Jan
01
2002

Who Won the Election? Who Cares?

Florida recount consortium muffles results of months of efforts

On November 7, 2001, a reader of the political website MakeThemAccountable.com made a series of predictions about how the news media would cover a long anticipated review of uncounted Florida ballots from the 2000 presidential election:

The data will show that Gore won, but the article will be written to obscure that fact.... The headline will proclaim that Bush definitively won. The headline will be on page one.... The rest of the article, which will describe, albeit opaquely, that Gore really won, will be on [the jump].

That's pretty much what happened.

The study, dubbed a "double check on democracy" by the St. Petersburg Times (11/11/01), was spearheaded by a consortium of six major news organizations--the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Tribune Co. (parent of the L.A. Times), Associated Press and CNN--plus two Florida papers, the Palm Beach Post and St. Petersburg Times. In an effort costing nearly $1 million in pooled funds and some 10 months' work, the group rounded up uncounted ballots from all 67 Florida counties, then commissioned the University of Chicago's nonpartisan National Opinion Research Center to examine them.

After numerous unforeseen delays and a unanimous decision to postpone publication "indefinitely" so reporters could be mobilized to cover the terrorist aftermath, the completed data were released to the consortium by NORC near the first anniversary of the election. Each outlet independently crunched the votes according to nine recount scenarios and published the findings simultaneously on November 12. (All pieces cited in this article are from that date unless noted.)

The story/the spin

The study's key result: When the consortium tried to simulate a recount of all uncounted ballots statewide using six different standards for what constituted a vote, under each scenario they found enough new votes to have narrowly given the Florida election--and by extension the presidency--to Al Gore. Under three models that attempted to duplicate the various partial recounts that were asked for by Gore or ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, however, Bush maintained a slight margin of victory.

Coverage of these remarkable results by the eight consortium members, as well as by other major news outlets reporting their work, was remarkably uniform. Findings were interpreted and framed to support and justify the political status quo, reflecting a post-September 11 media tendency to reassures a panicked public that the American system is still intact.

As befitting such a major endeavor, all of the newspaper stories appeared on the front page November 12; CNN broadcast several substantial segments that day. The papers and the wire service offered news articles of 2,000 words or longer on their ballot recounts, plus separate pieces on such considerations as how the study was performed, reaction from Democratic and Republican leaders, post mortems on the candidate's strategies, and elaborations on the nature and effects of Florida's inconsistent election system.

Throughout, these themes emerged:

  • Bush Really Won. For the most part, the top headlines concentrated on the results of the partial recounts, pushing aside the more inclusive tallies: "Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush" (Washington Post); "Bush Still Had Votes to Win in a Recount, Study Finds"(L.A. Times); "Florida Recount Study: Bush Still Wins" (CNN.com); "Ballot Recount Supports Bush Win," (St. Petersburg Times); "Under the Two Most Likely Scenarios, Bush Won Recount" (Palm Beach Post). Other papers opted for a take-your-pick approach: "Florida Review Shows Narrowest Imaginable Margins with Bush Ahead in Some Categories, Gore Others" (AP); "Bush Wins, Gore Wins--Depends on How Ballots Are Added Up" (L.A. Times).

    While it's arguable that Bush "would have" won more votes had the halted partial recounts continued, that's just part of the story. As all outlets conceded further along--whether in the subtitle, a few paragraphs down or a separate article--Gore "might have" won if all rather than some of the uncounted votes had been examined. More important, they found that all evidence pointed to a simple and dramatic truth: A plurality of voters entered the polling place intending to vote for Gore. This reality was heavily obscured by generally pro-Bush headlines and misleading articles; in many cases, readers would have been better off skipping the stories and going straight to the accompanying charts.

  • Supreme Court Vindicated. So said the main headlines in the Wall Street Journal ("In Election Review, Bush Wins Without Supreme Court Help") and the New York Times ("Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote"). "Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged," the New York Times wrote, "the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore." The Times reiterating that point several times, even as it explained the global recounts under which Gore would have won. Stated the Wall Street Journal, "The Supreme Court didn't steal the presidential election."

