Department of odd omissions

I wasn’t surprised in November when the Des Moines Register failed to report on opposition to former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack’s possible appointment as secretary of agriculture.

I wasn’t surprised in December when the newspaper omitted the same perspective from its piece on reaction to the news that President-elect Barack Obama was picking Vilsack for the job.

But I find this January 12 Des Moines Register article by Chase Davis quite odd. The subject is how Vilsack has relatively few ties to agribusiness. Excerpt:

Secretary of Agriculture nominee Tom Vilsack raised only a small portion of his campaign cash from farmers, grocers and others with direct ties to the agriculture industry, despite serving eight years as governor in one of the country’s most emblematic farming states, documents and fundraising data show.

From his first run for governor in 1998 to his short-lived presidential bid in 2006, Vilsack raised almost $15.8 million through contributions to his campaign and political action committees. Only about 2.3 percent, or $364,000, came directly from interests connected to agriculture.

Political observers said the small share of industry donations Vilsack received could earn him credibility and a perception of independence as he prepares for his confirmation hearing Wednesday. Others note the agricultural industry has long exerted its political influence through connections, not money.

“(Agriculture businesses) are much more human than a lot of other businesses. They have a very tight network,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “Money is maybe not the prime indicator there.”

To the extent that influence follows money, Vilsack can make a convincing case that he is not beholden to the agribusiness industry – which could serve him well in the position, local experts said.

Agribusiness “will have more trouble getting everything they want, and they know it,” said Arthur Sanders, chairman of the Politics and International Relations Department at Drake University.

But if companies do convince Vilsack to support their policies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vilsack “will have more credibility if he pushes for them,” Sanders said.

The article baffles me on two levels. It ranks Vilsack’s “top political donors associated with agribusiness interests,” and number one on the list is the philanthropist Doris Jean Newlin, whose husband was a vice president of Pioneer Hi-Bred International before he retired.

Newlin has made significant gifts to quite a few Democratic politicians, the Iowa Democratic Party, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It’s a stretch to consider her donations to Vilsack’s campaigns the most noteworthy link between Vilsack and agribusiness, just because Newlin is married to a retired vice-president of Pioneer.

What makes the article even more strange is that it does not mention biotech companies. Vilsack was an outspoken and persistent advocate for growing more genetically-engineered crops in Iowa and elsewhere. The Biotechnology Industry Organization named him governor of the year in 2001. He even used to fly on the Monsanto corporate jet. What opposition there was to Vilsack’s appointment as secretary of agriculture stemmed primarily from his many ties to biotechnology companies like Monsanto.  

Vilsack may well have fewer connections to agribusiness than others who have headed the USDA. I think the Senate should confirm him, given that he is the president’s choice, and he is certainly qualified for the job.

But it was quite a strange editorial decision by the Register to publish a whole article about Vilsack not having strong ties to corporate agriculture, while failing to mention any of his connections to the biotechnology industry. If you’re going to report a story, at least report the whole story.

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