On the Media: Las Vegas papers take sides on Harry Reid-Sharron Angle race

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The Las Vegas Review-Journal has gone to great lengths to make clear its loathing for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. The newspaper’s publisher regularly writes about why the Senate majority leader is “so dumb.” The editor gives moral support to Reid’s election challenger, “tea party” darling Sharron Angle.

Nevada’s largest daily newspaper even raised the dead this week in its Reid fatwa. It prominently featured a news story about an octogenarian’s obituary because the old woman’s relatives made clear in her death notice that she really didn’t like Reid.

Buried several pages back in the same day’s paper, a reader might have missed the short wire story about Angle. It revealed that Angle told the Christian Broadcasting Network that God directed her into the campaign, that she had had a “preparatory time” just like Jesus and Moses and that she favored conservative news outlets (she has been ducking most media) because that helped her raise money.

Las Vegas has been known for decades for its bare-knuckle, partisan press wars. But even longtime Nevadans have been chagrined by the inchoate fury that the local newspapers, particularly the R-J, have focused on campaign 2010. The fate of one of Washington’s most powerful figures hangs in the balance and the state’s main newspaper is skulking and slouching through its close-up.

While the conservative R-J crusades to take down its bête noire, its rival, the liberal Las Vegas Sun persistently finds bright spots for Reid, a Senate leader who has long since worn out his welcome with most of the state’s voters.

This is the way Fox News and MSNBC do it. This is the way talk radio hosts do it. This is not the way, fortunately, that most newspapers do it today, though their 19th century counterparts would provide plenty of precedent for this sort of, ahem, Whigging out.

“It seems like some of the patterns you are seeing on the national level are playing out here,” said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “That sort of coverage may be fine for the partisans and the decided, but if I am the undecided voter approaching this race, how do I figure it out? That’s a tough one.”

The two papers have been doing it this way for more than half a century. The Review-Journal, with its libertarian bent, is owned by the Arkansas-based Stephens Media. The liberal Sun is controlled by the Greenspun family and publisher Brian Greenspun, a stalwart Reid supporter. (He’s also a board member of Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times.)

The dominant Review-Journal lays the economic downturn squarely on the Democratic Party. Publisher Sherman Frederick calls it “the Great Obama Recession.” When Obama visited Las Vegas last week, the paper headlined its editorial: “Welcome back, Mr. President, Your Economic Policies Suck.” (The editorial then suggested, incongruously, that the “The president … should be courteously received.”)

Reid’s burden is the state’s nation-leading unemployment of 14% and a broad perception that he, the son of a hard rock miner, has become a creature of Washington. Angle’s burden is explaining a series of beliefs — she supports dismantling the Department of Education and the federal income tax code and opposes abortion, even for a teenager raped by a relative — that fall outside the mainstream.

Frederick leads the Reid-smacking with an almost daily blog (slamming his “sheepish involvement in Obama’s failures”), but the paper’s editor, Thomas Mitchell, also gets in his shots. In one blog posting, Mitchell urged Angle supporters to reject the “puffed up liberal elitists” and to “loudly proclaim you are here to preach the gospel of Sharrontology, the ideology of less government, lower taxes, more liberty, less interference from Washington, self-reliance and self-determination.”

The newspaper gave prominent play this week to a story in which Angle responded to the widely reported accounts of how she was trying to obscure her extreme views (including removing some from her website). “ GOP’s Angle Rejects Political Makeover” headlines the R-J, neatly channeling the candidate’s PR. “Candidate Focuses on Economy.”

That seemed like a pretty sweet take for the challenger to me, as did the news judgment that gave big play to an obituary-cum-hit piece (“In lieu of flowers, vote for another more worthy candidate,” wrote relatives of the dead woman, who had once supported Reid), while it buried Angle’s “calling”-from-God declaration.

Columnist John L. Smith seems to be one of the few voices at the paper willing to put a stick in the eye of both the incumbent and his challenger.

Mitchell told me Friday that I was cherry-picking stories to paint a negative picture of a paper he insisted plays it “fair and down the middle.” I asked the editor whether his reporters might be getting a mixed message — with his unusual practice of writing so pointedly for one candidate.

He responded: “It’s a blog.” Maybe that meant his words didn’t count the same, seeing as they appeared only online. Is that what he meant? I tried to ask, but Mitchell had had enough. He hung up.

Damore, the UNLV political scientist, came to the same conclusion I did: that the R-J has the most blatant political leanings but that the smaller Sun has its moments.

The paper (delivered inside the R-J, in a novel arrangement) sometimes seems to treat Reid as a Great Man of the Senate, as it did in a profile after the passage of healthcare reform that praised his “unflinching” leadership and called him the “the somber steady workhorse” behind the legislation.

Sun staffers winced in February when Greenspun wanted to put on the front page an editorial praising Reid for helping cut funding for the long-discussed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. News people fought the editorial off Page 1, but a screaming headline that replaced it — “Double Thank You, Mr. Reid” — hardly modeled evenhandedness.

When I asked the Sun bosses to show me stories critical of Reid, they pointed to a bunch that spanked the senator for his frequent malapropisms. They also cited a feature on a campaign swing through rural Nevada. It called Reid “widely despised.” Now that’s reporting.

Over at the R-J, Mitchell had told me he didn’t have time on the short deadline I demanded to account for all the negative coverage his paper had done of Angle. But it’s been there, he assured me. No doubt he’ll blog about it. Time permitting.

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