Vanessa and Her Media Bias Chart

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As my  schedule puts me behind in posting original material, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to a lady named Vanessa, if you’re not already familiar with her. She is an attorney in Colorado who writes a modest little blog called All Generalizations Are False, with which I am quite impressed.  Its centerpiece, at least for the time being, is a chart that lays out bias and reliability among the major U.S. media outlets.

We live in a very visually-oriented world. You can hear and read a lot about media bias, but for many people, nothing helps sort it all out like this visual aid, which is informative, easy to follow, and pleasing to the eye.

It’s likely that anyone who sees it will quibble about the accuracy of the placement of one or more of the outlets thereon. I myself would have placed National Review both farther right and farther down the scale of reliability; but then this is based on my own personal experiences with it and its editor (which I really must tell you about one day) rather than a systematic examination such as Vanessa has conducted. She notes that she has received more feedback about CNN than anything else, and she even devotes a separate post to this.

There are also other posts on her site worth reading, mostly concerning observations about the media. I have found Vanessa’s writing to be consistently informed, insightful and eloquent. I look forward to reading more of it.

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Propaganda Prop # 7: Cherry Picking

cherry-picking

You may have heard that the Associated Press recently was compelled to issue a retraction because of an embarrassing photo accompanying an article about global warming.  The article had identified the photo as depicting ice melting at the North Pole; but in fact, it was a seasonally thawed “lake” (actually more of a pond) some 300 miles away. Chances are you heard about this from an anti-science relative, along with the comment, “Aha! This proves that global warming is a hoax.” To which, perhaps, the only suitable response is: “Aha! This proves you know how to cherry pick.”

Cherry picking, the seventh in our series of propaganda tools, consists of zeroing in on evidence that reinforces one’s argument, and discarding evidence that doesn’t.  It’s the result of confirmation bias, which is a tendency — a tendency very deeply ingrained in the human species — to seek out confirmation of one’s beliefs and values. It usually doesn’t entail inaccurate information so much as incomplete information — facts ripped away from their context with other facts that would drastically affect their interpretation.

A frequent telltale sign that you’re being cherried is the reporting of a single anecdote followed by the words “this proves that…”. A single occurrence rarely proves anything except as noted above: The statement “This proves you know how to cherry pick” may be assumed accurate with reasonable safety, because doing something even once proves that you’re at least capable of doing it (it’s pretty damn hard to fly a plane once unless you know how). But it doesn’t prove that you do so habitually, and that’s the basis for “proofs” supported by cherry picking.

You might think that the Associated Press itself was guilty of cherry picking, but most likely it just committed an honest flub, placing the wrong picture with the right story. That’s been known to happen before. As far as Alex Jones and company are concerned, however, the journalists and editors were “blatantly lying”, which proves that global warming is a myth. But the AP had no need to lie or cherry pick, because there is an abundance of photos that starkly reveal thawing polar ice caps on a massive scale.

In any case, the AP gaffe is a journalistic lapse rather than a scientific lapse. It has no bearing whatsoever on the enormous mountain of evidence compiled through decades of climate science research. Yet the denialists speak as if they believe they can bowl that mountain over with a single cherry — from an entirely different orchard, no less.

The op-ed piece pushed by Jones and his faithful flock (it was re-posted from another website, Natural News) employs both of the most common cherries picked by the cult of climate science denial: (A) citing the beliefs of a few of the 3 percent of scientists (many of them affiliated with the petroleum industry and/or right-wing think tanks) as being more substantive than the 97 percent who have reached a consensus on global warming; and (B) citing instances of cold weather as contradicting warmer climate. Actually, long-term warming can contribute to short-term cooling; and the article also ridicules this sound fact as further proof that scientists are “incompetent”.  It also brandishes a couple of phrases that qualify as both straw men and framing: “Earth worshipers on the Left”, suggesting that it’s the “other side” and not the anti-science fanatics who have systematically politicized this issue; and “the lie that mankind’s loathsome habit of improving life is killing the planet”, suggesting that it is the anti-science fanatics rather than the scientists who represent true progress. Cute. The article also indirectly pays homage to “Climategate“, a faux “scandal” that science deniers falsely claim impugns climate research. They really pulled out all the stops on this one. There’s even a nifty explanation for why scientists are so devious and nefarious: “to take away your mobility and force you into crowded urban centers where you can be more easily controlled”.  Heaven knows people in those crowded urban centers are nothing but automatons, with evil scientists pulling their strings.

