Newspaper logo  
 
 
BURYING THE LEAD, Who really won in Florida?

THE STORY IS HIDDEN IN PLAIN VIEW:

BURYING THE LEAD
Who really won the Florida presidential election last November?

by Jim Naureckas
“Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote,” The New York Times headlined. That angle would be fine if you believed that the Supreme Court was the most important aspect of the story; but what about the presidency?

In journalism, it’s called “burying the lead”: A story starts off with what everyone already knows, while the real news—the most surprising, significant or never-been-told-before information—gets pushed down where people are less likely to see it.

That’s what happened to the findings of the media study of the uncounted votes from last year’s Florida presidential vote. A consortium of news outlets—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Tribune Co. (Newsday’s parent company), The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and CNN—spent nearly a year and $900,000 reexamining every disputed ballot.

The consortium determined that if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed the ongoing recount to go through, George W. Bush would still likely have ended up in the White House. That’s because the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court—as well as the more limited recount asked for by Democratic candidate Al Gore—only involved so-called undervotes, ballots that when counted mechanically registered no choice for president.

Gore and the Florida Supreme Court ignored overvotes—votes where mechanical counting registered more than one vote—on the assumption that there would be no way to tell which of the multiple candidates the voter actually intended to pick.

But as the consortium found when it actually looked at the overvotes, one often could tell what the voter’s intent was. Many of the overvotes involved, for example, a voter punching the hole next to a candidate’s name, and then writing in the same candidate’s name.

Since the intent of the voter is clear, these are clearly valid votes under Florida law. And Gore picked up enough of such votes that it almost didn’t matter what standard you used when looking at undervotes—whether you counted every dimple or insisted on a fully punched chad, the consortium found that Gore ended up the winner of virtually any full reexamination of rejected ballots.

So there are two main findings: The Supreme Court’s intervention probably did not affect the outcome of the limited recounts then under way, and more people probably cast valid votes for Gore than for Bush.

If the first finding was the important news, the consortium was scooped long ago: The Miami Herald and USA Today, working as a separate team, published stories in April that argued persuasively that the particular recounts that were halted by the Supreme Court probably would have produced a Bush victory.

What’s new is the finding that, since voters are supposed to decide elections rather than lawyers or judges, the state’s electoral votes appear to have gone to the wrong candidate. Given that the outcome in Florida determined the national victor, this is not just news but a critical challenge to the legitimacy of the presidency.

So how did the media report the results of the ballot reexamination?

Overwhelmingly, they chose to lead with the news that was comfortable, uncontroversial—and seven months old. “In Election Review, Bush Wins Without Supreme Court Help,” was The Wall Street Journal’s headline on its story, paralleling The New York Times’ “Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote.” That angle would be fine if you believed that the Supreme Court was the most important aspect of the story; but what about the presidency?

Other members of the consortium emphasized the most Bush-friendly aspects of the story: “Bush Still Had Votes to Win in a Recount, Study Finds,” was the Tribune Co.’s Los Angeles Times’ main headline on its report, matching The Washington Post’s “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush” and CNN.com’s “Florida Recount Study: Bush Still Wins.” The St. Petersburg Times’ Web site put it succinctly: “Recount: Bush.” While some of these outlets tried to convey greater complexity in subheads, all these headlines obscure the fact that the outlets’ most comprehensive recount put Gore ahead of Bush.

Emphasizing the old and conventional while playing down the new and controversial is a recipe for being ignored, and sure enough, few outlets that were not part of the consortium did much with the findings. A story that may well be mentioned in high school history classes a hundred years from now didn’t even merit an editorial comment from most newspapers.

It’s tempting to attribute this coyness to Sept. 11, and news outlets’ reluctance to undermine the legitimacy of the presidency when the country is at war. But the coverage of the consortium’s findings is similar to the way earlier media recounts were handled; even the most preliminary Miami Herald/USA Today ballot stories prompted “Bush Really Won” stories across the country. Similarly, when Bush’s inauguration was greeted by raucous marchers contesting his victory, many outlets played down the significance of the protests. The New York Times virtually ignored them.

War or no war, many journalists are instinctively protective of the legitimacy of the institutions they cover. But the job of a journalist is not to promote but to question. The theory behind the First Amendment is that the system will be strengthened by an unflinching look at the system’s flaws. In looking back at the results of the Florida election, the media flinched.


Jim Naureckas is the editor of Extra!, the magazine of the media watch group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). It is reprinted with permission. Email comments to fair@fair.org. See also: http://www.fair.org


Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on December 5, 2001.
  
