The long-awaited recount of the results of the 2000 presidential election, begun with so much hope and investigative enterprise by a consortium of leading U.S. media organizations, came and went with a whimper not a bang. Released on Sunday, November 11, in Florida, it was picked up nationwide the next day, but when that airplane went down in New York, its conclusions were driven into the margins of media coverage.
Hopes that the media might undo, or at least correct, earlier mistakes and confusing findings about who won the Florida election and why so many votes went uncounted were dashed. Reports of the study’s findings were just as contradictory and confusing as earlier recounts had been and just as much of the real-time coverage of the actual events had been a year earlier.
The New York Times read the data one way and gave the election to Bush; others, on the basis of the same information confirmed a Gore win. The Times headline, above an overly edited and convoluted story on the front page, found that, no, it was not the Supreme Court that anointed Bush: “Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote.” In other newspapers throughout the nation, different versions of what the study said were given prominence.
The LA Times head was originally “It’s Bush. It’s Gore” but later in the day, the headline was changed to make Gore the loser.
A Media Apology
I doubt that anyone’s views on this matter was changed one way or the other by these contradictory and perplexing assessments. In fact, the Economist in England, as credible a mainstream outlet as there probably is, commented in its print edition on November 15 with a most unusual editorial “correction”:
“In the issues of December 16, 2000, to November 10, 2001, we may have given the impression that George Bush had been legally and duly elected president of the United States. We now understand that this may have been incorrect, and that the election result is still too close to call. The Economist apologizes for any inconvenience.”
Who are they kidding? Who is going to apologize to the 180,000 voters of Florida whose votes went uncounted or discarded? Who is going to apologize to the majority of Americans who voted for one candidate only to find another being maneuvered into office with the complicity of the U.S. Supreme Court and shenanigans in the state government presided over by his brother?
Who is going to apologize for the politicized practices in the Sunshine State’s 67 counties that undermined voting rights, in a state with a long history and culture of racial exclusion, disenfranchisement and discrimination against people of color and non-English-speaking Americans – all of which went largely unreported?
Who is going to apologize for the “tyranny of small” decisions that robbed the voters, the lack of voter education, the confusing instructions in some counties and even more confusing ballots in others, like the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach?
Who is going to apologize for the voter roll purges of ex-felons that targeted black voters, the lack of bilingual ballots, the overcrowded, understaffed ballot stations or the fact that the polls close at 7 p.m., a clear discrimination against working people?
Who is going to apologize for the deceptive statements and interpretations by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris or the fact that machines in poorer counties rejected ballots at a rate faster than in richer ones?
Who is going to apologize for turning American politics into a scam and farce in the eyes of the world?
Most of these issues were not written about during the campaign, despite the thousands of reporters on the story. They were only noted afterwards because the dispute over those dimpled and hanging chads was so bizarre and amusing.
They were not covered in the $900,000 media recount either, which also did not note, as USA Today reported, that hundreds of ballots disappeared between election night and the recount – in an election that turned on a few hundred votes.
Why were 18 counties allowed to decide on their own NOT to undertake a legally mandated machine recount and get away with it? Is it any wonder that it is so “confusing?” Criminal might be a better word for it.
The news outlets that reported on the consortium’s findings, and the TV networks that downplayed them because the images of that day’s plane crash were so much more dramatic, did not remind viewers or readers of the failures of the political system and the way media coverage factored into this.
(For readers who can stand more on the sordid story of the media in the 2000 election, see the MediaChannel.org book I co-edited with Roland Schatz, “Hail to the Thief”.)
When will media organizations apologize for their disservice to democracy?
There Were Some Apologies
On second thought, there were some apologies for small, inadvertent “mistakes” on election night, the ones that projected first Gore and then Bush the winner. Most of the networks and the Associated Press (which acquitted itself much better) did apologize for that to Congress and the American people.
At the time, only the AP reported and clung to the truth that the election was “too close to call.” Why this matters is not widely understood. If the media had clearly and unambiguously reported what really happened, there could have been no objections raised to a recount to assess the intent of the voters, which is what Florida law called for.
It was clear in so many of the so-called overvotes that voters, uneducated about how to vote, voted twice for Gore. Many wrote Gore’s name in on lines that asked for write-ins, mistakenly thinking that they were being commanded to do so much in the same way that people are asked to sign customs forms or other documents. Without knowing it, they made their intent clear but then had their ballots voided.
In the fog of debates that followed, the Republicans were able to use their spin machine, legal maneuvers and even extra-legal protests like the one that was orchestrated in Miami Dade to delay, obstruct and effectively kill a fair recount. That story is told in two new investigations, Jeffrey Toobin’s “Too Close to Call” and David A. Kaplan’s “The Accidental President.”