Cherry picking may be thought of as the flip side or complement of an error that all of us have been guilty of at some time or other: faulty extrapolation — more colloquially known as “jumping to conclusions” . We tend to draw conclusions in line with what we want to believe, even when the evidence is insufficient. And then we try to convince other people that those beliefs are accurate by reversing the process, selecting facts that support the faulty conclusions.

In 1998 a fraudulent study proposed a causal link between autism and certain vaccines. This gained a great deal of traction with the public, in part because children begin to manifest symptoms of autism at about the same age they get the vaccines. So the two must be related, eh? It’s like surveying the smog in Los Angeles and deducing that it must be caused by palm trees. (Which appears to be just what Ronald Reagan may have done.) It’s a classic case of the cardinal sin of sociology: confusing concurrence with cause — or as it’s been expressed, confusing “with” and “because”.

The reputed autism-vaccine link has been soundly discredited, but that won’t stop people from believing it anyway if they are determined to do so. Okay, if you wanna believe it, go ahead. As long as you keep it to yourself, you may be guilty of nothing more than being misled into a faulty conviction.  But when you start trying to sell your misguided belief to other people, you’re committing propaganda via the genus Pluckus redfruitus.

Sometimes people confuse cherry picking with illustration by example. (My attackers have been known to do so.) It’s an easy mistake to make — the line does get rather blurred. So let’s see if we can make it more distinct.

Suppose I’m discussing a certain extremist fringe group — we’ll call it the Koo Koo Klan — and I mention that it is racist.  Then I illustrate this with a particular incident in which the group burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family. Am I cherry picking or just providing an example? In a sense, it depends on whether the cart came before the horse.

If I’m basing my racist characterization of the KKK only on this one incident, then I just might have crimson-stained fingertips. There might be other reasons why they burned a cross on this family’s lawn. Maybe it was a twisted gesture of affection instead. Maybe they picked a yard totally at random. Maybe they didn’t like families with a certain number of kids or who drive a certain type of car. But if the organization has a history of burning crosses for racist reasons and has explicitly made racist comments in its official documents, promotional materials and speeches, then my conclusion is on much more solid ground; and my inference about this one action being of racist intent is more reliable, and may reliably be taken as an illustrative example rather than a definitive cherry.

As you no doubt are aware, cherry picking is a sort of Olympic sport among political pundits and partisans; and it often leads to some rather fascinating contortions of reason.

Consider, for example, a column by right-wing commentator Larry Elder titled What About the Stupid Lies Democrats Believe? (Elder, incidentally, is the author of the book The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, which rehashes talking points that he and his fellow ideologues utter frequently even though they’re supposedly forbidden from doing so. They include the claim that “illegitimacy” is “America’s greatest problem”. Really.)  Apparently on the defensive about criticism of the loony things right-wingers believe, he mentions just one of many –i.e., that President Obama is a Muslim — and plucks a few cherries to make it sound like that might not be such a fruitcake belief after all. Then he counters with a list of 5 “lies” left-wingers supposedly believe — which somehow excuses or mitigates the lunacy of right-wing beliefs. (That’s an evasive tactic we’ll be examining in the future).

His list of 5 supposedly wackadoo Democratic beliefs is really not far-fetched at all. and is highly suspect for several reasons. One of these “lies” in particular really jumps off the page at you:  “George W. Bush ‘stole’ the 2000 election”. Which he dismisses with this quote from the New York Times:

A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward. Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore.

As we discussed in an earlier post (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 3: What They Ignored) the allegation of a stolen election in 2000 is founded on numerous factors, all involving soundly documented instances of malfeasance by the Bush camp and/or the GOP on his behalf.  There was, for example, the unwarranted (and evidently unlawful) purge of tens of thousands of likely Democrat voters, months before any ballots were even cast, from the rolls in Florida — where Bush’s brother just happened to be governor and his local campaign chair just happened to be Secretary of State.  And there was the blatantly partisan intervention by a blatantly partisan Supreme Court — two members of which had direct ties to the Bush family and/or campaign — which included unnecessarily halting the Florida recount. And on and on and on.

