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