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Press Blows Florida -- Again

February 27, 2001

Americans who watched the news media rush to judgment on Election Night -- first awarding Florida to Al Gore and then giving it to George W. Bush and then settling on "too close to call" -- might have thought the national press corps had learned its lesson.

You might have thought that major news organizations would at least wait for the final tallies in the unofficial recounts now underway before calling a winner.

If you had that expectation, you'd be disappointed again.

The latest bizarre example of the news media's compulsive rush to judgment has come in the handling of a Miami Herald/USA Today report about an unofficial tally of Miami-Dade "undervotes," ballots that were rejected by counting machines as registering no choice for president.

The latest facts were these: After examining Miami-Dade's 10,646 undervotes -- out of about 60,000 statewide -- this unofficial tally found Gore closing to within about 140 votes of Bush. In other words with nearly 50,000 undervotes still to be examined, only about 140 votes separated the two candidates.

Those who have been following the work of other Florida news organizations in other counties also would know that hundreds of uncounted votes clearly intended for Gore or Bush had been discovered over the past two months, both in "undervotes" and in "overvotes" in which voters had marked their ballot for a candidate and then written in the candidate's name.

From these other unofficial tallies, Gore had made surprising net gains in some counties that had favored Bush overall. By some counts, Gore even had pulled ahead of Bush, though clearly the outcome of these unofficial tallies remained in doubt.

Once all the counting was over, it seemed plausible that either Bush might hold on to a narrow lead or that Gore might inch ahead.

Either result, of course, would not change the fact that Bush had been awarded Florida’s 25 electoral votes and had become the first national popular-vote loser in more than a century to claim the White House.

Nor would the unofficial tallies change the reality that Gore almost certainly was the choice of a plurality of Floridians -- if not for the confusing ballot in Palm Beach County, which apparently caused thousands of elderly Jews to vote for Pat Buchanan, and the state's alleged purging of thousands of African-Americans from the rolls on the grounds that their names were similar to those of convicted felons.

The unofficial newspaper tallies were intended only as an historical marker. So why the rush? Wouldn’t it make sense to wait until the statewide tallies were complete so as not to sow any more confusion and distrust? At minimum, wouldn’t it be reasonable to make clear how limited any new partial tally was?

Not in the Cards

That apparently is not how the American news media works anymore. The big-name news organizations seemed to have learned nothing from Election Night.

Rather than cautious, balanced stories about the limits of the new Miami-Dade tabulation, the news media rushed to declare Bush the legitimate winner in Florida and thus of the presidency.

“If a manual recount of presidential ballots had gone forward in Miami-Dade County, George W. Bush likely would have won the presidency outright,” wrote the Miami Herald. [Feb. 26, 2001]

“Review Finds Bush Won Despite Miami Recount,” declared a headline in The Washington Post.

“A review of Florida ballots suggested Gore wouldn’t have gained enough in a recount to win the presidency, the Miami Herald said,’’ summarized the Wall Street Journal.

By Monday evening on television, the limited findings of the Miami Herald had been transformed into the final word that Bush really did win the election. Without doubt, millions of Americans who still have faith in the national news media will go away with that impression.

Yet, besides exaggerating the conclusions, the articles were misleading in another way. They suggested that the only recounts that mattered were the ones in South Florida where the Gore campaign first raised questions about the results. The hook for the Miami Herald story really was that if Bush and his campaign had not frustrated those early recounts, they still would have been slightly ahead.

But the decisive recount issue was not the count in South Florida. It was Bush's success in having his five conservative allies on the U.S. Supreme Court overturn a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that had mandated a statewide recount of the so-called undervotes.

That recount of 67 Florida counties was underway on Dec. 9 when the five conservative justices in Washington took the unprecedented step of halting the counting of votes in a U.S. presidential election. Then, on Dec. 12, they prevented a resumption of the recount, effectively handing the presidency to Bush.

If there were to be any meaningful measure about whether history was altered by that decision, it should have been made against the statewide recount, not simply the recount in South Florida.

Even more to the point is the question of what was the will of the Florida voters. Even casting aside the irregularities, did ballots registering clear intent of voters favor Gore or Bush?

These key issues were ignored by virtually all the news reports on Monday. The story was quite simple: Bush wins, this time for real.

As on Election Night – though without the excuse of the deadline pressure – the national press corps had demonstrated once more how much of a threat it has become to the goal of an informed electorate.

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