But Elder ignores all of this, and focuses only on the projections of the media consortium which reviewed ballots long after the election was over.  And it gets even better. He singles out a single statement by a single media outlet summing up the results.  Not that it really matters. He could have found a similar quote in just about any major newspaper. As we discussed before (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 4: The Cleanup), the consortium examined the outcomes under several different counting scenarios; and Gore would have won most of them — including any scenario involving a statewide recount of all ballots!  And this, mind you, is even after all the shady shenanigans by the Bush gang. It’s hard to see how anybody could wring an unequivocal Bush victory out of all this, but that’s exactly what the media did. In nearly every case, news reports trumpeted the recount scenarios favoring Bush in its headlines, while burying in fine print the much more significant results favoring Gore. George W. Bush was not picked by the voters, but he was picked repeatedly by the cherry harvesters.

In short, Elder fails to make a case that the stolen election narrative is even wrong — much less that it belongs in the same corner of the loony bin as Obama the Muslim (not to mention death panels, forged birth certificates and Benghazi cover-ups). Yet he purports to have established both with a single quote from a single newspaper. He’s balanced quite a stack of cherries here.

In addition to overtly political topics, you’ll hear the sound of cherries being yanked from trees in relation to a number of other hot-button issues that almost invariably get linked to politics. Probably the two canards I hear cherried most often are: “gun control doesn’t work” and “American media has a liberal bias”.  (Both of these constantly chanted mantras are on Elders list of things you can’t say. Really.) We’ll be dissecting both of these myths in due course. For now let’s just note that “proving” either of them would require an Everest-sized heap of data; but proponents of these beliefs are generally content just to “prove” them with a pebble or two carefully plucked from the mass.

Several years ago, the ever-entertaining National Review ran what may be my all-time favorite instance of cherry picking. There is unquestionably a liberal bias in the media, it declared, because x number of media outlets during a certain period of time ran y stories about “gun control” and only z stories about gun ownership.  First off, the ever-entertaining NR was selecting a single issue as the determining indicator of bias. Then, it heavily stacked the deck by comparing coverage of “gun control” to coverage of gun ownership — how often is the latter really newsworthy? And do you really think that right-wing media would never have any interest in covering “gun control”? This illustrates just one of the many reasons why I can never resist affixing “ever-entertaining” to “National Review”.

None of the foregoing should be construed as an admonition against countering the prevailing paradigm. If I didn’t favor questioning “conventional wisdom”, this blog wouldn’t exist. (The prevailing paradigm, in case you really didn’t know, includes the “conventional wisdom” that media has a “liberal bias”; that “gun control doesn’t work”; that “both sides” are equally hostile and over the top; and that scientists are unscrupulous and inept.) But if you’re going to challenge experts in their own field, you’re going to need a hell of a lot more than your beliefs. And if you expect your beliefs to be taken seriously by people who are knowledgeable on the topic, those beliefs need to be backed up by more than a few cherry picked facts wrenched out of context.

 

Stewart Responds to PoltiFact Responding to Stewart Responding to Fox

Throughout history, the humorist has been to some degree revered in virtually every culture, and rightly so.  Humor is a way of seeing reality with its masks stripped away, and it’s safe to say that Mark Twain is quoted far more often than Immanuel Kant. Court jesters were prized by their employers not only because they provided diversion from the tedium of attending royal feasts and ordering beheadings, but also because their foolery frequently contained valuable insight and implicit sage advice, often expressed more bluntly than anyone else dared.

In the contemporary era, there are few humorists more astute and audacious (and therefore more hilarious) than Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They speak boldly and hilariously not only to political power but to media power. But I repeat myself.

Recently, Stewart was a guest on Fox “News” and pointed out that Fox’s viewers are the most misinformed segment of the American population. Host Chris Wallace naturally  protested. And he received some backup from a rather unlikely source: the nonpartisan fact-checking organization PolitiFact. They said Stewart was wrong, because Fox viewers rate supremely ignorant only in some studies, while in others they’re just somewhere near the bottom – which even if perfectly accurate doesn’t negate the observation that they’re the most misinformed overall.

