FAIR MEDIA ADVISORY: Media Vs. Democracy
COUP WATCH: FAIR MEDIA ADVISORY: Media Vs. Democracy
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
Media analysis, critiques and news reports
Media Vs. Democracy
November 16, 2000
With the outcome of the U.S. presidential election still unclear, mainstream media are emphasizing electoral "closure" over the question of who actually won the election.
Almost immediately after the vote, calls for Al Gore to either proceed slowly or to concede with dignity-- even before final vote tallies were in-- began to appear. Some pundits even argued that calls for a more accurate count of the Florida vote were somehow undemocratic: "The nation's stability is more important than whichever side falls upon the spoils of office," wrote David Nyhan (Boston Globe, 11/10/00). "The country should not be put through the wringer. The system is more important than either man or either party."
After Gore withdrew his concession, Fox News Sunday's Tony Snow commented (11/12/00) that "his decision made the poisonous political atmosphere in Washington even more toxic. Gore has established a precedent for turning elections into legal circuses and giving the final word not to voters but to squadrons of lawyers."
On MSNBC (11/8/00), Mike Barnicle of the New York Daily News thought an early concession might actually be to Gore's advantage: "This could be Al Gore's moment. It could be the moment where he finally gets the chance to live up to his great father's ideals and have the courage to step aside."
For some, a Gore concession has a noble historical parallel: Richard Nixon's decision to bow out in 1960 instead of contesting the perceived voting irregularities. Liberal columnist David Nyhan (11/10/00) recalled it as Nixon's "most magnaminous act," while the New York Times (11/9/00) and U.S. News and World Report (11/20/00) referred to Nixon's own memoirs to prove the claim that Nixon bowed out to avoid being labeled a "sore loser." Liberal columnist Richard Reeves said of Nixon on the op-ed page of the New York Times (11/13/00): "He understood what recounts, lawsuits and depositions carried out over months-- even years-- would do to the nation."
These comments appear to make the unwise move of taking Nixon's memoirs at face value. As an essay by David Greenberg in Slate (10/16/00) points out, legal challenges in 1960 were actually widespread: Greenberg notes that Republicans "succeeded in obtaining recounts, empanelling grand juries, and involving U.S. attorneys and the FBI," with the outcome in 11 states coming under scrutiny from Nixon aides.
In the name of stability and keeping up international appearances, many national media outlets declared the unclear election results a "crisis," calling for a quick resolution. NBC's Tim Russert (Nightly News, 11/8/00) warned that Gore "can't extend it to too long, nor can he become a whiner about Florida at some point," and offered this advice, particularly to Gore and his advisors:
"If they continue then to file lawsuits and begin to contest various areas of the state, then people will begin to suggest, 'uh-oh, this is not magnanimous. This is being a sore loser.' I think the vice president understands that as well.... If it starts dragging into petty politics and we get to Thanksgiving and we still don't know who our president is, I think the public will not have much patience with the candidate they believe is dragging it out."
In fact, most public opinion polls suggest that citizens are taking a much more reasonable approach to the situation than some of the elite media, supporting a process that emphasizes fairness rather than speed. A Newsweek poll found that 75 percent of respondents "preferred removing 'all reasonable doubt' about the Florida voting rather than 'getting matters resolved as soon as possible.'" An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (11/13/00) found that 55 percent of respondents favored the idea of recounting ballots, even if the process takes several weeks.
CNN's Larry King, though, seemed to have trouble reading these results. "The public, though, polls show they want it finished," he commented to a guest (11/13/00). "The public at least thus far does want it finished. Does that surprise you?" In a November 13 editorial, the New York Times insisted that there is "mounting public impatience with the delay in determining the outcome of the presidential election."
One reason media might perceive a "crisis" is that much of the discussion, particularly on television, has relied on partisan debate, with representatives of the Bush and Gore camps squaring off on any number of issues. In such an environment, the issues that need serious investigation-- stories of voter manipulation, the refusal to allow legitimate voters their right to vote-- are not pursued, while some of the more dubious arguments about the vote circulate over and over again.
Nightline's November 9 broadcast was one of the worst examples in this category, as Ted Koppel chose to only interview three senior Bush aides about ballot irregularities. Not surprisingly, they were not impressed with the complaints from citizens that their ballots were unclear or confusing; Koppel did not subject his guests to tough questioning.
Conservative media even charged Al Gore with trying to steal the election: Columnist George Will (Washington Post, 11/12/00) wrote that "all that remains to complete the squalor of Gore's attempted coup d'etat is some improvisation by Janet Reno, whose last Florida intervention involved a lawless SWAT team seizing a 6-year-old. She says there is no federal role, but watch for a 'civil rights' claim on behalf of some protected minority or some other conjured pretext."
The comment about a "protected minority" seems to be a reference to the complaints of voter fraud and intimidation coming from African-American communities in Florida. Despite the almost around-the-clock media attention given the election story, few media outlets have pursued these stories-- for example, the charge that perhaps thousands of mostly black Gore supporters were given ballots that had already been marked (Times of London, 11/13/00). The NAACP has been taking testimony from voters who charge they were intimidated and harassed at various polling places. The Congressional Black Caucus has also called for further investigation into these allegations.
Investigative coverage of the democratic process may be too much to ask of some media heavyweights. As Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly explained (Washington Post, 11/11/00): "You're trapped in a box full of numbers. With Monica Lewinsky, you could say, 'She's a tramp,' 'She's not a tramp'; you could do psychoanalysis. This is a one-dimensional story. You have to keep looking for new angles."
In a situation that goes to the heart of the American democratic process, it's unfortunate that some in the media seem to have trouble finding "new angles."
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