As the 2006 mid-term elections near, it is worth looking at the way the press handled the important claims of vote fraud in the last election. Extra! examined the 2004 post-election coverage of major news outlets, focusing on the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today, along with network TV news coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC.
Extra! looked at this coverage in light of allegations detailed in Rep. John Conyers' report, "Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio." On January 5, 2005, the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee, led by Conyers of Michigan, issued a report on the "irregularities reported in the Ohio presidential election." The report detailed "numerous, serious election irregularities . . . which resulted in a significant disenfranchisement of voters," casting "grave doubts regarding whether it can be said the Ohio electors selected [in the 2004 election] were chosen in a manner that conforms to Ohio law, let alone federal requirements and constitutional standards."
The report, later published in book form by Academy Chicago Publishers, stands as an official record detailing the ways that the 2004 election, like 2000 before it, fell short of democratic standards. Yet the malfeasance the report details was conspicuously absent from the mainstream media discourse around the election. Instead of investigating the issues later outlined by Conyers, the press preferred to emphasize Bush's winning strategy (focused on social issues like same-sex marriage) and on what he would do with his "mandate" and "political capital" during his second term.
When these major outlets did look at problems with the vote, they tended to malign those who raised questions, ridiculing the idea of questioning the election's fairness, calling those who did "conspiracy theorists," "die-hards" and "party loyalists" who operate in a "parallel universe"—the Internet. The media's approval went to ex-candidate John Kerry and other prominent Democrats who fell silent on the vote fraud issue just days after the election, perhaps not wanting to be portrayed as "sore losers" as Al Gore was after 2000.
One prominent exception was a front-page article in the Washington Post (12/15/04) that looked at the long lines at polls—not treating them as a fact of nature, but instead examining a pattern of delays in voting-machine purchases and misallocation of those machines that were available. It also looked at Ohio Secretary of State (and Bush campaign official) J. Kenneth Blackwell's strict interpretation of a law governing provisional ballots, all of which are also featured in Conyers' report.
The Post didn't say definitively that the election outcome was untouchable, as many other media accounts did. Instead, it only said it was "unlikely that such 'lost' votes would have changed the election results." (And apparently "unlikely" is good enough to eliminate the need for any follow-up reporting.)
"Winning isn't everything"
On October 17, less than a month before the election, the New York Times ran a "Week in Review" piece, "Imagining the Danger of 2000 Redux," that predicted an "electoral nightmare," warning that "the likelihood of trouble at the nation's 200,000 polling places may be greater in 2004 than in any year in history." Ten days later, the Times warned (10/27/04), "There is a real possibility that the outcome of the presidential election . . . will again turn on court decisions," citing provisional ballots as the biggest problem ahead.
Despite this concern about a repeat of 2000's electoral fiasco, the "Week in Review" article hinted at the stance mainstream politicians and mainstream media would take if such problems occurred, asking: "Could the country stand another Florida?"
The conventional wisdom, apparently, was that the country could not. The Times noted that "some scholars and political combatants believe a second contested election could open lasting fissures in American society . . . squelching hopes for bipartisan cooperation in governing the country."
As if this didn't make clear the idea that a contested election would alter the course of American history for the worse, the Times quoted Clinton-era Secretary of State Warren Christopher: "A repeat performance would do irreparable damage to the good will and forbearance so essential to a functioning democracy. For the political parties, 2004 could be one time when winning isn't everything."
If avoiding political conflict was indeed such a priority for the nation, the mainstream press did an excellent job protecting the republic after the election, as it ignored, downplayed and marginalized any inquiry into vote fraud, especially those pointed out by Rep. Conyers—such as corporate interference and voting machine misallocation.
The day after the 2004 election, a USA Today article (11/3/04) focused on Ohio, where "voters turned out in huge numbers, braving heavy rains and long lines." The article reported that in Ohio, "the biggest problem was the sheer volume of voters that caused waits of up to three hours," noting that "turnout was especially heavy in African-American precincts."
In addition to understating the waits—some voters "stood on line as long as 10 hours" (Washington Post, 12/15/04)—USA Today also missed a major element of the story, by explaining the lines as the result of heavy voter turnout. As the Conyers Report noted, "There was a wide discrepancy between the availability of voting machines in more minority, Democratic and urban areas as compared to more Republican, suburban and exurban areas."
USA Today (11/17/04) later reflected that "just as hanging chads on Florida punch-card ballots were the enduring image of the 2000 presidential election, long lines at polling places have become the icon for this year's voting." Yet the paper again ignored the misallocation of voting machines that the lines represented, preferring to chalk up the waits to "polling-place congestion."
'Spreadsheet-wielding conspiracy theorists'
When they did purport to investigate the claims of vote fraud, major news organizations painted them as conspiracy theories, and discredited the activists and bloggers pushing the story. The New York Times' front-page headline (11/12/04) indicated the paper's take: "Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, Are Quickly Buried."
The Times, along with the Washington Post, did its part to make sure that vote fraud claims would indeed be buried. Soon after the election, each paper featured a prominent article that made quick work of investigating vote fraud by "disproving" some of the less substantial allegations and selectively ignoring other, more probable claims.
The Post article (11/11/04), "Latest Conspiracy Theory—Kerry Won—Hits the Ether," was featured on page 2, and focused on the discrepancy between Florida's exit polls, which "showed Kerry winning big," and the election results. The article used the phrases "conspiracy theories" or "conspiracy theorists" three times, attributing the "head-turning allegations" to "the bloggers, the mortally wounded party loyalists and the spreadsheet-wielding conspiracy theorists." The Post also noted that "the people who most stand to benefit from the conspiracy theories—the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee—are not biting," as if this should end any debate.