Stewart responds as only Stewart can. Feigning humble ignorance he “apologizes” for his mistake, then casually points out some of the lies Fox has spread. And then some more, and then some more until he is visually buried under a mountain of them. But bear in mind that by no means is he listing ALL of Fox’s recent lies; he’s just enumerating SOME that PolitiFact itself has pointed out. These include two lies PolitiFact awarded its Lie Of The Year honor in 2009 and 2010 (“death panels” and “government takeover of healthcare” respectively). In other words, in order to challenge Stewart, PolitiFact had to challenge itself. Utterly surreal.

When the foremost propaganda arm of a major political party successfully masquerades as a news organization; when in fact that propaganda arm is the most popular among “news” networks in the country; when even nonpartisan watchdog groups can’t be relied on anymore, there’s only one thing to say.

Thank heavens for the comedians.

(See the sequel to this piece for the response to some of the silly reactions to it.)

A Brief Primer on the “Lamestream Media”

  

What Sarah Said
“And, you know, he who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and making sure that as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free. And we were going to be armed…part of his ride was to warn the British that we were already there that hey, you are not going to succeed, you’re not going to take American arms.”

What Paul Said

“Revere later wrote of the need to keep his activities secret and his suspicion that a member of his tight circle of planners had become a British informant. According to the letter, believed to have been written around 1798, Revere did provide some details of the plan to the soldiers that night, but after he had notified other colonists and under questioning by the Redcoats (emphasis added).”  (Associated Press, referring to statements by Paul Revere)

What Your Propaganda Professor Says

Revere’s letter, to which the former half-term governor of Alaska appears to be attempting to allude, does NOT support her rambling, undiagrammable statements apparently cobbled together from verbal elements she overheard from a tour guide . It does not say that he himself fired shots and rang bells, nor even that he rang shots and fired bells. You may quote me on that. As for those arms he was supposedly warning them they couldn’t take, and which she wants to make the most revered item in the universe, they’d mostly been relocated already. If she believes that Revere set out to warn the Redcoats, perhaps she also believes the Beatles set out to bury John Lennon.

What the Media Said

“Experts Back Sarah Palin’s Historical Account.” (Boston Herald)

“You know how Sarah Palin said Paul Revere warned the British? Well, he did. Now, who looks stupid? (The L.A. Times – which even compared the public’s allegedly unfair criticism of her comments to the deliberately manufactured myth that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet)

“Palin Did Not Misspeak On Paul Revere.” (Gateway Pundit)

“Mrs. Palin’s version of history was correct… the left does not revere history” (Washington Times)

The latter newspaper, founded by  “Rev.” Sun Myung Moon, the cult leader who has repeatedly railed about what an evil country America is, really felt on a roll then, and launched into the following delusional and irrelevant tirade:

“Tea Partyers and others who look to America’s past for inspiration are appealing to the great national narrative that the left has rejected. In essence, we have become two peoples: one with a vision of America as an exceptional country with a heroic history, and another believing the country and its people are burdened by a multitude of original sins and populated by groups who are owed continuing and endless debts because of that corrupt past.” (You can deduce all of that from an inept politician’s bungling of history???)

What Sarah Probably Will Say Again (and Again, and Again)

“We should ignore the lamestream, leftist media’s criticism of what it is that we say in an interview if we believe what it is that we say. Don’t let them, in a 24-hour news cycle, make us change our positions.”

Remember that. Ignore criticism if you believe whatever you say.

POSTSCRIPT: Kudos to Forbes, a right-leaning publication, for being candid about this  embarrassing woman.

The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 4: The Cleanup

So the Supreme Court delivered its suspenseful ruling, which in fact was really no surprise to anyone. And George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President. God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world.

Except that a lot of people still wondered who really would have won in Florida if the Supreme Court hadn’t come riding over the hill just in the nick of time. So, with the supposed objective of setting the matter straight, a consortium of eight news organizations sponsored a painstaking review of the ballots that were rejected. (At least all they had available. Thousands of them, mostly from heavily Democratic precincts, were mysteriously MIA.) Conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center and closely monitored by representatives of both political camps, the review tallied the likely outcomes under several different counting standards.

