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The Media Is the Mess

By Robert Parry
July 17, 2001

The belated discovery that George W. Bush’s campaign applied two disparate standards for counting overseas ballots in Florida – liberal for Bush strongholds and stringent for counties carried by Al Gore – underscores again the huge advantage that the well-funded conservative news media gives the Republicans.

By having a powerful media of its own – from TV networks to nationwide talk radio, from news magazines to daily newspapers – the conservative movement can give its stamp to events during the crucial few days when the public is paying attention. By the time, the truth comes out – if it does – it's often too late to change the outcome.

Now, eight months after the razor-thin Florida vote – and nearly six months into Bush’s presidency – The New York Times reveals that a key moment of Election 2000 came when the Bush campaign labeled Gore unpatriotic for insisting that Florida's law be followed in counting overseas absentee votes, including those from military personnel.

Immediately, the Gore-as-unpatriotic charge was picked up by the conservative press and echoed on the TV talk shows. The mainstream press joined the stampede.

Gore also faced accusations of hypocrisy for seeking hand recounts for ballots kicked out by vote-counting machines while urging that legal requirements be met for overseas ballots. Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gore’s running mate, was verbally bludgeoned on NBC’s “Meet the Press” until he agreed that the overseas military votes should be given the “benefit of the doubt.”

The Bush strategy opened the door for Republicans to press for lax standards on overseas votes in pro-Bush counties while enforcing narrow rules for pro-Gore counties, a six-month New York Times investigation found. The result was that about 680 questionable ballots were counted that would have been rejected under the terms of Florida’s election statute.

Those overseas ballots lacked required postmarks, were postmarked after Election Day, were mailed inside the United States, were cast by voters who had already voted, were missing signatures or contained other irregularities. Meanwhile, hundreds of ballots with similar flaws in pro-Gore counties were thrown away.

It could not be determined exactly how many votes Bush gained from the disparate standards used to count flawed ballots. But the Times reported that a statistical analysis of the 680 questionable ballots indicated that Bush probably netted about 292 votes, meaning that his official victory margin of 537 votes would have been trimmed to 245 votes if those ballots had not been counted. [NYT, July 15, 2001]

Adding the Tallies

That finding – combined with newspaper analyses of Florida ballots that were kicked out by voting machines but that indicated a presidential choice – means that Gore most likely would have won the state and thus the presidency if a statewide recount had been conducted and the flawed overseas ballots had been excluded.

The Miami Herald and USA Today reported that Gore registered a net gain of 682 if so-called “overvotes” had been checked by hand. That number alone would be more than enough to erase Bush's 537-vote margin, but the newspapers made other adjustments to the tally as they incorporated uncounted ballots that showed intent of the voters.

The newspapers concluded that Gore would have won by 242 if ballots with multiple indentations -- indicating a malfunctioning machine -- were counted. Gore's margin would have swelled to 332 if ballots with indentations only for president were counted. If all indented ballots were thrown out, however, Bush would have won by margins of 407 or 152, depending on whether ballots with hanging chads or only fully punched through chads were counted, the newspapers reported.

The New York Times' finding suggests that if the faulty overseas votes were disqualified -- costing Bush another 292 net votes -- Gore would have won under three of the four standards for counting ballots.

Additionally, USA Today reported that Gore lost about 15,000 to 25,000 votes from ballot errors that resulted from confusing ballot designs in some counties.

In another move that cut into Gore’s tally, Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration improperly purged hundreds of voters – predominately African-American – after falsely identifying them as felons. According to exit polls, Gore carried the African-American vote by a 9-to-1 margin, so the phony felon purge predictably hit him hardest.

Now, with The New York Times’ findings, it is even clearer that Gore was the choice of Florida voters as well as the U.S. electorate which favored him by more than a half million ballots. Nevertheless, the American people ended up with George W. Bush in the White House.

Media Edge

The will of the American voters was overturned in large part because  the Bush campaign and its  conservative media allies succeeded in portraying Gore as the interloper and Bush as the rightful claimant of the presidency.

From Election Night on, the conservative news media and much of the mainstream national press granted Bush a sense of entitlement. This pro-Bush tilt was a carryover from the campaign where the national news media’s distaste for Bill Clinton’s vice president was a key factor in helping Bush overcome a public impression that he lacked the qualifications to be president.

Often relying on false Gore quotes or applying hostile interpretations to his remarks, the news media neutralized many of the doubts about Bush by portraying Gore as dishonest or delusional. By contrast, deceptive remarks by Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, were given a virtual pass by both the conservative and mainstream news media. [See "Protecting Bush-Cheney" at]

During the Florida recount battle, the pattern continued. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and other conservative news outlets treated the certification of Bush’s victory by Secretary of State Katherine Harris as decisive. They also portrayed Gore as a “sore loserman” and were quick to promote other Republican “themes” such as the attack on Gore’s initial insistence on applying state law to overseas votes.