    This ex post facto exculpation misses the main point of criticism of Bush v. Gore: It's not so much that the Supreme Court picked the wrong candidate to be president, but that the Court chose any candidate rather than allowing the vote-counting process to proceed. As attorney Vincent Bugliosi told The Nation (12/3/01), "No one claims the justices were clairvoyant. So to judge these justices by the final result...would be like exonerating someone who shoots to kill if the bullet happens to miss the victim."

    In any event, the idea that the Supreme Court did not change the outcome of the 2000 election is not as clear as the unconditional headlines would suggest. As Newsweek (11/19/01) reported, documents from Judge Terry Lewis, who was supervising the Florida recount that the U.S. Supreme Court cut short, indicate that he "was actively considering directing the counties to also count an even larger category of disputed ballots, the so-called 'overvotes,'... the group of disputed ballots that the consortium has now found that--had they been manually recounted--might have yielded a rich treasure trove of votes for Gore, enough even to put him over the top."

  • Put the Blame on Al. Coverage redirected readers away from the Court's actions--to Gore's bad legal strategy. Though acknowledging the sweeping effects of poor ballot design and uneven county election laws in Florida, stories emphasized that because he didn't request the "right" recount, Gore brought the election results on himself. "Al Gore was doomed," declared the Palm Beach Post in a front-page article accompanying its main story. CNN host Paula Zahn announced in an early morning segment, "If Al Gore had gotten what he wanted...George Bush still would have won." MSNBC.com's Eric Alterman (11/13/01) charged that though "Al Gore beat George Bush in Florida by almost every vote-counting standard save the one the Gore team managed to choose," the Court "did not have to take the election away form Al Gore: He and his campaign gave it away themselves."

    And Gore's supposed tactical misjudgments were used to minimize the importance of the finding that full recounts made him the winning candidate. As the Washington Post put it, "Gore's unrealized victory exists only under a controlled set of circumstances that even he was not seeking." Said the AP: "The review indicated [Gore's] only chance lay in a course he advocated publicly but did not pursue in court."

    Overlooked here: "the fundamental principle of democracy, that leaders derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, not from legalistic tricks," as veteran journalist Robert Parry wrote on the ConsortiumNews.com website (11/12/01). In a democratic election, the winner is determined by a tally of votes, not by candidates' legal maneuvers. To describe counting all the ballots as a "controlled set of circumstances" or as Gore's "only chance," obscures the fact that the point of an election is to express the will of the citizenry. As Jonathan Chait noted in the New Republic (11/15/01), "The important rights at stake...are those of the voters, not those of the candidates."

  • Nobody Cares Anyway. After all the time and effort they took to create this story for page one and the history books, the consortium wrote off its own findings as passé. This theme was kicked off by the St. Petersburg Times' pre-publication story (11/11/01), quoting L.A. Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus: "It's entirely possible that most readers may look at this and yawn." The St. Petersburg Times noted that "some question the study's relevance in a time of war," and asked, "Other than political junkies, will anyone care?"

    Judging from coverage, apparently not. CNN.com, for example, published a story titled "Gore, White House Dismiss Election Report." Consortium stories recycled the same "get over it"-type reactions to their study, particularly from Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer ("The election was settled a year ago, President Bush won and the voters have long since moved on"); from Gore, who reinforced his support for the war on terrorism: ("As I said on December 13 of last year, we are a nation of laws and the presidential election of 2000 is over"); and from Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who called the recounts "fascinating. They don't change anything." One of AP's stories ("Reaction to Ballot Review Tempered by Events") even led with Lieberman's demurral, and added, "Lieberman's move-on attitude matched that of many Americans, even in areas that staunchly supported the Democratic ticket, such as his home state of Connecticut."

    Writers and those they quoted voiced even outright disdain for the project: Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz (in "George Bush, Now More Than Ever") compared "the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century" to "some distant Civil War battle." A news analysis by the New York Times' Richard Berke, who in late September had called the study "utterly irrelevant" in light of September 11 (9/23/01), quoted Gore campaign chairman William J. Daley: "Anyone who speculates on such stuff at this point is wasting air." Or paper, it would seem.