On Nov. 12, 2001 – a full year after the election – the consortium released its findings. And what did it conclude? Well, what follows is a representative sampling of newspaper headlines:

“Florida Results: Ballot Review Shows Bush Retaining Lead” blared The Miami Herald. “An Analysis of Florida Balloting Favors Bush”, offered the “ultra-liberal” New York Times. “Bush Really Won”, declared the New York Daily News. “Recounts in Miami-Dade Finds Bush a Fair Winner”, proclaimed the “ultra-liberal” Los Angeles Times. “Florida Vote Review Confirms Bush Won; Recount Would Have Left Gore Short”, exulted The Houston Chronicle. “Yet Another Recount Says Bush Won”, gloated the Tampa Tribune. “Newspapers’ Review Shows Bush Still Winner”, boasted The Arizona Republic. “Bush Still Would Have Won After a Recount in Florida”, announced the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. “Undervote Review Says Bush Won”, piped the Dayton Daily News.

Wow. Pretty unequivocal, huh? Surely nobody still could harbor doubts about Dubya’s triumph after reading headlines like those.

Ah, but there’s always the troubling fine print. And in this case, it was very troubling indeed. Anyone who bothered to read past the headlines and get the full story – which usually was buried somewhere in the back of the paper – found a very different conclusion. It turns out that Bush’s “victory” would have been attained only under a few partial-count standards, which the headlines all focused on. But under any counting scenario involving a statewide recount, GORE WOULD HAVE WON. Let’s repeat that: under any scenario involving a STATEWIDE RECOUNT, Gore would have won. Once more: Under ANY SCENARIO involving a statewide recount, Gore would have won. Yet the media consistently, almost universally, spun this into an incontestable victory for Bush.

Perhaps the eeriest example was The Washington Post, which touted a front-page headline proclaiming “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush”. But buried on page 10 was a box listing the consortium’s actual tabulations under the heading “Full Review Favors Gore”. Such schizoid self-contradiction was by no means unique; it was the media norm. But what makes the Post’s account even eerier is that it was accompanied by media critic Howard Kurtz’s gloating editorial (“George W. Bush, Now More than Ever”) in which he haughtily dismissed as “conspiracy theorists” those who pointed out such inconsistencies, and noted that they were “convinced that the media were covering up the Florida election results to protect President Bush” – which is precisely what his own paper was doing right under his nose – and insisted that such kooky notions had been “put to rest” by the consortium review.

So why did the media, after paying for and going to a great deal of effort to obtain, a closer look at the spoiled ballots, so consistently bury what they uncovered? After all, we’re all well aware of American media’s overwhelming “liberal bias”. (Wink for us, Sarah.)

One explanation offered was that due to the recent terrorist attack, people were hesitant to say anything that might undermine national unity. It was more patriotic, some believed, to blindly follow a national leader in time of crisis, even if illegitimate and incompetent, than to expose and correct flaws in the democratic process. But perhaps a more accurate explanation was that they simply didn’t want to rock the boat – heaven forbid that the media ever be guilty of such a thing. Apparently expecting to verify a Bush victory when they undertook the whole undertaking, they stuck with that story later, facts be damned.

In a statement expressing strong dissent to the majority Supreme Court ruling in Bush vs. Gore, Justice Stevens wrote, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” He might have added the same for the Nation’s confidence in the media to cover events and issues fairly. Its slanted reporting of the consortium review may have been the final nail in the coffin of American mainstream media. At least, there certainly has been no indication of miraculous resurrection since then.

So what lessons are we to derive from how the media behaved in covering the campaign, the election, the lawsuit and the review? Here are the major gleanings:
1.People read and remember headlines. Not stories.
2. Go on the attack early, and stay on the attack.
3. Find an unsavory label for your opponent, and keep hammering away at it. It doesn’t have to be an honest label.
4. We live in a visual world. People remember and accept what they see more readily than what they hear.
5. People will believe anything they hear if it’s repeated often enough.

And then there’s the most important lesson of all, though it’s not necessarily connected directly to propaganda: the best way to get ahead in the world is to have good connections.

But chances are you already had that one figured out a long time ago.

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. Not newsworthy. 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.

(See Part 4, “The Cleanup”.)