Mainstream news outlets sometimes struggled for a more neutral position, though the competitive pressures caused them to jump on many of the bandwagons set in motion by the conservative outlets. There was no countervailing media organization investigating and highlighting misdeeds by the Bush campaign.

So, for instance, relatively little attention was given to the Bush campaign’s financing of hooligans who were dispatched from the Republican congressional offices to Florida to organize rowdy demonstrations, including a riot outside the offices of the Miami-Dade canvassing board as it was trying to start a hand recount of votes on Nov. 22.

In the months since the election, the Bush campaign has refused to release information about how it spent roughly $8 million on the recount battle. Though that data could be vital to understanding how the Bush campaign pursued its hardball political strategies, there has been no clamor from the national news media for this information.

The spending data also might shed light on one startling disclosure in the new Times story. The newspaper reported that Secretary of State Harris, a co-chairman of the Bush campaign, allowed “veteran Republican political consultants” to set up a “war room” in her offices from which they “helped shape the post-election instructions (from Harris) to county canvassing boards.” Among those instructions were the requirements for counting overseas ballots.

During the key days of last November, however, conservative media outlets and much of the mainstream press portrayed Harris as the victim of a Democratic smear campaign when the Gore campaign challenged the objectivity of her decisions.

New Reality

Beyond the 2000 Election, this conservative media tilt has become a dominant reality in modern U.S. politics.

The imbalance also was not an accident. It resulted from a conscious, expensive and well-conceived plan by conservatives to build what amounts to a rapid-response media machine. This machine closely coordinates with Republican leaders and can strongly influence – if not dictate – what is considered news.

There is no countervailing media on the left-of-center side, except for a handful of small-circulation leftist journals whose writers often join with conservatives in attacking Democrats though for different reasons.

The only major media force, outside the conservative fold, is the mainstream media – sometimes called the corporate media since it is owned by huge companies such as AOL Time Warner, General Electric or Viacom. This media operates with the goal of maximizing profits and thus seeks to avoid alienating well-heeled consumers among its diverse viewers.

Since the conservative media aggressively pushes its information into play, however, the mainstream media often feels obliged to match the conservative-oriented news rather than lose out competitively or be seen as holding an anti-conservative bias.

This dynamic has been apparent for years, though little commented upon. It began to emerge during the Reagan-Bush administration as the conservative media grew and mainstream journalists found themselves attacked by the right as alleged “liberals.” To protect their careers within corporations that were generally favorable to the Republican administration, mainstream journalists shifted their reporting to the right as a way to prove they weren’t “liberal.”

That tendency increased during the Clinton administration as the right-wing press and the mainstream press teamed up to promote “scandals” such as the Travel Office firings and the Clintons’ Whitewater real-estate investment. Stories of such minimal importance would have been one-day events, if reported at all, during the Reagan-Bush years. But the conservative media whipped these stories along and mainstream reporters followed so they wouldn't be tagged as Clinton apologists.

The Thomas/Hill Factor

From 1993 to 2000, the conservative media also mounted well-funded investigations of the Clintons’ personal lives, a strategy driven in part by a chip-on-the-shoulder conviction that the liberals had done the same in falsely accusing Republican Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of a bizarre pattern of sexual harassment toward female subordinates, including boasts about pornographic movies he had watched.

During his Senate confirmation hearings, Thomas had angrily denied the charges and conservative journalist David Brock had discredited Thomas’ principal accuser, Anita Hill, as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” in an article that ran in the American Spectator.

Now, a decade later, Brock has recanted his attacks on Hill and his defense of Thomas. In his upcoming book Blinded by the Right [excerpted in Talk magazine, August 2001], Brock described how he was recruited and paid by right-wing forces to destroy Hill.

“I saw my introduction to right-wing checkbook journalism as a big break,” Brock wrote. “I set out to rehabilitate Thomas and clear his name for the history books by exposing the treachery of his liberal detractors; in framing the article I would play to the deeply ingrained conservative suspicion that the ‘liberal media’ had hidden the real story behind Hill’s case.”

This myth of the “liberal media” dates back even further to the 1970s when conservative activists blamed the press for losing the Vietnam War and hounding an innocent President Richard Nixon from office over the Watergate scandal.

These beliefs have remained conservative doctrine in the quarter century since, even though the U.S. military has conceded that the Vietnam War was lost by poor strategy and high casualties, not from disloyal reporting. [For details, see The Military and the Media: The U.S. Army in Vietnam by Pentagon historian William M. Hammond.]

