Stories on pre-election manipulation took false balance to absurd lengths
In the run-up to the pivotal 2004 presidential election, reports of an unprecedented flood of new voter registrations (especially in electoral vote-rich swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania) filled papers and newscasts in local media and the national mainstream press.
But looming over this exercise in democracy was the shadow of the disputed 2000 election. Irregularities were alleged among some of the new registrations—such as multiple forms bearing the same name, or monikers like “Jive Turkey”—prompting pledges to purge the rolls and even challenge specific voters at the polls on November 2. There were also reports of flyers and phone calls with false information about where and when to vote, and of voters’ party affiliations being changed without permission.
Such problems led to heated accusations, investigations and lawsuits by officials and advocacy groups. At issue were two very distinct charges: voter fraud, the prospect of voting by ineligible people; and voter suppression, the intimidation and/or disenfranchisement of legitimate voters.
Given these serious allegations, the press had a responsibility to warn the public about practices that might affect the election’s outcome—and to help us distinguish the real and flagrant campaign charges from the frivolous or false. How well did journalism succeed at this crucial democracy-protecting task?
Election-year food fight
Overall, malfeasances attributed to Republicans were more serious and credible, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out (10/15/04). These included documented “abuses of power” by Republican office holders and “a pattern of . . . efforts to disenfranchise Democrats by any means possible,” including “naked efforts” in Florida to suppress “the votes of blacks in particular.” Krugman accurately noted that “there haven’t been any comparably credible accusations against Democratic voter-registration organizations.”
Too often, however, stories covering the conflicts bore a theme and tone couching them as particularly intense election-year food fights, or “a propaganda war,” as the New York Times put it (11/1/04). Headlines announced, “Democrats Say the GOP Aims to Disenfranchise the Poor and Minorities. Republicans Counter With Claims of Voter Registration Fraud” (L.A. Times, 10/26/04) and “Voter Suppression Charges on the Rise: Democrats Cry Foul While Republicans Call It a Myth” (MSNBC.com, 10/31/04).
Typically, the stories presented a series of “he said/she said” volleys, focusing on a particular complaint from one side, then matching it with a retort or example of a controversy from the other—whether or not it was valid or comparable. In so doing, they stirred together a stew of criminal mischief and innocuous activities, systematic schemes and isolated incidents, questionable decrees by powerful officeholders and bureaucratic errors. This sometimes procrustean attempt at journalistic evenhandedness served to artificially equalize—and thus neutralize—the problems.
In their litanies of bipartisan charges, many outlets cited certain seedy cases of fraud as if they supported a Democratic conspiracy, such as a man in Ohio who admitted he registered imaginary people in exchange for crack cocaine (Toledo Blade, 10/19/04). A few, like the Washington Post (10/29/04) and CNN (10/30/04), brought up a 1982 consent decree that required Republicans nationwide not to engage in fraud-prevention programs that target or disproportionately affect minorities—then changed the subject. (A recent suit aimed to enforce the decree in light of efforts by Republicans in several states to create “challenge lists” from mail returned as undeliverable that was sent to voters in predominantly African-American areas—Washington Post, 10/29/04.)
Other documented historical cases of racially motivated voter intimidation—most recently gun-toting Florida law officers quizzing elderly black citizens in their homes because they had recently voted by absentee ballot—were countered by Bush backers dismissing Kerry supporters’ concerns as paranoid fabrications (e.g., CNN, 10/20/04; Wall Street Journal, 10/27/04).
USA Today (10/15/04) epitomized the reportorial trend with “Election Protests Already Started.” This article declared that “Democrats and Republi-cans in key states are trading accusations of fraud and voter intimidation,” then quoted the director of Electionline.org: “The more people realize that a tiny number of votes can have a huge impact, the more aggressively they are going to fight.”
As evidence of this, USA Today provided a bulleted list of “shenanigans,” with one major charge laid to Republi-cans, one to Democrats, both of which appeared in most other reports: In Nevada and Oregon, former employees of Sproul & Associates, hired by the Republican party to sign up voters, allegedly told workers to register only Republicans and tore up or trashed forms registering Democrats—a felony in Oregon.
Meanwhile, a Democratic Party election manual, according to USA Today, “urg[ed] recruitment of local minority leaders to launch pre-emptive strikes against voter intimidation, even if there’s no evidence it’s going on.” The paper seems to have been referring to the Kerry-Edwards Colorado Election Day Manual, which actually instructed campaigners to “review Republican tactics used in the past in your area or state.”
Also included in USA Today’s mischief list were the facts that there were 165,000 “new voter sign-ups” in Denver, a number which in itself somehow “brought warnings of potential voter fraud,” and that a civil-rights group had asked the U.S. Civil Rights Commission “to investigate activities designed to suppress the African-American Vote” in Florida.
The CBS Evening News (10/15/04) report led with the accusations against the Sproul group, Voters Outreach of America, and noted additional investigations into its practices in Oregon. It then countered with the group’s dismissal of the Nevada accuser as a disgruntled employee, and a Republican retort that “the controversy [is] a ‘disingenuous ploy to shift focus from voter fraud rampant among John Kerry’s Democratic supporters.’” The segment closed, “This brawl is a sneak preview of the battles both sides will be waging right down to Election Day.”
MSNBC.com (10/13/04) counterbalanced an actual quote from Republican Michigan State Rep. John Pappageorge (“If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we’re going to have a tough time in this election”) with an unsubstantiated allegation from Ben Ginsberg, a former counsel for the RNC, that “Democrats have resorted to charges of voter suppression as their best get-out-the-vote mechanism on election day.”
