The Media Role in Bush Vs. Gore, Part 3: What They Ignored

At 2:16 a.m. On Nov. 8, 2000, while the results in Florida were still very much in the air, Fox commentator John Ellis officially called the presidential election in favor of his cousin, George W. Bush. And since Fox was the top-rated “news” network in the country, the other networks sheepishly but promptly followed its lead. At CBS, Dan Rather proclaimed. “Sip it, savor it, cup it, photostat it, underline it in red, press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on the wall — George W. Bush is the next president of the United States.” Thus, Al Gore was immediately cast as the disputant, the spoilsport, the sore loser in the recount and legal tangles that followed; and given that he’d already been well established as a “liar”, any attempt that he made to obtain a more accurate vote tally could easily be spun as “trying to steal the election”. He was on the ropes, and he never got off.

The Bush team made yet another shrewd move by enlisting some GOP heavy hitters such as former Senator Bob Dole, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and former Secretary of State James Baker, to present Dubya’s case to the public – vilifying Gore while giving the impression that Bush was calmly twiddling his thumbs above the fray. In truth, even while Team Bush was demonizing Gore for pursuing a recount in a state with a razor-thin edge, they were quietly seeking their own recount in New Mexico, which had gone to Gore by a larger margin. The media didn’t consider this newsworthy.

One thing Gore did was to challenge a block of 680 overseas ballots that were delivered after the deadline, and by state law should have been disqualified, but were counted anyway – after intense pressure from Team Bush, and a memo from Florida Secretary of State (and co-chair of the Bush campaign) Katherine Harris instructing election officials to disregard the time and date requirements. Of these ballots, 630 went to Bush, for a net gain of 580. (Did we mention that his official margin of victory was 537? And did we mention that in counties Gore carried, only 20% of absentee ballots with unclear postmarks were counted, while in those Bush carried 60% were? Sorry, not newsworthy.). But not to worry, up steps James Baker to the plate, wringing his hands over how horrible it is that Gore should want to toss out “military” ballots and show such disregard for the nation’s military – in which Gore had served more recently than Baker. Never mind that only a portion of these ballots were indeed cast by military personnel. Gore knew a potential PR disaster when he saw one, and backed down. And of course the media did precious little to defend his cause. (Not newsworthy.)

Perhaps they were too busy covering the protest at the canvassing board in Miami where a recount was underway, and a handful of hooligans had gathered to harass, threaten and actually assault workers doing the job . This was the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot, because the demonstrators were so impeccably dressed. And for good reason, it turns out. The media were quite content to portray them as ordinary citizens outraged over the flagrant pursuit of mathematical precision; how much effort would it have taken to identify them as Republican operatives (see photo above) flown in from Washington on private jets owned by Enron and Halliburton, lodged at expensive hotels, paid for their efforts and – in some cases – rewarded with posts in the Bush administration? Entirely too much effort, apparently. (Not newsworthy.) This was just one of the many, many, many MANY questionable tactics employed by the Republicans to pull of this election – there were at least 60 CRIMINAL offenses in all they were accused of committing. But the media didn’t find any of them newsworthy.

The Wall Street Journal, a decidedly Republican-friendly paper, did report that Bush personally thanked the mob for its unruliness on his behalf, and encouraged others to follow suit. But in general, you would have thought from the news coverage that the pro-Bush demonstrators and pro-Gore demonstrators were pretty evenly matched in numbers. What almost nobody reported was that the Bush camp HIRED demonstrators, while the Gore camp did not. (The American Prospect did report this, and also noted that some Gore supporters were infiltrating the Bush troops in order to collect enough cash to keep their own efforts going!) Just not newsworthy.

Nor did the media necessarily have the excuse of having weightier matters to consider. One story that they could have pursued several months before the election, instead of having another laugh at the Inventor of the Internet, was the voter “scrub” in Florida. Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris contracted Database Technologies (later called ChoicePoint) to purge the voter rolls of thousands of alleged felons. At least 57,000 alleged felons were scrubbed from the rolls, most of whom weren’t really felons at all; the one county that sought to verify all the names on its list found that out of 694 individuals, only 34 were confirmed felons; that’s an accuracy rate of about 5%. (Not newsworthy). Most were just guilty of the crime of being black (not newsworthy), a demographic that tends to vote solidly Democratic. Of those African-Americans who did register and vote, THIRTY-ONE PERCENT had their ballots tossed out. Among the “felons” who were purged, at least 325 were listed as having committed their offenses on some date in the FUTURE. (Not newsworthy).

DBT/ ChoicePoint was not the only electronic entity to get its finger in the pie. By the year 2000. electronic voting machines were becoming the rage, with three companies supplying the bulk of them: Sequoia, ES&S and Diebold. Combined, they count about 80% of the ballots nationwide; all three have strong ties to the Republican party (Sorry, not newsworthy). The machines they use malfunction frequently and are so easily hacked that a chimpanzee was once taught to do it, after Diebold insisted that its machines could not be hacked by “any human”. (Not newsworthy.) The chimp’s name, by the way, was Baxter. Maybe the little fellow would have received more media attention if he’d been wearing a stained blue dress. One comment made by a newspaper reporter, in all seriousness, was “but elections officials would know if a chimpanzee got into the voting machine room.” You think I’m just making this up, don’t you?

