Monday, November 29, 2004

Election Angst Update: Clark Kent Vs the Media Wimps

Election Angst Update: Clark Kent Vs the Media Wimps

by Maureen Farrell

"The greatest threat to truth today may well be from my profession." -- Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. While some in the mainstream media were finally paying attention to an important story as it was unfolding (rather than waiting three years, ala the New York Times), others were taking the usual safe and tired tact.

It all started on Monday, Nov. 7, when, inspired by a Cincinnati Enquirer story on how Warren County Ohio officials had "locked down" the administration building on election night and restricted open access to the vote count there, Keith Olbermann began reporting on voting irregularities across the country. "We have heard the message on the Voting Angst and will continue to cover it with all prudent speed," Olbermann later wrote on his blog, and sure enough, Countdown with Keith Olbermann doled out nightly nuggets -- not only concerning Votergate, but regarding the media itself. This exchange between Olbermann and Craig Crawford was especially satisfying:

CRAWFORD: "We're often wimps in the media. And we wait for other people to make charges, one political party or another, and then we investigate it. But this is the time to do this. There's still time before the [2004 election] results are certified. It doesn't mean it will change the outcome. But it is good and I congratulate you for looking at some of these [voting] irregularities.

OLBERMANN: "I congratulate you for joining me on the crap list for saying that there are wimps in the media. Amen, brother.


OLBERMANN: We know it and now everybody else knows it.

Was that good for you, too?

While it's true that Mr. Olbermann was recently voted America's "Sexiest Newscaster," the further he strays from the herd, the hotter he gets. "There's a story here, I happen to have a newscast, maybe I should cover it," Olbermann humbly told NPR, sounding a bit like Clark Kent/Superman in the process.

Lest you think my enthusiasm is part and parcel of some nerdish crush, I assure you, it cuts deeper. As a newspaperman's daughter and newspaperwoman's granddaughter, the frustration I've felt these past four years has prompted thoughts and feelings uncomfortably removed from the mainstream. In the summer of 2002, for example, I wrote about the growing number of states linking drivers' license applications to selective service registration and wondered if the U.S. was gearing up for the draft. (I still believe it is). And six months before the start of the war, with neck fully extended, I expressed doubts about the existence of Iraq's WMD.

Now here we are, thousands of dead Americans and Iraqis (and one quagmire) later, and it's apparent that questioning the official story was not the treasonous act of assorted conspiracy kooks, but the responsible thing to do. And if the media had been doing its job, you would not be reading this now.

Which brings us back to Mr. Olbermann and his colleagues.

While Ralph Nader has openly stated that this election "was hijacked from A to Z," nobody expects Peter Jennings to be similarly sensational. Oh, sure, Robert Novak reportedly raised questions about Bill Clinton's role in Vince Foster's death on national TV and Ann Coulter told Hannity and Colmes that Clinton "raped a woman [and] molested interns in the White House, and then lied about it and committed felonies," but right-wing hacks live by a set of ethics that is clear only to them, and democracy is better served when pundits remain rational and reasoned. After all, Keith Olbermann's Countdown has been able to cover this story night after night, without venturing into the crazy conspiracy zone -- despite Coulter's dubious claims to the contrary.

But when Peter Jennings introduced a story on e-vote "conspiracy theories" with the same snide dismissal he once reserved for assertions about G.W. Bush's National Guard record (assertions which turned out to be true), it was easy to see why, as the Hartford Courant put it, the mainstream media are becoming "ignored and irrelevant."

Of course it would be irresponsible for any major network to say that this election was stolen or rigged or riddled with fraud without proof, but wasn't it also irresponsible for America's most prominent pundits to immediately conclude, as Good Morning America's Charles Gibson did, that "the exit polls got it flat wrong"?

A University of Pennsylvania professor placed odds that the exit polls were that wrong in that many states at 250 million to one while renowned pollster John Zogby likened the 2004 presidential election to 1960's suspicious contest. "Something is definitely wrong," Zogby said, adding "we're talking about the Free World here."

After all, even if recounts do not alter the end result, aren't threats to our democratic process story enough? Three presidential candidates have asked for recounts, six Congressmen have asked the GAO to investigate, Ohio's presidential vote is being challenged and the League of Women's Voters is asking for an investigation into voter irregularities, proving that such concerns are more mainstream than most in the mainstream media are letting on.

Stanford University computer scientist David Dill has also said that the risk of a stolen election is "extremely high," while John Hopkins' researcher Avi Rubin has discussed how easily it would be to hack an election and cover one's tracks.

And according to a study released by researchers at the highly respected UC Berkeley, electronic voting machines may have added between 130,000 to 260,000 (or more) votes to President Bush's tally in Florida -- making Rep. Peter King's Diary of a Political Tourist comments to Alexandra Pelosi less humorous and more Stalinesque with each questionable tally. (When asked how he knew Bush would win the election, King responded, "It's all over but the counting and we'll take care of the counting.")