Gore Beat Gore
These books also show that Gore beat Gore with his wimpy legalistic strategy that was outmaneuvered at every turn by the more determined strategists of the right. Gore was, as Toobin shows, more interested in winning approval of the editorial writers in the mainstream media than fighting alongside blacks and labor to demand fairness and the counting of every vote.
These books, both by mainstream journalists, sadly reflect the topdown view of most media, which narrows political struggle into a sporting event between parties while the issues, passions, interests and outrage is stripped away.
The truth is that Gore was not the only loser, just as the election was not only between those two men. Does anyone remember those oft-cited but poorly practiced words that underlie the very system we live in: “of the people, by the people, for the people”?
Why do so many of my colleagues forget Lincoln’s words so much of the time in reporting politics? Is it any wonder than only half of citizens vote, and that fully half of the supporters of each of these candidates said they only voted for their choice because they hated the opponent more?
What’s especially sickening is that Gore doesn’t seem to give a damn. For one thing, on November 19, he took a vice-chairman’s job at a financial services firm; so much for the commitment to the public sector.
He had nothing new to say about his political failures in the charade that one critic calls America’s Tally Ban, as in the banning of the final tally. (I know it’s a stretch, but a playful one in a decidedly unfunny spectacle.)
If he doesn’t care, it is not surprising that the beneficiary won’t even talk about it. Said his spokesman Ari Fleischer, “The president is paying no attention to this – and neither is the country.”
And why is that, dear friends? Because “he doesn’t have to,” because the media have not pressured him to respond and thus the story has effectively been lost, muzzled and downplayed. You didn’t see any documentaries on the recount. It wasn’t really debated in the press.
This is a disgrace, because of media complicity, as my colleague Faye Anderson pointed out in a letter published in The New York Times the day after their media recount story appeared: “The media have a special obligation to inform the American people about what happened in Florida, since it was their rush to judgment on Election Night that set the stage for the election impasse.
Withholding the media consortium’s findings in the name of “national unity” would have further undermined the importance of counting every vote.”
True enough, but now we see that even publishing the findings had the effect of deepening the political divide in the country, rather than resolving it. It just fed doubts about the credibility of our politial leaders and our media leaders.
The truth is few media companies seem to have the guts to question the legitimacy of a president with high approval ratings, just as they ignored Richard Nixon’s crimes until after the 1972 election.
Burying The Lead
Even the media companies who sponsored the recount ended up downplaying it, as Jim Naureckas of the media monitoring group FAIR says in a recent analysis. “In journalism, it’s called ‘burying the lead.’
A story starts off with what everyone already knows, while the real news – the most surprising, significant or never-been-told-before information – gets pushed down where people are less likely to see it…. The coverage of the consortium’s findings is similar to the way earlier media recounts were handled; even the most preliminary Miami Herald/USA Today ballot stories prompted ‘Bush Really Won’ stories across the country.”
“War or no war,” Naureckas concludes, “many journalists are instinctively protective of the legitimacy of the institutions they cover, but the job of a journalist is not to promote but to question. The theory behind the First Amendment is that the system will be strengthened by an unflinching look at the system’s flaws. In looking back at the results of the Florida election, the media flinched.”
The Nation’s Eric Alterman, writing on MSNBC.com, added a thought about the media’s disinterest in their own story. “One always had the impression that the major news outlets were reluctant to report the study in such a way that it injured Bush’s shaky legitimacy.
After Sept. 11, many seemed to feel it was their patriotic duty not to do anything to call into question the authority of the commander-in-chief,” he wrote, also noting that a high-level New York Times reporter feared the story might reignite “partisan tensions.”
Yet, despite the media muzzling the story, the public has not forgotten. “As recently as last week, according to the Gallup Organization, nearly half of Americans surveyed remain convinced that President Bush either ‘won on a technicality’ or ‘stole’ the election,” he writes.
This is not just about this one election. Unfortunately, there is a bigger problem. For one thing, as many as six million votes may have gone uncounted nationwide according to a CalTech-MIT study. Democracy itself is on the resuscitator as a result of what happened and the stunning lack of public outrage as reinforced by a media machine that has “moved on.”
Our media have, in effect, merged into our political system to create what I and others have been calling a “mediaocracy,” which sets its agenda through discourse that, in effect, excludes the voices and concerns of the majority of the people, especially, in this case, large numbers of people of color whose votes were lost out of all proportion to their numbers.
In the aftermath of the events leading up to and after November 7, 2000, some electoral reforms have been enacted and others are on the way. But reforms in media practices: that’s another, even more difficult challenge.
- Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics 1960-2000, from Akashic Books.