Meanwhile, the article ignored some of the most potent vote fraud claims, such as the misallocation of voting machines, especially in Franklin County, Ohio, and Secretary of State Blackwell's unprecedented attempt to restrict provisional ballots and reject voter applications based on paper stock—a move Conyers argues "may have resulted in thousands of new voters not being registered in time." (To its credit, the Post did eventually discuss both issues in its December 15, 2004 front-page story.)
The next day (11/12/04), the Times' front-page article echoed many of the Post's themes, although it focused more on the role of blogs in the "swift propagation" of vote fraud claims and on the relationship between blogs and the traditional press. Still, it repeatedly referred to "conspiracy theories" and "faulty analyses," and claimed that "within days of the first rumors of a stolen election, in fact, the most popular theories were being proved wrong." "Conspiracy theorists" being inherently irrational, of course, "many were still reluctant to let them go."
The Times suggested that raising questions about vote fraud detracts from fixing the "real problems," featuring a quote from Doug Chapin of Electionline.org (11/12/04), who said that "there are real problems to be addressed, and I'd hate for them to get lost in the second-guessing of the result."
TV blames the Internet
The only nightly network newscast to address the claims of vote fraud was NBC Nightly News (11/11/04), which started its segment with anchor Tom Brokaw asking about critics of the election, "Do they have a point?"
While reporter Chip Reid didn't come right out and say "no," he may as well have. "In the parallel universe known as the Internet, the presidential campaign is still raging," he told viewers (11/11/04). "Websites hostile to the president claim massive vote fraud." The segment featured a soundbite from political whipping boy Ralph Nader, who believed the election "was hijacked from A to Z." The only other person quoted in the NBC segment was Electionline's Chapin, who dismissed the claims of vote fraud as "conspiracy theories."
Reid ended NBC's short segment by shooting down a few of the vote fraud claims, adding, in another nod to the critics' supposed irrationality, that "explanations are likely to have little effect on the president's Internet critics."
While ABC's World News Tonight never reported on vote fraud claims, Nightline (1/19/05) devoted an entire program to examining the allegations on the eve of the inauguration.
Ted Koppel introduced the program—helpfully called "Conspiracy Theory"—by observing that "the problem with conspiracy theories is that while sometimes they are true, most of the time they are not."
Correspondent Chris Bury began by saying that while "the electoral votes have all been counted, certified and sworn to be true . . . none of that matters to the die-hards," who "cling to a thin reed . . . on dozens of websites."
Later, the focus turned to Ohio, with Koppel asking if the "many technical problems" in Ohio "add up to fraud." Looking at the long lines experienced by many voters, Bury noted correctly that "some voters left [and] others had to wait up to 10 hours."
"Why such long lines?" he asked, before answering his own question: "A shortage of voting machines coincided with 5.7 million voters . . . the biggest turnout in Ohio's history."
Nightline brought up the connection between the voting machine shortage and the possibly intentional misallocation, quoting Rev. Bill Moss, the founder of the Center for Freedom and Democracy and lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Bush, Cheney and Blackwell, who said "we know that this happened . . . in predominantly black areas, which traditionally vote overwhelmingly Democratic."
Bury quoted a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, Mark Niquette, who noted that "we did find that the heavy Democratic precincts . . . did receive fewer voting machines in total compared with the precincts that voted most heavily Republican." Then Nickette added, "But if you talk to the election officials here in Franklin County, they'll tell you, the main problem was there just weren't enough machines overall." Nightline neglected to note other analyses, such as the one done by the Washington Post (12/15/04) that found this was not the case.
Bury then turned to Ohio Secretary of State Blackwell, letting him "dismiss allegations that he had interfered with the vote" with a six-sentence quote, while giving a critic a single sentence, and ignoring altogether what Blackwell had actually done to disenfranchise voters.
Lastly, Nightline gave some time to Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal, who said vote fraud claims actually hamper election reform efforts by "wrapping what ought to be a genuine and important concern around sort of a fringe contention."
Bury ended the Nightline segment by characterizing critics as "disappointed and frustrated" people who "cannot seem to let go of the election that their man lost."
What of the Conyers Report?
When Conyers released his report, one could be forgiven for thinking the press might run with it. After all, here was a report coming out of a congressional committee, led not by someone from the "fringe," but by a prominent Democratic member of the House. Unfortunately, the report was largely ignored.
USA Today, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the three nightly network newscasts all ignored Conyers' report, both when he issued it in January 2005 and when Academy Chicago Publishers released it in paperback form in May 2005. A Nexis search of all "major papers" for the book found only one "book review," if a three-paragraph summary of a book (Columbus Dispatch, 6/11/05) can actually be considered a review.
The New York Times (1/6/05) mentioned Conyers' report only once in passing on its news pages, in an article about how Kerry would not participate in any formal challenge to the election. Much later, columnist Paul Krugman (8/19/05) did bring "Preserving Democracy" to the attention of Times readers in a column warning of possible vote fraud in the 2006 and 2008 elections, though he didn't present many of the report's most damning claims at any length.
The only discussion of "Preserving Democracy" in the Washington Post was on its op-ed page, in a column by William Raspberry (1/10/05), who castigated the press (without mentioning his own employer), saying, "stories [on the election] in the mainstream media weren't much help. They pretty much agreed that, while there were irregularities in Ohio and elsewhere, there are always irregularities."
Too bad the Post, and the rest of the mainstream press, didn't heed Raspberry's call to find out "if public officials and private citizens engaged in a significant and concerted effort to steal the election in the event the wrong person seemed to be winning it."
Absent such an effort, Raspberry predicted, "it's a safe bet it'll happen again."
Please also see the sidebar to this article: The 'Cheat Sheets'