In the meantime, Dean Charles Stewart III, a researcher in the MIT-Caltech Voting Technology Project replicated UC Berkeley's analysis for the Associated Press and Oakland Tribune and concluded: "There is an interesting pattern here that I hope someone looks into it." (Will someone please alert Peter Jennings?)

"We've been a little bit surprised by how many e-mails we've had suggesting that maybe once again the country got it wrong," Jennings said on World News Tonight. "Now, we're not particularly disposed to conspiracy theories. As you know, Mr. Bush won by a comfortable margin of more than three million votes."

But, had he been paying attention, Jennings would not have been surprised. And he would have known how easily votes can be electronically added or subtracted. After all, questions about the integrity of America's elections were researched and widely publicized long before anyone took to the polls. Researchers at John Hopkins University reported that Diebold machines functioned "below even the most minimal security standards" and were "unsuitable for use in a general election" while CNN aired concerns about voting machines' security and reliability.

Topic A With Tina Brown guest host Howard Dean even helped to educate viewers about potential vote fraud when he presided over an on-air hacking, and during the primaries, the AP reported that "a series of failures in primaries across the nation has shaken confidence in the technology installed at thousands of precincts" with as many as 20 states introducing legislation calling for paper receipts on voting machines.

Any journalist worth his salt would have known we have a problem, Cleveland.

But in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election, Keith Olbermann was the lone mainstream voice shattering the "deafening silence" about voter irregularities. 20,000 grateful e-mails later, Olbermann appeared on NPR to address what some have dubbed his heroism for merely doing, as Mickey Kaus explained, what "the press is supposed to do."

As soon as the UC Berkeley study on Florida e-voting irregularities was released, Olbermann took to his blog and addressed the mainstream media's muted response. "I still hesitate to endorse the 'media lock-down' theory extolled so widely on the net," he wrote. "I've expended a lot of space on the facts of political media passivity and exhaustion, and now I'll add one factor to explain the collective shrugged shoulder: reading this stuff is hard. It's hard work."

During the last election, New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum exposed the risk of being a caring journalist in an age of corruption -- even pinning the untimely death of Daily News reporter Lars-Erik Nelson on the Mayberry Machiavellis. "If you want to know the truth, I blame the Bush campaign for the death of Nelson, one of the best journalists in America," Rosenbaum wrote, of the fatal stroke Nelson suffered while watching the 2000 Florida debacle unfold.

This time around, Rosenbaum has faulted reporters who are more concerned about "me time" than about threats to Democracy. Referring to Newsweek's Jonathan Alter's observation that weary journalists were happy the Kerry campaign folded because they were eager to take post-election vacations, Rosenbaum exclaimed, "Another great moment in journalism!"

The Sacramento Bee also addressed the networks' given reasons for glossing over the story. Right after the election, it seems, all three major networks decided that tales of alleged fraud and electronic voting snafus were not worthy of investigation, because there "nothing significant had appeared anywhere to affect the election's outcome."

Luckily, this "nothing to see here, move along," mantra has not prevented others from digging for the truth -- often literally. While the watchdog organization Verified Voting has already collected 31,000 reports of "alleged election abnormalities," Bev Harris, of has even rooted through the garbage in Florida's Volusia County, obtaining incriminating evidence and footage along the way.

If the networks don't want to look under the hood, that's fine. But to deem a story dead in the water and dismiss others' attempts to cover it? There's a reason people suspect that there's something rotten in the state of Denmark -- which is why they've been turning to the Internet in droves -- much to mainstream journalists' dismay.

Citing ways the established media "gets really angry" over new forms of journalism, Olbermann also told NPR that traditional journalists often feel contempt for bloggers -- a sentiment which was evident when Chris Matthew covered Votergate for MSNBC's Hardball on Nov.12. "Do you really believe that the bloggers who are out on the fringe there, the people who are putting up these smoke signals now from hell, saying that this election was stolen -- do you think Ralph Nader is ever going to admit he was wrong?," Matthews asked Joe Trippi. "He's out there talking about theft of an election. I just saw the tape. He never comes back and says he was wrong. "So, yes, of course it would be irresponsible for journalists to say that Bush stole the election, but, without wading through the evidence, Matthews already deduced that Nader and the "fringe" bloggers "from hell" are "wrong" -- making Trippi's observations about the media all the more poignant. "I think it was healthy that the blogs began this [investigation into voter irregularities]," Trippi told Matthews. "I actually think this speaks more towards what is the press' responsibility and the two parties' responsibility to ensure that these issues get carried out, because it wouldn't have been done. This would not have been followed up on if the blogs hadn't brought it out."
Even before the Hardball segment aired, however, the discrepancy between Olbermann's reporting and Matthews' coverage was glaring -- with Hardball's promotional material containing mealy-mouthed, limp little caveats. "Don't worry folks, the election results won't be overturned," Nov. 12's Hardball Briefing declared. "Whether you agree with a recount or not... the rules are the rules," Shuster wrote in his blog, about Ohio's impending recount.

