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Explaining Ourselves

By Robert Parry
November 10, 2004

Since Election Day, we have written four articles – two focused on the vote count and two on the need to address the rightward tilt of the American news media. These stories have drawn more than the usual level of praise and criticism, perhaps not unexpectedly given the depth of passions surrounding Nov. 2.

So I would like to explain our outlook in a little more detail and why we see the two questions – an investigation of the presidential vote count and the need for a stronger media infrastructure – as interrelated.

First, we – like many other Americans – believe that questions about the legitimacy of the vote count should be resolved honestly and openly, not just swept under the rug.

Well before the election, citizens were complaining about the security of their ballots, especially when using paperless voting machines. The fact that election officials around the country failed to act, or put off fixes until 2006, is troubling.

That failure has invited the current skepticism expressed by millions who wonder why exit polls in six swing states and nationwide showed John Kerry winning while the “actual” tallies gave those states to George W. Bush. Even Republican pollster Dick Morris is having trouble reconciling these exit poll discrepancies.

“To screw up one exit poll is unheard of,” Morris wrote. “To miss six of them is incredible. It boggles the imagination how pollsters could be that incompetent and invites speculation that more than honest error was at play here.”

Republican Morris then spins off a bizarre conspiracy theory speculating that the exit pollsters were trying to influence the vote outcome for Kerry. But Morris’s fundamental point is well taken: around the world, when exit polls vary from official results, that’s a warning flag of ballot manipulation.

Exporting Democracy

For a nation that has invaded a country halfway around the world supposedly to plant the seeds of democracy, questions about the legitimacy of a presidential election should be taken very seriously, not just laughed off. That’s especially true after the Election 2000 debacle when the popular-vote loser, George W. Bush, took the White House under highly questionable circumstances.

We also believe that any investigation must be open-minded. It must accept the possibility that the scattered errors that have surfaced so far might be the sorts of technical glitches that occur in any election and not be part of a nefarious pattern. On the other hand, the investigation should not smother evidence of wrongdoing simply to reassure the American people that “the system works.” That has happened too often in the past.

As I report in Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, the Republicans have a history of playing the bully in elections – 1968, 1972, 1980, 1992 and 2000 – while Democrats often tend to hide the bruises and make excuses for fear of undermining public confidence in the democratic process.

But the time has come for the American people to get the truth, however ugly it may be. Too much is at stake for this Washington version of an abusive political relationship to continue.

Our initial review of the voting in Florida – following on the work of some other investigators – suggests, too, that there may be a way to check the accuracy of computerized voting despite the widespread use of paperless electronic ballots. That’s because some of the suspicious patterns have fallen in counties using optical-scanned ballots.

That means that there should be a paper record to check against the tabulations. Those records should be available under government-sunshine laws.

Media Imbalance

That brings us to our second point. Both now and in the future, liberals must invest in strengthening media infrastructure if they are to have any hope of correcting the current media imbalance that has distorted the American political system.

If such an infrastructure were in place today, journalistic investigators could get going immediately to probe potential voting fraud, not have to raise money and set up ad hoc teams.

A balanced journalistic system in the United States also would have increased the chances for challenging dubious administration arguments, such as Bush’s case for war in Iraq. It should be remembered that it wasn’t just Fox News and the Washington Times that promoted Bush’s Iraq disinformation. The bogus claims were headlined on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Even now, because of this media failure, large segments of the U.S. population believe “facts” that aren’t facts, such as that weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein was connected to the Sept. 11 attacks. These misperceptions colored the presidential campaign and certainly added to Bush’s vote totals.

My best explanation for this system-wide failure is that the United States is dominated by two broad elements of media: a pugnacious conservative news media – from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh with plenty of print, digital and video outlets in between – and a timid mainstream media, which is usually owned by large corporations either run by conservatives (i.e. executives at General Electric owning NBC and MSNBC) or by corporate chieftains who care mostly about profits.

Just because working reporters may vote Democratic more than Republican doesn’t mean the media is “liberal,” as conservatives often argue. The real power over how stories are handled rests with senior editors and corporate executives, not with beat reporters. (For those interested in how today's media really works and how conservatives built their media infrastructure, I expand on these points in Secrecy & Privilege.)

Out of Whack

This national media imbalance – weighted to the center, the center-right and the far right – has thrown the American political system out of whack. The problem is most pronounced in Middle America where the available sources of news are even more limited than in the urban centers.

While political pundits have talked endlessly this past week about “value” voters in the U.S. heartland, an overlooked factor in Bush’s consolidation of the “red states” is that these Americans overwhelmingly get only one side of the story. They are inundated with conservative condemnations of liberals – as traitors, as un-American, as lacking morals and decency – while rarely hearing liberals explain their positions or defend themselves in any comprehensive way.

It’s as if negative ads were run against one politician every hour, every day of the year, and the guy had almost no chance to refute them. His negatives would be sky high, which is where they are for liberals in many parts of America.

Inadequate media also means that liberals don’t engage Middle America in any consistent conversation like the conservatives do. Through Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators, conservative talk radio communicates, hour after hour, with Americans as they drive long distances or are stuck in commuting traffic.

I’ve known people who’ve been wooed to the conservative cause primarily because they had long commutes and started listening to Limbaugh’s framing of the issues. Another plus for the conservatives is that they get to test out political “themes” with the American people and judge which ones are resonating.

Nothing on the liberal side comes close to matching the conservative domination of talk radio.

One exception has been the fledgling Air America Radio, a liberal alternative to conservative radio, albeit one that is cash-strapped and confined to a relatively small number of cities. Where it has been on the air, however, liberal Air America has proven competitive in the ratings war with its conservative competitors.

(I know conservatives often cite National Public Radio as a “liberal” radio voice, but the reality is that since the Reagan-Bush era, NPR has huddled in the political center to avoid government retaliation and now offers up only a tepid mix of political commentaries carefully balanced between right-of-center and left-of-center.)

Long Road Ahead

The hard truth is that the liberals have a long way to go if they want to compete with conservatives in holding a year-round conversation with the American people. But if the liberals don’t reach out through an expanded media, they can expect to continue to be dismissed as a dirty word across wide swaths of the American countryside.

The liberals also will find themselves at a strategic disadvantage when they confront a political event like a stolen election – as was apparent when the conservatives seized the initiative in the Election 2000 recount battle in Florida.

Conservatives made sure their message – that Al Gore was trying to steal the election – reached tens of millions of Americans, which in turn shaped the mainstream press coverage. By contrast, the liberals have relied on part-time Web sites, a handful of small-circulation magazines and a couple of under-funded satellite outlets.

It’s like two armies clashing, one supported by tanks, aircraft and artillery and the other relying on light weapons. It is not a matter of which side is more heroic or more decent. It’s a simple case of mathematics.


Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek, has written a new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. It can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com.

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