The conservative certainty about the media’s unfairness to Nixon  also has held firm despite the release of hundreds of hours of incriminating White House tapes.

Nevertheless, conservative activists felt that this perceived enemy – this “liberal media” – justified their creation of a separate right-wing media and their attacks on mainstream reporters who dug up information unfavorable to the conservative cause.  “We needed our own media, our own reporters, and our own means of getting out our side of the story,” Brock wrote.

Activist Judges

Beyond admitting now that he unfairly maligned Hill to protect Thomas, Brock adds stunning details about how the smear campaign collaborated with leading conservatives, including key judges on the federal courts.

One of those judges was U.S. Appeals Court Judge Laurence Silberman, who was one of two judges who overturned Oliver North’s Iran-contra felony convictions in 1990.

“Though the confirmation battle had been won, Thomas’s closest friends knew that a full-scale defense of Thomas would help confer legitimacy on his Supreme Court tenure,” Brock wrote. George H.W. Bush's White House passed along some psychiatric opinion that Anita Hill suffered from “erotomania,” Brock wrote, but some of the more colorful criticism of Hill came from Silberman.

“Silberman speculated that Hill was a lesbian ‘acting out’,” Brock wrote. “Besides, Silberman confided, Thomas would never have asked Hill for dates: She had bad breath.”

According to Brock, Silberman’s wife Ricky played an even more active role in the campaign to discredit Hill. [Prior to his appointment as a federal judge, Laurence Silberman also was implicated in questionable contacts with Iranian emissaries during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. For details, see Robert Parry’s Trick or Treason.]

After Brock expanded his assault on Hill into a best-selling book, The Real Anita Hill, the Silbermans and other prominent conservatives joined a celebration at the Embassy Row Ritz-Carlton, Brock wrote. Also in attendance was U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle, the other judge who had voted to reverse North’s Iran-contra convictions. [Sentelle also cast a deciding vote in overturning Iran-contra felony convictions of Reagan’s national security adviser John Poindexter.]

In 1992, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist named Sentelle to run a three-judge panel that selected special prosecutors. In appointing Sentelle, Rehnquist waived statutory guidance as well as years of precedents that sought to give control of the special-prosecutor apparatus only to senior or retired judges who did not have strong partisan reputations.

By contrast, Sentelle was a junior judge and a protégé of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. Sentelle used his new powers to appoint conservative lawyers to handle sensitive investigations. Sentelle’s selections included conservative activists to investigate alleged offenses by the Clinton administration, most notably Kenneth Starr to examine Clinton’s business and personal affairs.

Brock’s disclosure about the direct interest by federal judges in partisan activities, including dishonest efforts to discredit Anita Hill, an American citizen who had testified about the qualifications of an appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, might have been big news if the United States had a different news media.

Instead, the debate about Brock’s Anita Hill confession focused on whether the admissions of a liar like Brock should ever be believed. There was no independent journalistic effort to evaluate the detailed evidence that Brock presented about the conservative cabal that went to extraordinary lengths to turn Hill’s life into a living hell.

Clinton Fallout

Brock’s admission also might have prompted a fuller discussion of the national press corps' behavior during the Clinton administration.

After the Thomas-Hill controversy, Brock spearheaded another conservative-funded journalistic inquiry into the Clintons’ personal lives. In late 1993, Brock wrote an article for the American Spectator that pulled together various allegations from state troopers and others in Arkansas about the Clintons’ alleged sexual dalliances.

The story provoked a new controversy dubbed “Troopergate,” which gave rise to the dubious sexual harassment allegations against Clinton from Paula Jones. The conservative media seized on those charges, in part, as retaliation for the supposedly bogus Anita Hill charges against Clarence Thomas.

Before long, the mainstream news media joined in the pursuit of the “Clinton scandals,” leading to an unprecedented press assault on the private lives of a First Family.

As this assault proceeded, there was almost no reporting about the remarkable behind-the-scenes story of a right-wing cabal to regain the White House through scandal-mongering. Indeed, when First Lady Hillary Clinton complained about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” in 1998, her remarks were met with howls of ridicule and derision. [The few exceptions included and]

The national press corps behaved then – and continues to behave to this day – as if her allegations were beyond ludicrous. After all, if such a conspiracy had existed, the crack Washington press corps would have known about it, right? [For more details, see's "Quisling Press."]

The Bush Election

Yet, in many ways, the culmination of this media phenomenon was not the impeachment of Clinton in 1998. It was the campaign and election in 2000.

Key journalists at both conservative and mainstream outlets – angered that Clinton had survived eight years of investigations – took out their frustrations on Vice President Al Gore.