    If this remarkable degree of national apathy-dressed-as-unity seems a bit implausible, that's because the consortium and others didn't seek (or didn't value) the opinions of anyone outside the Beltway. In the alternative press, political websites, and even some mainstream outlets, reactions ranged from skepticism to outrage. But such challenges to the consortium findings were portrayed as the biased purview of "sore losers or sore winners," as a later St. Petersburg Times' editorial put it (11/12/01), shrugging, "Single-minded partisans on both sides are free to embrace or reject the results as they see fit."

  • Bush Legitimized. All of these slants seem to serve an effort to legitimize the election of George W. Bush in troubled times--hardly the role of a purportedly objective press. Early on in its main news story, the L.A. Times declared, "Since the study was launched, the nation's debate over the Florida recount has cooled and Bush, whose legitimacy as president already was accepted by a large majority in January, has won massive public approval for his leadership of the war against terrorism." From the Wall Street Journal: "For many Americans, the question of Mr. Bush's legitimacy as president was settled when he took the oath of office January 20. For nearly everyone else the debate was decided September 11."

    Indeed, many of the reports touted Bush's approval ratings, citing polls from before the consortium's report was published. Said the New York Times' news analysis, "How do you challenge a president who is basking in job approval ratings of close to 90 percent?" Calling last year's election stalemate "a paragraph for history now," CNN's early broadcast noted, "A recent poll shows if the election were held today, George Bush would beat Al Gore by 21 points." Sidestepped were other, less comforting surveys: "Nearly half of Americans...remain convinced that President Bush either 'won on a technicality' or 'stole the election,'" noted Eric Alterman (MSNBC.com).

Echo effect

On November 12 and over the next few days, the rest of the major broadcast media and a handful of regional newspapers picked up the story of the consortium's report. The networks and others gave the study brief to moderate coverage, often leading with a "here's a blast from the past" angle. With rare exceptions, the news stories and editorials in these outlets followed the consortium's "Bush won" framing and "let's move on" attitude point for point.

"Media recount of Florida vote shows Bush was the winner of the Florida election," reported ABC World News This Morning; "A 10-month study into the uncounted Florida ballots in last year's election shows that George W. Bush would have won, even if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a hand count," declared Fox Special Report with Brit Hume.

"Not that it matters much, but George W. Bush has once again won the Florida recount and thus the presidential election," the Rocky Mountain News (11/13/01) editorialized,; the Tampa Tribune's editorial (11/13/01) summed up: "The upshot: The right guy is behind the desk in the Oval Office.... Happily, both major political parties have greeted the news--publicly, at least--with shrugs. They, instead, are living in the real world, where, by the way, the core temperature at the former World Trade Center still hovers near 1,000 degrees." Abroad, Britain's Guardian (11/12/01) reported that "Ballot Paper Study Makes Bush Winner in Florida," while Sydney's Daily Telegraph (11/13/01) declared, "Recount Shows Bush Won Election."

Interestingly, a couple of papers bucked the trend and spun the story 180 degrees: According to the London Independent (11/12/01): "Gore Could Have Won Florida Vote with Full Recount, Says Media Study"; the New York Daily News (11/12/01) headlined its story "Full Fla. Recount Favored Gore--Study." (P.S.: It was buried on page 35.)

Given this spin, it's a wonder that the story had any legs at all beyond the day it was released. Yet, after the fact, some editorials and opinion pieces within the consortium papers stepped up to acknowledge, directly or indirectly, that the portrayal of the Bush "victory" was a stretch at best.

Palm Beach Post editorial page editor Randy Schultz (11/18/01) stated outright in his lead: "The wrong man became president of the United States in January. That isn't an opinion. It's a fact." And in the Washington Post (11/16/01), E.J. Dionne complained about "complacency" towards the study, declaring "the media consortium confirmed beyond any doubt that a substantial plurality of Florida's voters intended to vote for Gore."

Whether or not you support the current administration, the real story of the consortium's findings was summarized by Chait in The New Republic (11/15/01): " Bush won the presidency not because the system worked, but because it failed."