"Don't worry folks?" "Whether you agree or not"? Can you imagine Walter Cronkite introducing a story while hemming and hawing that way? What was that about the media being a pack of wimps? (If the right wing likes your message, however, there is no need to fear. "Chris was all over Clinton's impeachment before being all over Clinton's impeachment was cool," Dominic Bellone brayed in the Hardball Briefing for Nov. 17 "It's one of the big stories that cemented me as a fan of Chris. . It's Chris in his element").

There is no doubt, of course, that had the e-vote been on the other foot, FOX News and Drudge would be discussing voter irregularities 'round the clock. And if Kerry's brother were Florida's governor and had a track record of disenfranchising Republicans, Rush Limbaugh would be throwing tantrum after tantrum. What do you suppose would have happened had the head of a voting machine company promised to deliver Ohio's electoral votes to John Kerry? Close your eyes and imagine.

Not all conservatives are partisan hacks, however, and some are adding surprising riders to recent op-eds. "Bush's reelection, if won fair and square, was won because 20 million Christian evangelicals voted against abortion and homosexuals," former Reagan administration official Paul Craig Roberts wrote on Nov. 19. If won fair and square? If? It looks like Votergate is making a dent.

Even so, some media giants remain downright pathological in their coverage. The Washington Post's passive aggressive reporting on Ralph Nader's New Hampshire concerns, for example, was captured in their headline: "Losing by 335,000 in N.H., Nader Demands a Recount." Meanwhile, the New York Times sandwiched a piece debunking election complaints as groundless conspiracy theories between two fine editorials calling for "a voter-verified paper record of every vote cast," and "election officials who act with openness and integrity." Sybil, is that you?

Singling out Ohio and Florida as states with "highly partisan secretaries of state," however, the Times rightfully concluded: "If we want the voters to trust the umpires, we need umpires who don't take sides." That doesn't seem too much to ask, does it? But calling for safeguards for future elections is not enough. We need a sense of closure and honesty and truth today.

"The mainstream press must immediately realize that this issue rises above partisanship and demands attention," Yale Law School associate dean Ian Soloman remarked and slowly but surely, many are finally flirting with this story. But although journalists who address election oddities ought to be commended, their habits of issuing backdoor disclaimers and offering preemptive apologies merely reinforce perceptions of wimpiness.

Yeah. Ok. We got it. This "crazy" story isn't as big as Whitewater. Or Travelgate. Or Bill Clinton's blow job. And quite honestly, given the Clinton body counts, we've had enough bizarre speculation to last a lifetime. But for the love of God, it's not too difficult to figure this out. We "on the fringe" exist because of the mainstream media's abject failure. And pundits' dismissive attitudes will not quell the legitimate concerns of wide swaths of the population -- especially those whose WMD doubts and Iraq predictions (which were also ridiculed during the heavily propagandized countdown to war), turned out to be true.

And even without all the fact checkers and six-figure salaries, the fringe folks often see the bigger picture, as the mainstream media help the White House roll out its deadly new product du jour.

Robert Parry and Kevin Phillips have long explored the preferential treatment the Bush family has enjoyed in the press, but this goes beyond Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry or whoever runs in 2008. No, this story is bigger than any particular candidate. It's as big as America herself.

The number of computer scientists raising red flags about e-voting should raise red flags, but we live in a really bizarre time when the bigger picture is obscured and which team you're on is more important than integrity and honesty and fairness and transparency and our democratic process.

"Regardless of the outcome of this election, once all the votes are counted -- and they will be counted -- we will continue to challenge this administration," John Kerry said in a statement released last Friday. "I will fight for a national standard for federal elections that has both transparency and accountability in our voting system. It is unacceptable in the United States that people still don't have full confidence in the integrity of the voting process."

Does that mean Kerry's lawyers are working diligently from an undisclosed location? Does it mean he's going to fight? Or is he telling disgruntled citizens what they want to hear? It's difficult to tell.

But one thing is for certain: We do not need any more self-obsessed pundits telling half truths and sharpening their claws. (Citing the old "they can dish it out but they can't take it" adage, even Tom Brokaw admitted that Jon Stewart was right to lambaste Crossfire's hosts). We have plenty of wimps and partisan hacks who act like bullies, and then recoil and whine when someone rightfully tells them that they're not serving the public interest. No. More than ever, we need outwardly humble, mild mannered Clark Kents, who say, "there's a story here. . . maybe I should cover it."

"I've gotten 37,000 emails in the last two weeks (now running at better than 25:1 in favor)," Keith Olbermann wrote in his blog on Nov. 21. See, Peter Jennings? No need for surprise. When reporters actually do their jobs, they become Supermen of sorts -- fighting for Truth, Justice and the American way.