Even leading newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, put words into Gore’s mouth about his role in the Love Canal toxic-waste cleanup and then dragged their heels about running corrections. Other bogus Gore quotes became urban legends, such as his supposed assertion that he had “invented” the Internet.

The exaggerated reporting about Gore’s supposed exaggerations also put the banana peel under his foot for the moments when he made real, though minor, slip-ups.

In October, the news media went into overdrive after a presidential debate when Gore incorrectly recalled a trip to Texas with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Gore had actually gone with the deputy director. The Bush campaign fed the mistake to the press and the error dominated the campaign for a week.

A completely different media posture was apparent when Bush or Cheney made similar or worse misstatements – including Cheney’s lie that the government had not  helped him in his business career at the helm of Halliburton Co. The truth was that Cheney had lobbied successfully for federal loan guarantees and other government largesse. Those falsehoods, however, were deemed not worthy of reporting by the major national press.

The Recount Experience

The pattern of looking only one way continued into the Florida recount battle. Gore was portrayed as the aggressor trying to overturn the rightful result of Bush’s victory. Little attention was paid to the maneuverings by the Bush campaign to secure the electoral votes in defiance of the will of the voters.

After the recount battle, BBC journalist Greg Palast disclosed how Jeb Bush’s subordinates had mounted an extraordinary effort to purge felons from the voting rolls and knowingly included legitimate voters with similar names and addresses.

The scheme denied the right to vote to a disproportionate number of African-Americans, but there was scant follow-up in the major news media. The Washington Post did not write its matcher of Palast’s work until almost half a year after the election.

Also in the months after the election, the Bush campaign refused to release details about its recount-battle spending, with barely a whimper from the mainstream press.

Now, nearly six months into the Bush presidency, The New York Times discovers that Bush padded his tiny lead through a strategy of letting in questionable overseas votes in his counties while blocking them in pro-Gore counties.

(To add insult to injury, the Bush campaign got five conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court -- including Thomas and Rehnquist -- to block a statewide Florida recount in December on the grounds that disparate standards would be used in counting the votes, exactly what Bush had done with the overseas ballots.)

What the Future Holds

Yet, as Bush finishes his first six months in the White House, the imbalance in the U.S. news media only worsens.

Fox News has become a leading force in cable news as it dishes out a steady diet of conservative opinions and slanted news coverage. “Fox News Channel has become a vanity showcase catering to the Angry White Male in his autumn plumage,” observed writer John Wolcott. [Vanity Fair, August 2001]

Bland CNN – now part of the media behemoth AOL Time Warner – is planning a makeover, presumably to challenge Fox for some of it’s A.W.M. viewers.

Though CNN is sometimes portrayed as the liberal counterweight to Fox, in reality, it gives equal or greater weight to conservative voices, with the “liberals” often represented by centrist journalistic types. By contrast, right-wing columnist Robert Novak does double duty on CNN, giving his opinions and showing up as a reporter.

On the AM dials, Rush Limbaugh and copycat radio opinion hosts continue to rant. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, with his mysterious source of seemingly unlimited cash, continues to subsidize the Washington Times as a daily voice for harsh attacks on Democrats and strong defenses of the Bush administration. The Wall Street Journal editorial page does the same, not to mention Murdoch’s New York Post and other hard-right publications around the country.

Conservatives also dominate the magazine racks with many of their publications, from the Weekly Standard to American Spectator, heavily subsidized either by right-wing funders or conservative foundations coordinating their spending to get the biggest ideological bang for the buck. [For more details about the conservative media, see "Democrats Dilemma."]

By contrast, the Bush-Gore election debacle has sparked virtually no response from well-heeled liberals to create or support news outlets that could change the current imbalance.

Even as Bush pursues a hard-right agenda – including repudiating the Kyoto global-warming protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty – liberals seem content to cede control of the national news to a combination of hard-charging right-wing bulls and cowed mainstream types.

Except for a few new Web sites, apparently run by rank-and-file Democrats, there has been no change in the media dynamic – and the Web sites clearly reach only a tiny percentage of the American people.

Liberals apparently feel that the situation will either fix itself or can be overcome by more grassroots organizing, a view comparable to the resistance of some companies in the 1950s to shift their marketing from door-to-door salesmen to television advertising. Ironically, the conservatives have shown themselves more amenable to change than the liberals.

Despite the new disclosures about Bush campaign shenanigans, the larger reality for now and for the foreseeable future is that conservatives will continue to hold the upper hand on how the press perceives and reports the political news, at least during the crucial days and weeks when power is in the balance.

Marshall McLuhan's famous quote might need some editing. Today, it might read: "the media is the mess."

During the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the stories known as the Iran-contra affair for The Associated Press and Newsweek.

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