Apr 1 2001

Media Rush to Declare Winner in Florida–Again

On February 26, the Miami Herald and USA Today published the results of the papers’ re-examination of the presidential election ballots from Miami-Dade County. They found that the uncounted “undervotes”–ballots that registered no choice when read electronically–produced a net gain of only 49 votes for Al Gore, less than had been expected. Combined with official recount results in the other counties where Gore had requested a manual recount, the papers reported that Gore could not have won the Florida election with his strategy of asking for a limited recount.

This conclusion is debatable–other media recounts have found more votes than the official totals in Broward and Palm Beach, based on more inclusive standards that Gore would have argued for in court–but it does provide some insight into one facet of the Florida electoral struggle. What it doesn’t do is answer the more provocative question of what would have happened if the U.S. Supreme Court had not halted the statewide recount of undervotes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered, rendering Gore’s limited request moot. And it certainly doesn’t address the most critical issue of which candidate received more valid votes in the decisive Florida contest.

Certainly the Herald and USA Today do not believe their investigation to be complete; the papers are going ahead with their recount of undervotes throughout the state. And another consortium of major newspapers is conducting its own survey of all ballots rejected by mechanical counters, which may provide the most definitive answer to the question of which candidate “really won” Florida–in the sense of having more votes cast for them.

But that didn’t stop other media, seemingly enthusiastic about the opportunity to legitimize a questionable presidency, from rushing to pick up the story. “Bush Really Won” was the headline in the New York Daily News; “Recounts in Miami-Dade Find Bush a Fair Winner” was how the Los Angeles Times played it; in the Houston Chronicle, it was: “Florida Vote Review Confirms Bush Win; Full Recount Would Have Left Gore Short.”

Again and again, headlines misled readers about the import of the Miami-Dade recount: “Yet Another Recount Says Bush Won” (Tampa Tribune); “Newspapers’ Tally Shows Bush Still Fla. Winner” (Arizona Republic); “Undervote Review Says Bush Wins” (Dayton Daily News); “Bush Still Would Have Won After a Recount in Florida” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2/26/01).

Nor was TV much more accurate. Bill Redeker mischaracterized the report on ABC World News This Morning: “So, who really did get the most votes for president in Florida? According to a Miami Herald count of most of the state’s so-called undervotes, the winner was the man now in the White House, George W. Bush.”

Katie Couric on the Today show asked columnist Mike Barnicle: “As you know, this Miami Herald/USA Today recount down in Florida is finished. And using the most lenient standards, it found that Al Gore gained only 49 votes. So was all this post-election brouhaha for naught, in your view?”

Charles Osgood summed up the story on the CBS Radio Network: “Some people have honestly believed that if the Supreme Court hadn’t called a halt to manual recounts in Florida, Al Gore would have won the election and would be president today. But they can rest easy about that because it is now quite clear that even with everything counted manually, Gore would still have lost.”

Osgood concluded his remarks on the story by noting: “Even if this after-the-fact review had turned out otherwise, Bush would still be president now. But I suspect it would be a page one story and lead the news broadcasts. But as it is, the fact that Bush did indeed win is not getting much play, is it?”

Indeed, many conservatives, believing the misrepresentations of this story, wondered why it wasn’t getting more coverage–and complained to various news outlets. The ombudsman for the Minneapolis Star Tribune apologized for the “embarrassing goof” of not running the story until February 27–when it was on the paper’s front page. The Sacramento Bee‘s ombudsman criticized his paper for putting the story in the back of the second section, warning: “One slip in news judgment can damage a newspaper’s credibility, and this one did. The mistake was most likely apolitical, but it left behind a damaging wake.”

The Miami Herald‘s recount of Miami-Dade was only one of numerous partial ballot examinations done by the media since the November election; most of these, like the Palm Beach Post stories cited above, have shown Al Gore picking up votes. None of these were mentioned by the Bee. Apparently such “slips” are damaging only when the right complains about them.