Major media have offered instant analyses of Bush and Gore performance over the past month but not much in the way of self-appraisal. Yet, one reason the tragicomedy has lasted so long is that much of the press has fallen into a definition of "objectivity" that breeds media laziness.
Reporters have summarized the positions of the two sides but only rarely assessed the reality behind the spin. For example, when Al Gore said in one prime-time speech that thousands of votes had never been counted, and Republicans noted that all votes had been counted, reporters typically quoted the contending parties but declined to say who was telling the truth and who was lying.
This equal-time treatment is an improvement on what could have been. Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman, when asked what his colleagues would be saying if George Bush refused to give up after Al Gore had won a count and two recounts, responded "Are you kidding? That George Bush was a crybaby." But readers and viewers deserve more than a balancing of subjectivities: Journalists should attempt to describe objective reality.
For example, Miami Herald reporters did not settle for merely being stenographers of spin. Instead, they investigated. They showed that at least 445 Florida felons-mostly in Palm Beach and Duval counties-voted illegally on Nov. 7, and that 75 percent of them were registered Democrats. The Herald found that 62 robbers, 56 drug dealers, 45 killers, 16 rapists, and seven kidnappers had illegally cast ballots, and suggested that more than 5,000 felons statewide did likewise.
This is significant information, not just spin. Sure, the revelation that Al Gore received a large number of illegal votes can be used by the Bush campaign, but it is indisputably adding new data, not just recycling punditry. The Herald research threw new light on a basic question: Can the Florida vote be purified by reexamining certain ballots, or do we have to investigate many other aspects once we go further down the quadruple recount road?
The Palm Beach Post, instead of merely recycling claims about oppressed voters in its county, did some research and reported that 15 Florida counties had higher percentages of bungled ballots than that of Palm Beach County. A few other journalists noted that the absence of votes for president on some 2 percent of ballots is nothing unusual. Similarly, reporters could have done research into voting machine questions involving chad buildup, rubber hardness, and cardboard thickness, but we had to wait until lawyers asked the experts in the courtroom of Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls.
ABC, CBS, and NBC, with their abundant resources, did not run investigations of their own, and seemed content to present debates about dimples merely as a battle between the Gore and Bush camps. People who watched Broward County vote-counting on MSNBC, Fox News Channel, or elsewhere could see for themselves the reality, as two telepathic Democratic canvassing board members divined intentions to vote for Mr. Gore that were not visible to the ordinary-sighted. Those who just heard major network soundbites, though, would not be aware of how ludicrous the procedure was.
Some of the soundbites were propagandistic. ABC's Peter Jennings said that the Florida Supreme Court is packed with conservatives and moderates, which is true only if that court is seen from a far left vantage point. CBS's Dan Rather scathingly referred time after time to Florida's "Republican Secretary of State" but did not even attempt balance by referring to the "Democratic Florida Supreme Court." NBC News praised the Broward County recount system, and it was left to NBC's Saturday Night Live to summarize the procedure more accurately with this sentence: "Among the types of ballots that will now be counted for Gore: indented ballots, ballots left completely blank and ballots marked 'Bush.'"
Overall, though, the major media have not been as blatantly left-leaning as they were during the pre-Nov. 7 political campaign, and I'm glad of that. But I want to know more. Reporters last week relayed Gore spin about a potential December surprise in Seminole County, where absentee voters received ballot application forms that lacked the necessary voter-identification numbers, and a Republican activist broke the rules by filling in the numbers. But it was hard to find information about the crucial question: Did such activity mean that 15,000 ballots should be tossed aside, or did legal precedents suggest a slap on the hand for the election board?
If major media had offered Americans more facts and less spin, we would have sorted through this mess sooner.