A New York Times article (10/18/04) emphasized the plethora of lawsuits on both sides, leading with the case against Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, who among other things tried to disqualify registration forms submitted on the wrong stock of paper. Saying that “the clashes have followed a similar script,” the Times examined Republicans’ plan to “scrutinize the use of ‘provisional ballots’ . . . and challenge people whose registrations seem suspect or who have not voted in recent elections” in swing states with large numbers of new Democratic voters.
This operation was treated as comparable to the plan by a coalition of civil rights groups to help people vote by monitoring problems at the polls nationwide and providing an assistance hotline. Republicans, the Times pointed out, called the coalition “a front organization for the Democrats because the member[s] represent traditionally Democratic constituencies.”
The New York Times’ November 1 article (“Charges of Dirty Tricks, Fraud and Voter Suppression Already Flying in Several States”) was another roundup of diverse allegations. It led by comparing an actual case of suppression in Ohio—“a handful of voters” who received faked letters saying they could not vote if they had registered with “a variety of Democratic-leaning groups”—with unsubstantiated conjecture about fraud in Pennsylva-nia: The state Republican Party had sent mail to newly registered voters, but 10,000 of these letters were returned undeliverable.
Accusations as “games”
The Boston Globe (10/30/04) ran a piece with a “he said/she said” headline: “In Florida, Partisan Clashes Mark the Run-Up to November 2; Accusations Fly of Intimidation and Voter Fraud.” The article reported that “Democrats have accused Republicans of planning to challenge many voters in heavily Democratic precincts . . . in order to create long lines and discourage voting, while Republicans have accused Democrats of registering nonexistent new voters.”
A political science professor was quoted calling the competing accusations “games.” One problem: Repub-licans had openly stated their intention to compile challenge lists—which, in Florida, included a list of felons the government had found inaccurate (Tampa Tribune, 11/2/04).
A page-one article in the Wall Street Journal (10/27/04)—running under the headline “As a Final Gambit, Parties Are Trying to Damp Turnout”—managed to characterize voter suppression as the perennial province of both parties by stretching the concept into absurdity. Its focus: negative ads and campaign rhetoric.
“Both camps are doing what they can . . . to convince the other side’s supporters that they shouldn’t be voting in the first place,” said the Journal, comparing a RNC flyer in West Virginia warning that John Kerry would ban the Bible with “Democrats’ attempts to sow doubts about Mr. Bush’s character” and noting that “negative information can suppress turnout.” In one paragraph, the article cites factual accounts of Republicans conducting “background checks” on new voters in Wisconsin as evidence of Democratic intent to suppress Bush voters: “Democrats have been unusually aggressive in accusing Republicans of openly attempting to dissuade Kerry supporters from showing up November 2.”
Two stories in the Washington Post included some important perspectives. “Voter Probes Raise Partisan Sus-picions” (9/20/04) stated that the raft of alleged voter fraud probes in key states is “part of a broader initiative by Republican U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft targeting bogus registrations and other election crimes”—suggesting that the efforts were orchestrated from the top of the Bush administration.
Significantly, the Post (like numerous news articles in regional papers in so-called battleground states) mentioned that officials had determined many acts of alleged fraud were motivated by money, not politics: Registrations had been submitted by individuals hired for voter drives who were paid by the signature.
The article noted that “experts question whether the [fraud] phenomenon is widespread,” and that “election officials in both parties” said that “new identification laws, as well as signature checks, make ballot box stuffing extremely difficult.” Later, it quoted an Ohio elections director who described “the logistical difficulty of signing a fake person up to vote and then finding a body to vote in that name.”
“Some Fear Ohio Will Be Florida of 2004” (Washington Post, 10/26/04), though still using the “trading accusations” framework and a gratuitous reference to “two suspected terrorists” found on Ohio’s voter rolls, quoted “election officials and other experts” who pointed out that in cases where registered voters in an area exceed eligible residents, “The National Voter Registration Act prohibits them from purging voters from rolls for four years after an initial notification is sent.”
Such facts were overlooked or minimized in much of the coverage that appeared in subsequent weeks.
Balance and objectivity—reporting both (preferably all) sides of a story without favor—are journalism’s classic tenets. However, when the factual evidence is far stronger on one side, forced evenhandedness is neither accurate nor fair. When reporters will go to any lengths to avoid appearing partisan (particularly to escape the “liberal media” tag), they open themselves to being used by campaign spinners, passively parroting political rhetoric rather than parsing it.
The cult of “objectivity, as Brent Cunningham observed in his essay “Rethinking Objectivity” (Columbia Journalism Review, 7-8/03), makes journalists “hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren’t already out there.” And the convention of balance-at-all-costs—even when the facts are not balanced—can neutralize issues that already are out there.
The taboo against suggesting that one side might be more right than the other remains strong, however, as shown by the brief controversy over an internal memo from ABC News political director Mark Halperin to his staff, published on the Drudge Report (10/8/04). Halperin stated, “We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.” A suggestion that both sides should get only as much criticism as they deserve was depicted as a demand that Kerry be held to a lower standard.
Of course, if everyone is automatically equally guilty, then no one is accountable, and this grants a kind of immunity to those who would influence the U.S. electoral system through vote fraud and intimidation. As Joshua Micah Marshall put it in his blog Talking Points Memo (10/3/04), “the failing of the current norm of objectivity is that it advantages liars.”
Miranda Spencer, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, wrote about the 2000 Florida ballot recount in the January/February 2002 issue of Extra!.