The Flori-Duh Election

Who made the following statement?

“Our nation watched as we were all reminded on a daily basis of the importance of each and every vote. We were reminded of the strength of our democracy — that while our system is not always perfect, it is fundamentally strong and far better than any other alternative.”

That was Republican candidate George W Bush talking about the 2000 presidential race in Florida. This affirmation of the merits of our universal franchise and the joys of our much heralded democracy tended to miss or avoid the fact that nearly 175,000 votes went uncounted in Florida and that as many as 90,000 potential voters were dumped from the rolls because they were considered felons not eligible to vote.

Most of them were black and potential Gore voters.

The ballot problems in Florida were partly covered at the time, although the confusing maze of recounts, legal cases and electoral rules in 67 counties and were so arcane as to quickly become the grist for the comedic mill. Cries of disenfranchised minorities were duly noted and forgotten as the Supreme Court settled the election, ironically invoking the very Constitutional amendment that had been passed to protect the rights of minorities.

The cliffhanger in Florida became what TIME magazine called “Electotainment”. Democrats shouted foul, but the networks seemed more responsive to Republican calls to “move on” and “get over it.” Later, network executives would tell Congress that very serious mistakes were made in their exit polling and ballot projections.

Soon, the inauguration ended the protests and later 9/11, in the words of The New York Times, ended whatever debate remained about the outcome in Florida. “The debate,” it reported, “went from who won to who cares.”

Oddly, and surprisingly, The Times returned to the Florida debacle on its editorial page in 2004 with a long Sunday editorial calling for electoral reforms, citing a scandalous purge of voters directed by then Florida Secretary of State and now US Representative Katherine Harris

The editorial thundered:

“In 2000, the American public saw in Katherine Harris’s massive purge of eligible voters in Florida, how easy it is for registered voters to lose their rights by bureaucratic fiat.” (Read the Times op-ed)

The editorial goes on to quote the US Civil Rights commission’s findings documenting how people falsely designated as felons were struck from the polls. The race of most of these felons was not mentioned.

Many readers were probably pleased to see the purge cited again as an example of why structural and institutional reforms are needed as Americans get presidential fever in this 2004 election.

There is only one small problem.

New York Times readers had never seen this story detailed in the “newspaper” of record. In fact, it was only mentioned once in a story that reported Republican objections to a report by the US Civil Rights Commission, which cited the purge after investigating the denial of voter rights in Florida. The Commission’s own report and the basis of its claims was only reported in passing.

The refusal of The New York Times to cover the story in 2000 was a serious omission, but it was not the only newspaper to ignore it at the time.

Journalist Greg Palast knows about this because he’s the person who broke the story and then tried to interest other media outlets in it. The Washington Post picked it up-but not until June 2001, eight months AFTER the election.

Palast, then writing for The Observer and contributing to the BBC, wrote about his experiences in an exclusive for MediaChannel.org. He later included it as a centerpiece in what became his best seller, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.” His investigation is now well known, but it wasn’t when it might have done some good and had an impact on that still contested election.

Palast wrote: “Beginning in November, this extraordinary news ran, as it should, on Page 1 of the country’s leading paper. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong country: Britain. In the United States, it ran on page zero — that is, the story was not covered on the news pages. The theft of the presidential race in Florida also was given big television network coverage. But again, it was on the wrong continent: on BBC television, London.

“Was this some off-the-wall story that the Brits misreported? A lawyer for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called it the first hard evidence of a systematic attempt to disenfranchise black voters; the commission held dramatic hearings on the evidence. While the story was absent from America’s news pages (except, I grant, a story in The Orlando Sentinel and another on C-Span), columnists for The New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post cited the story after seeing a U.S. version on the Internet magazine Salon.com.

As the reporter on the story for Britain’s Guardian newspaper (and its Sunday edition, The Observer) and for BBC television, I was interviewed on several American radio programs — generally “alternative” stations on the left side of the dial.

“Interviewers invariably asked the same two questions, ‘Why was this story uncovered by a British reporter?’ And ‘Why was it published in and broadcast from Europe?’

“I’d like to know the answer myself. That way I could understand why I had to move my family to Europe in order to print and broadcast this and other crucial stories about the American body politic in mainstream media. The bigger question is not about the putative brilliance of the British press. I’d rather ask how a hundred thousand U.S. journos failed to get the vote theft story and print it (and preferably before the election).”

Palast, a MediaChannel adviser, was shocked when we called the Times editorial to his attention. Many unprintable epithets were his response, as if the crime of a cover-up had been compounded by the delays and denials that kept the story from most Americans.

The Florida election, as it turned out, was not unique. A subsequent study done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology found that as many as 8 million votes were not counted. Despite heated debates, few substantive reforms were passed. In fact, a trend toward computerized electronic voting machines may open the door to even more fraud.

As a new political campaign intensifies, let us hope that the media can be persuaded do a better job at remembering the 2000 elections and make its lessons a component in its coverage. Or are we doomed to see old mistakes repeated?

– News Dissector Danny Schechter writes daily on MediaChannel.org. His latest book is “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception.”(Prometheus Books)

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