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Major national news outlets have gone silent in the face of evidence that they published misleading stories about the Florida presidential recount.
The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Washington Post and other leading news organizations relied on a dubious hypothesis to craft stories last month portraying George W. Bush as the recount winner, when the recount actually showed that Al Gore won if all legally cast votes were counted.
The news outlets assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that so-called “overvotes,” which heavily favored Gore, would have been ignored if the Florida court-ordered recount had been allowed to proceed and that therefore Bush would have won even without the intervention of five conservative allies on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote,” the New York Times front-page headline read. “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush,” declared the Washington Post.
After those stories were published on Nov. 12, however, new evidence emerged showing that this pro-Bush hypothesis was wrong. It turned out that the judge in charge of the recount was moving to include the “overvotes” when Bush got the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
But rather than run corrections, the major news organizations chose to duck the fact that they had messed up one of the biggest political stories in U.S. history.
After learning of this foul-up via the Internet, some citizens complained in letters and e-mails, but the news outlets have responded by turning their backs on the complaints. There has been virtually no debate or commentary in the major news media about the mistaken assumption at the heart of those front-page stories.
The silence has sent another message: that the news media believes that something as fundamental to democracy as making sure the person with the most votes wins is a kind of trivial pursuit interesting only to Gore “partisans.” In this time of crisis, the news media seems to be saying, it isn't important that the occupant of the White House got there in an anti-democratic fashion -- and if that happens to be the case, it's best not to talk about it.
In their Nov. 12 recount articles, all the leading news organizations downplayed the key fact of the unofficial recount: that a full counting of all legally cast ballots in Florida showed that Al Gore won the state, regardless of what standards were used in judging the chads, whether dimpled, hanging or fully punched through. Gore also won the national popular vote by about 537,000 votes, a number that exceeded the victory margins of John Kennedy in 1960 and Richard Nixon in 1968.
Still, the major news outlets that paid for the recount led their articles with the claim that Bush would have won the election even if five conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court had not intervened on Dec. 9, 2000, to stop the statewide hand recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court.
To construct that lead, the newspapers deleted legally cast votes for Gore and instead used a hypothesis that presumed that the statewide recount would not have counted so-called “overvotes” that broke heavily for Gore. By subtracting the “overvotes” from the total and including only “undervotes,” the big media got a number that showed Bush still clinging to a tiny lead.
“Undervotes” were ballots kicked out of voting machines that recognized no vote for president. “Overvotes” were ballots that the machines rejected as having more than one vote for president. However, under Florida law, hand recounts must include those ballots if the intent of the voter is clear.
For instance, if a voter marked a ballot for Gore and then wrote in Gore’s name, that should count as a legal vote in Florida, as well as many other states. If an “undervote” revealed a partially pushed through chad, that too could be counted as a legal vote. By counting all the ballots where the intent of the voter was clear, Gore pushed ahead of Bush by margins ranging from 60 to 171 votes depending on the standards used to judge the “undervotes,” according to the media recounts.
Besides those legal votes that should have been counted under Florida law, the media recounts estimated that Gore lost tens of thousands of other unrecoverable ballots. Those were lost because of confusing ballot designs, actions by Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration purging hundreds of predominantly African-American voters by falsely labeling them felons, and the Bush campaign’s success in counting illegally cast absentee ballots in Republican counties while excluding them in Democratic counties.
No adjustments were made for those lost votes in the media recounts, though they help explain why Election Day exit polls showed Gore winning Florida, since he was the choice of a clear plurality of Florida voters.
A Media Miscalculation
But what made the journalistic slant of last month’s “Bush Wins Recount” stories indefensible was the erroneous assumption that the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court would have excluded “overvotes.”
Unlike the major national newspapers, the Orlando Sentinel of Florida checked with the judge who was in charge of the recount to see what he might have done with the "overvotes." Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said he had not fully made up his mind about counting the "overvotes," but he added: "I'd be open to that."
The Sentinel stated, "If that had happened, it would have amounted to a statewide hand recount. And it could have given the election to Gore." [Orlando Sentinel, Nov. 12, 2001]
Then, Newsweek uncovered a contemporaneous document demonstrating that Lewis was moving toward counting the "overvotes" on Dec. 9, just hours before Bush got five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the Florida recount. In a memo, Lewis said he was instructing canvassing boards to isolate "overvotes" that showed a clear intent of the voters.
“If you would segregate ‘overvotes’ as you describe and indicate in your final report how many where you determined the clear intent of the voter,” wrote Lewis, “I will rule on the issue for all counties.”
In effect, Lewis's instructions foreshadowed a decision to count the “overvotes” because once the votes – that were legal under Florida law – had been identified there would be no legal or logical reason to throw them out, especially since some counties had already included “overvotes” in their counts.