Local Stories, Events

Ref. : Civic Events

Ref. : Arts & Education Events

Ref. : Public Service Notices

Books, Films, Arts & Education
Letters

Ref. : Letters to the editor

Health Care & Environment

11.22 Hinkley Point C subsidy has dealt consumers 'a bad hand', say MPs [even ignoring the possibly huge costs of nuclear calamities in the future...]

11.22 Renewables will drive 'steep decline' in wholesale electricity price in Australia – report [with a steep decline in air pollution too!]

11.22 Too right it's Black Friday: our relentless consumption is trashing the planet

11.22 Poor sperm quality linked to air pollution

11.21 Jet fuel from sugarcane? It’s not a flight of fancy

11.20 Replacing Liddell coal plant with clean energy $1.3bn cheaper – analysis

11.20 Battered by extreme weather, Americans are more worried about climate change [graphs]

11.20 Luxury Socialized Medicine

11.20 Keystone XL pipeline decision: what's at stake and what comes next? [the public's water is at risk]

11.20 A civil rights 'emergency': justice, clean water and air in the age of Trump

11.19 27-Year Study Finds the Amount of Insects Flying in the Air Has Declined 75 Percent

11.19 'My eyes are burning': Delhi holds half marathon despite pollution warning [“Stupid is as stupid does.” –Forrest Gump]

11.17 'We should be on the offensive' – James Hansen calls for wave of climate lawsuits

11.17 Keystone pipeline leaks estimated 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota

11.17 For Damage Done and Transition Needed, 50+ Groups Demand Global Fossil Fuel Tax

News Media Matters

11.22 RIP net neutrality: FCC chair releases plan to deregulate ISPs [like the end of The Fairness Doctrine for the news media under Reagan, we expect content and practices to tilt further to favor monoplies and 'conservatives']

11.18 The Paradise Papers: How Ridiculously Easy It Is For The Rich To Avoid Taxes [birds of a feather flock together]

Daily: FAIR Blog
The Daily Howler

US Politics, Policy & 'Culture'

11.22 Christian Theocracy, Authoritarianism, And The Blind Support Of Roy Moore

11.22 Can Republicans Stem the Tide of Women Abandoning Their Party?

11.21 Why is Donald Trump launching a withering attack on nonprofits?

11.21 Lies, Incoherence and Rage on Tax Cuts

11.21 Inequality Out of Control: The Average 1% Household Is Over $2.5 Million Richer in the Past Year

11.21 World’s Cheapest Solar Power in Mexico a Coal-Killer [Trump's obsession to help the coal industry and power plants is obviously stupid in many ways]

11.15 GOP Tax Bill Would Trigger $25 Billion in Cuts to Medicare, Warns CBO

Justice Matters
High Crimes?

11.18 US, European Nations Slammed for 'Complicity' as Humanitarian Groups Demand Aid for Yemen

Economics, Crony Capitalism

11.20 Monaco builds into the Med to house new throng of super-rich [Can we ever have laws to fully prosecute $Billionaire tax dodgers if the courts and government are bribed? If not, can we have a civilized anarchy instead?]

11.19 The Design Flaw at the Core of Humanity's Malaise

11.18 'All Out Class War': GOP Bill Cuts Taxes for Private Jet Owners, Hikes Taxes on Students

International & Futurism

11.22 The long read: After the liberation of Mosul, an orgy of killing

11.22 Coup in Zimbabwe: A win-win for China – for now

11.22 Vladimir Putin briefs Donald Trump on plan to end Syrian civil war [in the forthcoming agreement, we presume that all of the oil and gas wealth (from pipeline decisions, etc.) will go to the warlords du jour, with only nice words for the people of the region who have suffered so much...]

11.21 The Saudi System And Why Its Change May Fail

11.21 Saudi Billionaires Look for Ways to Protect Assets From Any Government Purge

11.20 Zimbabwe is not the banana republic of western fancy. After Mugabe, it can thrive [let's all pretend like he really did resign...] [when it's safe, create and grow a government sovereign wealth fund with national mineral wealth mining profits—like Norway did—to facilitate becoming a stronger society, improve public services and build a world-class economy]

11.20 EU to push for 40% quota for women on company boards

We are a non-profit Internet-only newspaper publication founded in 1973. Your donation is essential to our survival.

You can also mail a check to:
Baltimore News Network, Inc.
P.O. Box 42581
Baltimore, MD 21284-2581
Google
This site Web

Public Service Ads: