibson, van Beek and others. In the article, the Argus disclosed that Lauck was a paid consultant for the Thune campaign amid discussion of the questions raised by objectivity and transparency in blogging. The article concluded by saying, "The technology is new, but the warning is not: buyer beware."

--Starting in late September, Jeff Gannon/James Guckert wrote a series of articles for Talon News that alleged that Daschle's declaration on a tax form that his D.C. home was his primary residence showed him to be out of touch with South Dakota, and that Daschle was collecting tax breaks on both houses. The South Dakota bloggers promoted the story for days, sharing developments and revelations on "Mansiongate" at every opportunity. Gannon/Guckert's reporting hinted that the sky might fall on Daschle's head at every juncture, with obviously skewed and threatening sentences such as "In signing the affidavit, Daschle declared under penalty of either a $1,000 fine or imprisonment of up to 180 days or both, that the property is eligible for the deductions." Lalley told me that this was the only story that the Argus decided to run because of pressure from the Dakota bloggers: "There was so much bad information flying around those blogs with that Talon story, and it was right before the election, so we ran our story so that the right story would be out there." The Argus story about Daschle's property tax issues ran on October 21, and reported the issue in less hysterical fashion. The Argus report showed that Mansiongate wasn't about whether Daschle had broken laws or was out of touch with South Dakota, but about the significance of which spouse signed a tax document in a case where either was eligible to do so.

Balanced Accounts or Account Balances?
Was the Argus biased in its coverage of Tom Daschle? A bit. And the paper ought have disclosed that Kranz had old ties to Daschle to avoid at least the appearance of collusion between the two. But should the Argus have barred Kranz from covering the election? Not really. It was the blogged-about scrutiny of Kranz that made him look biased, since most of his articles on the race were pretty straight reporting. The Argus did endorse Daschle in the end which Jason van Beek had cynically anticipated with a "countdown" on his blog. But having a good hunch of a newspaper's likely endorsement choice is nothing special. Most newspaper readers can tell you whom their local papers will endorse before it happens. Moreover, while the Argus went for Daschle, it also endorsed the re-election of George Bush. Hardly a Democratic establishment newspaper.

Jon Lauck was quoted in the Washington Times last December bragging that dealing with "media power became a 21st-century updating of 19th-century Dakota populism" during the election season. He's blogged about reading Dan Gillmor's ground-breaking book about the potential of online citizen journalism, "We the Media," and he framed many of his posts during the election as alternative journalism and civic action. Lauck stopped blogging on the Daschle V. Thune site at the end of November after a victory dance on Daschle's grave, and has since been co-blogging with Jason van Beek on the South Dakota Politics site.

But what kind of citizen journalist takes thousands of dollars from a political campaign he is writing about without telling his readers? In December, a report by CBS news writer David Paul Kuhn brought attention to reporting done earlier in the Argus, and later in the National Journal, that the Thune campaign paid Lauck $27,000 and Van Beek $8,000 in 2004. Neither Lauck nor van Beek had disclosed on their sites the amount of money that they earned, and they did not specify what they were being paid for. Lauck did say on his site that he was a consultant for the Thune campaign, a month after the Argus reported it in August. He told me that most of his direct work for Thune's campaign consisted of debate preparation. Lauck now believes that these kinds of ties and relationships should be disclosed and made obvious to blog readers.

Back when the CBS story came out Lauck's explanation was that his blog would have been pro-Thune, regardless if he were paid or not. And in defense of the other Dakota bloggers, he wrote that van Beek and Sibson and others "were criticizing the Argus a year-and-a-half before any consulting was going on. And the Argus reported I was a consultant on the front page the month after I agreed to be one. Kos and Atrios and maybe other liberal bloggers are consultants too. They have opinions. Good for them. Other bloggers take partisan advertisements, and good for them too. Blogs never claimed to be ‘objective’ as CBS did [with its National Guard memos]."

All true, but as with other episodes of bloggers taking money from political campaigns, Lauck and van Beek’s lucrative and secretive relationship with the Thune campaign casts a shadow over the substance of their work. The lesson for readers is unchanged — that is, to be skeptical of all media covering politics, online as well as traditional. But one hopes that political bloggers will see value in policing their own ethics, since the trust of readers is their most precious resource. However, it’s likely that political operatives will learn a different lesson from the Thune bloggers, which is that the seeming authenticity of the blogosphere can easily be turned to your advantage—and a campaign that fails to take this into account, as Daschle’s did, is skating on thin ice.

It's not totally clear that Thune himself "gets" what the Dakota bloggers did on his behalf. In a recent GOP-sponsored video, Thune says of blogging something you'd expect of any establishment politico who's only just begun to recognize the power of the internet: "I think it is a medium that we need to be taking advantage of, because there is a big constituency of people out there; many of them who get their media, their information from the blogs." Nonetheless, Virginia Senator George Allen recently hired Thune's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, for his future Senate or presidential campaigns no doubt partly because he was involved in a campaign where a cheap investment in blogging seems to have had a major impact. Perhaps Allen would be better off talking to van Beek or Lauck, who actually got the psy-ops truth squad going. (Van Beek recently joined Senator Thune’s staff, and has stopped blogging.) A $35,000 investment is a drop in the bucket of the $35 million Senate campaign, but as direct advertising to the very people you want to influence, it had an effect. Did it tip the race? Considering that Daschle lost by just 4,500 votes out of 390,000, it couldn’t have hurt.

What is certain is the fact that there's a lot of potential in using blogging to rattle the mind of a person who has large responsibilities -- such as a newspaper editor or reporter -- if you can make sure that they'll pay attention to your blog. If this is the story Thune told his colleagues, we can look forward to hearing about shaken journalists at papers across the country in the coming elections.

Jan Frel is a former editor for AlterNet and TomPaine.com. He also worked on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

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