By assuming that the “overvotes” would be cast aside, the major news outlets had failed to take into account the judge in charge of the recount.
Normally when serious journalistic errors are made on high-profile stories, a media firestorm ensues. Even when stories are just hyped – not dead wrong – editorialists and media critics rush to rap the knuckles of the offending reporters.
Remember the furor over a CNN report quoting former U.S. military officials seeming to confirm that poison gas was used on defectors and other sensitive targets during the Vietnam War. Press critics demanded a retraction, CNN admitted flaws in the reporting, and two producers lost their jobs amid public humiliation.
Remember, too, Gary Webb’s stories about the CIA tolerating cocaine trafficking by Nicaraguan contra forces, leading to the introduction of crack cocaine in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. Though the CIA inspector general eventually confirmed that the CIA and the Reagan-Bush administration had protected contra-cocaine trafficking, major newspapers concentrated their wrath on Webb for supposedly exaggerating CIA malfeasance. He, too, lost his job, at the San Jose Mercury News. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
In the Florida recount screw-up, however, the major news organizations simply turned a deaf ear to the fact that their core assumption was wrong. No one apparently will pay any price.
More significantly, the vast majority of Americans probably have no idea that they were misled by those stories. Millions of Internet readers may know the truth and some Americans may have heard the news by word of mouth, but the big media’s refusal to revisit an embarrassing mistake has guaranteed that most voters will remain uninformed.
Part of the reason for this self-protective behavior is that prominent media critics, such as Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, embraced the inaccurate reporting.
“The conspiracy theorists have been out in force, convinced that the media were covering up the Florida election results to protect President Bush,” Kurtz wrote on the day the recount results were reported.. “That gets put to rest today.”
Kurtz scoffed, too, at the notion that anyone still cared about whether Bush had stolen the presidential election. “Now the question is: How many people still care about the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century – and now faintly echoes like some distant Civil War battle?” he wrote. [Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2001]
Fearing the 'Liberal' Label
Why, many Americans wonder, is the national press corps acting in a way that seems so disrespectful of the democratic process? The answer is, partly at least, fear and self-interest.
While conservatives continue to charge that the national news media has a “liberal” bias, the reality for at least the past two decades has been that working journalists who got labeled “liberal” or who offended the powerful conservative establishment in Washington could expect their careers to be damaged, if not terminated, as occurred in the CNN and Webb cases.
As self-protection, journalists therefore have learned to bend over backwards to avoid offending conservatives. Journalists have no similar fear of liberal press critics.
This reality was on display throughout the 1990s as the Washington press corps sought to prove it wasn’t liberal by playing up petty scandals that kept the Clinton administration on the defensive. Starting with overwrought coverage of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Whitewater real estate deal and the furor over the firings at the White House Travel Office, mainstream and conservative news outlets alike kept up the barrage right through Clinton’s impeachment over fibbing about having sex with Monica Lewinsky.
This phenomenon of national reporters proving they aren’t liberals spilled over to the coverage of Campaign 2000, where Vice President Gore was hectored for minor or imaginary examples of supposed exaggerations. The news media – from the establishment New York Times and Washington Post to the conservative New York Post and Washington Times – joined in portraying Gore as a serial exaggerator whose behavior bordered on the delusional.
To create this caricature of Gore – who is, by any reasonable measure, a hard-working and well-intentioned public servant – the news media literally made up quotes for Gore and misrepresented a variety of other statements.
Some of the misrepresented statements became political urban legends, such as Gore’s never-spoken claim that he “invented” the Internet and his supposedly false claim that author Eric Segal had used him as a model for a character in the novel, Love Story. Though Segal later confirmed this fact, the media continued to insist that Gore had made it up.
In another case, the media accused Gore of suffering from delusional tendencies for allegedly commenting about the Love Canal toxic-waste investigation that “I was the one that started it all,” a quote used in critical stories in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
In reality, Gore had been referring to another toxic-waste case in Toone, Tennessee, and had said “that was the one that started it all.” The major newspapers had simply gotten the quote wrong and then dragged their heels on issuing a correction, while the mistake spread to dozens of other news organizations around the country. [For a fuller account of this case, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Media.”]
A Bush-Cheney Tilt
Rolling Stone magazine has published a new study of this anti-Gore media bias and quotes reporters on the campaign trail acknowledging the press hostility toward the then-vice president.
“The coverage seemed to be much more aggressive and adversarial than I’d ever seen before,” said Scott Shepard, a veteran newsman who covered the campaign for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
A network television correspondent was quoted as saying, “There just developed among a certain group of people covering Gore, particularly the print people, a real disdain for him. Everything was negative. They had a grudge against [Gore]. I don’t know how else to put it.”