Wherever these machines are used, Republican candidates do extremely well. In fact, they often do so well that they collect more votes in a particular county than there are total registered voters. In one Texas county in the 2002 elections, three GOP candidates for office each received exactly 18,181 votes. What are the odds of that, ye mathematicians in the crowd? Never mind, keep it to yourself, because it’s not newsworthy.

The decision John Ellis and Fox made to declare Bush the winner in 2000 came after, by some unexplained process, 16,022 votes were subtracted from Gore and 4000 false votes added to Bush. This particular problem was later caught and corrected, but by then the PR pendulum had swung irrevocably toward Dubya – and you have to wonder how many other such aberrations were not caught. That is, you have to wonder unless you’re a journalist. Out of hundreds of such jaw-dropping irregularities that have popped up since “black box” voting became the vogue, we’re not aware of a single one that helped a Democratic candidate. Shh! Don’t alert the media.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Wally O’Dell, the chairman of the board and CEO of Diebold, campaigned, donated and fund-raised vigorously for George W. Bush. And in a fund-raising letter, he stated that he was committed to “helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President”. This comment, of course, set off a media firestorm – nah, just kidding. And deliver he did, by whatever means. Ohio (where Diebold was headquartered) was the pivotal state in 2004 as Florida had been in 2000, and the results, while not as close, were perhaps even more suspicious. But no more newsworthy.

Shortly after that election, I happened to be in Raleigh, NC where I dropped in at a rally at the state capital in opposition to electronic voting. It was attended by about 200 people, a respectable size rally for Raleigh. Most of the attendees were supporters of John Kerry and/or opponents of George W. Bush, but it was not intended as a partisan event. In fact, the key speaker, an expert in the technology used to tabulate votes, promptly identified himself as a registered Republican. But he was more concerned with democracy than in seeing his side win. And while he went into some detail about why there was reason for alarm, his bottom line was simple: “Electronic voting sucks. I want paper ballots, and I want them now.” But he was preaching to the choir. There was not one journalist, not one newspaper reporter or photographer or TV camera on hand. And the next day, there was no mention of the event in the paper. The front page story covered, with photos, another event: a church festival attended by about the same number of people.

Nor was Raleigh unique. In fact, the rally there was part of a national effort to stage similar events in every capital city in the nation, including Washington. Some of these rallies had far larger attendance than the one in Raleigh. But except for a few places (e.g. California) the local media and the national media solidly ignored them. Church festivals are newsworthy; struggles for fair elections are not. Oh yes, you will see an occasional mention of the problem just before each election, but it’s generally just brushed aside without going into much depth. Just before the 2010 midterms, Fox expressed concern that these voting machines might register too many DEMOCRATIC votes.

One journalist who did consider this item worth investigating, even in 2000, was the award-winning reporter Greg Palast (sometimes called “the most famous journalist you’ve never heard of”), who did a lot of digging and faithfully reported the sordid details about GOP shenanigans in Florida, including the voter purge, to the whole nation. The catch was that the nation wasn’t the United States. Palast was reporting for the London Observer and the BBC. So it was the British public, and not Americans, who learned about what had been going on behind the scenes in Florida. In the U.S., it just wasn’t newsworthy.

But Americans almost got their chance. Maybe, sort of. Well, not really. Palast contacted CBS with his story, hoping they’d give it some air time in the states. But they called him to tell him that it didn’t “check out”. Stunned, he asked them just what kind of research they did to reach that conclusion, and they replied that they’d called Jeb Bush’s office, which had denied the allegations, so that was that. I’m not kidding.

In a similar vein, I commented after the 2000 election to an editor at the ever-entertaining National Review about some of the skulduggery in the Sunshine state, and his reply was, “I know there was no fraud in Florida. I was speaking just the other day to the editor of The Orlando Sentinel, and he assured me there wasn’t.” He wasn’t kidding.

We don’t mean to suggest that Democrats behaved like perfect saints during this whole affair, but their offenses were few and slight compared to what the GOP did on a routine basis. More to the point, the media turned a microscope on the Gore camp and a blindfold on the Bush camp. There is an old expression about people ignoring “the elephant in the living room”. In this case, there was a huge herd of elephants trampling all over Florida – the living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, den, basement, attic and front porch – and the media looked the other way. They were too busy watching Dishonest Al trying to steal the election. And waiting, of course, for him to tell his next big whopper.

(NOTE: This was intended to be a three-part series, but due to length, we’ve decided to split the last installment. We’ll have the conclusion coming up. Think you’ve heard it all? Just wait!)

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