The Rolling Stone article by Eric Boehlert quoted Ceci Connolly, the Washington Post reporter who misquoted Gore about Love Canal. She continued to insist that her misquote “did not change the context” of Gore’s original comment, though any fair reading of Gore’s remarks would indicate that he was not claiming to have been the first one to discover the toxic-waste problem at Love Canal. [Rolling Stone, Dec. 6-13, 2001.]
Katharine Seeyle, the New York Times reporter who joined Connolly in making the Love Canal misquote, also has stood by the general accuracy of her account. Both reporters continue to hold down high-profile jobs as correspondents at these two leading newspapers.
Neither they nor any of the other reporters who demonstrated unprofessional hostility toward Gore have suffered the fates of the CNN producers on the poison-gas story or Gary Webb on the contra-crack stories. [For the most detailed coverage of the Gore exaggeration topic, see the archives at Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler Web site.]
To make this caricature of Gore as a pathological liar stand out in even starker contrast, the campaign press corps chose to ignore or play down exaggerations and even outright lies told by Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney.
For instance, during the vice presidential debate, Cheney depicted himself as a self-made multi-millionaire from his years as chairman of Halliburton Co. As for his success in the private sector, Cheney declared that "the government had absolutely nothing to do with it."
The reality was quite different, however, since Cheney had personally lobbied for government subsidies that benefited Halliburton, including federal loan guarantees from the U.S.-funded Export-Import Bank. During Cheney's tenure, Halliburton also emerged as a leading defense contractor with $1.8 billion in contracts from 1996-99.
Immediately after the debate, Cheney went on the road and denounced Gore for having an apparent "compulsion to embellish his arguments or ... his resumé.” Yet, the major news media made no note of Cheney's own resumé polishing, though that information was all on the public record. [For details, Consortiumnews.com's "Protecting Bush-Cheney."]
The Recount Battle
The anti-Gore bias carried into the post-election battle for a full-and-fair count of the Florida votes. From the start, commentators leaned heavily on Gore to concede, though his lead in the popular vote was swelling to over a half million votes and he was only a few votes shy of a majority in the Electoral College even without Florida.
Mike Barnicle of the New York Daily News argued that Gore should do the right thing and give up. “This could be Al Gore’s moment,” Barnicle said on MSNBC on Nov. 8, 2000. “It could be the moment where he finally gets the chance to live up to his great father’s ideals and have the courage to step aside.”
NBC’s Tim Russert declared that Gore “can’t extend it to too long, nor can he become a whiner about Florida.” As for Gore’s advisers, Russert said, “If they continue then to file lawsuits and begin to contest various areas of the state, then people will begin to suggest, ‘uh-oh, this is not magnanimous. This is being a sore loser.’”
Conservative commentators made similar arguments with a nastier tone.
On Nov. 12, columnist George Will wrote that “all that remains to complete the squalor of Gore’s attempted coup d’etat is some improvisation by Janet Reno, whose last Florida intervention involved a lawless SWAT team seizing a 6-year-old. She says there is no federal role, but watch for a ‘civil rights’ claim on behalf of some protected minority or some other conjured pretext.”
Gore’s decision to fight for Florida “made the poisonous political atmosphere in Washington even more toxic,” said Fox News’ Tony Snow on Nov. 12, 2000. “Gore has established a precedent for turning elections into legal circuses and giving the final word not to voters but to squadrons of lawyers.” [For a fuller compilation of post-election comments, see FAIR’s “Media Vs. Democracy” http://www.fair.org/articles/media-vs-democracy.html]
The irony of Snow’s words would become apparent only a month later when Bush sent a squadron of lawyers to convince five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent any more counting of votes and to deny the voters of Florida the final word.
In the year that has followed, the media trends have continued down the same course, with Bush still getting the kid-glove treatment and Gore still coping with press misquotes.
In late November, Gore came in for a new round of ridicule for a supposed claim that he had opened a family restaurant in Tennessee. Quoting a Gore speech in Lagos, Nigeria, Reuters reported that Gore had said, "We have started a family restaurant in Tennessee and we are running it ourselves."
To some journalists, this sounded like another case of Lyin' Al claiming some accomplishment that didn't really exist. Comedian Jay Leno included a joke about Gore's restaurant in his monologue on NBC's "Tonight" show.
When Gore returned to the United States, however, a transcript was made from a tape of his speech. According to the tape transcript, Gore had actually said, "We stopped at a little family restaurant in Tennessee. We were eating there by ourselves." Reuters then retracted the story. [Washington Post, Dec. 1, 2001]
But the most fitting final comment on Election 2000 may be the silence of major news outlets in the face of evidence that they misreported the results of their own recount – and in doing so, awarded legitimacy to George W. Bush, the man who lost the election but won the White House.
In the 1980s, writing for the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. His latest book is Lost History, a study of how propaganda has altered Americans' understanding of their recent history.