Monday, November 15, 2004

I swear: I'm on vacation (Keith Olbermann)

Countdown with Keith Olbermann

I swear: I'm on vacation (Keith Olbermann)

SECURE UNDISCLOSED LOCATION— Golly, I’ve never been the subject of a conspiracy theory before.

Yet, there it is, flying around the Internet under the byline of a Peter Coyote: that when I attempted to break the “lock-down” of coverage of the voting irregularities story in the media during Friday night’s edition of Countdown, I was fired, and left the studio in the middle of the program.

Um, no, actually.

I’m on vacation— it’s been scheduled since August; I’ll be blogging in the interim; Countdown will continue to cover the story in my absence; I not only wasn’t fired for ‘mentioning’ the story - but we covered it five nights in a row; and, I’ll be back on television on the 22nd (earlier, if developments warrant).

But we can now trace how just a dollop of the truth can be subverted into an item available for purchase in the Tin Foil Hat District - and we have another reminder that what you read on the Web, no matter how much it might fit your beliefs, anxieties, or even other facts, might still resemble more a game of telephone than actual investigative reporting.

I’m reminded suddenly of the lyric from The Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime”: “Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit? Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?”

What happened was this. We end nearly every Friday show with a news quiz. Each week my colleague Monica Novotny asks me a series of questions sent in by viewers. If I get half or more correct, I win a “prize” - if not, I suffer a “punishment.” This edition’s prize was a week’s vacation. I feigned surprise, asked when it began, was told it began whenever I wanted, and promptly got up and literally ran off the set.

Two insider facts:

a) We planned that gag to tamp down any surprise or speculation if people tuned in Monday and didn’t see me (I assumed reactions would divide into three groups: ones from the left which assumed I’d been “silenced,” ones from the right which assumed I’d been “suspended,” and, the largest group by far, ones who couldn’t care less).

b) The rest of the show is live, but, for reasons of technical complexity, we always pre-tape the quiz in advance. The whole running-off-the-set gag was recorded at 7:45. Temporally speaking, my “mid-show firing” occurred before the newscast itself.

Thanks, though, to all who e-mailed fearing a reply “Olbermann? No Olbermann ever worked here.” The e-mail volume since the first blog last week, incidentally, is up to 27,000 as of 2 PM ET Sunday, and it continues to run at about 22:1 in favor, with the “ones” boiling down to messages like “get over it” and the cordial greeting from a woman in late middle age: “Shut the F up.” We do learn from this correspondence that not a lot of people like Ann Coulter, and that the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is so infrequently read that the oxygen over there is being utterly wasted.

There is another fallacy in the Olbermann’s Been Disappeared story, and it’s the very idea that there is a “media lock-down” of coverage. Nobody can argue that the MSM has been vigorous here - nor, in television’s case, anything but largely dismissive - but you can ring that up much more to hauteur than to censorship.

On Friday, David Shuster, who has already done some excellent research at Hardblogger, did a piece on the mess for Hardball, and Chris followed up with a discussion with Joe Trippi and Susan Molinari. There was a cogent, reasoned, unexcited piece about the mechanics of possible tampering and/or machine failure on CNN’s “Next” yesterday, and Saturday alone there were serious news pieces in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Los Angeles Times, Salt Lake Tribune, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. NPR did a segment of its “On The Media” on the topic (with said blogger as the guest).

And today the New York Times continues its series of “Making Vote Counts” editorials with a pretty solid stance on the necessity of journalistic and governmental proof that the elections weren’t tampered with, nor the victims of Speak & Spell toys retro-fitted as electronic voting units. By way of contrast, though, the Houston Chronicle has an editorial so puerile that it may be the most na├»ve thing I’ve ever read that was actually written by a grown-up.

I suspect the coverage is going to go through the roof as the news spreads that Nader has gotten his recount in New Hampshire, and that the Greens and Libertarians are actually going to get their Ohio recount. When reporters discover what Jonathan Turley pointed out to us on Tuesday’s show, namely that 70% of Ohio’s votes were done with punch cards and as Florida proved in 2000, in court, a lot of those punch cards— as Jon put it— “turn over,” I suspect there will be long-form television on the process. As an aside: as of earlier today, the Green/Libs— should we just go ahead and call them the Glibs?— were at $118,000 towards their Ohio war-chest goal of $150,000. I’ve gotten a peck of e-mails about why neither party’s Website has details, and it turns out the site you want on this is VoteCobb.Org.

All that having been said, the most remarkable read of the day is probably the item buried on page A5 of The Washington Post. (Registration required but free). There, Charles Babington and Brian Faler take the wind out of the primary post-election grist for the yak-fests of radio and television: the overwhelming relevance of “Moral Values” to 2004’s presidential voters.

You will recall that the Exit Polling on November 2nd ranked the most important issues as follows:

1. Moral Values, 22%
2. Economy and Jobs, 20%
3. Terrorism, 19%
4. Iraq, 15%

The authors point out that those results came when pollsters offered voters a list of which issues factored most into their decision to vote. They note that last week, Pew Research went back and surveyed voters again, and took their temperatures in two ways— with a list (as was offered on election day), and without one (in other words, voters had to remember their issues; it ceased to be multiple choice). Those working off the checklist responded similarly to the election day exit pollees:

1. Moral Values, 27%
2. Iraq, 22%
3. Economy and Jobs, 21%
4. Terrorism, 14%

But the free-form Pew survey produced entirely different data. Given nothing to work with, simply asked to name the deciding factor in their vote, “moral values” shrunk back to human size:

1. Other, 31%
2. Iraq, 25%
3. Moral Values, 14%
4. Economy and Jobs, 12%
5. Terrorism, 9%

Babington and Faler point out that “other” included such gems as not liking Bush, not liking Kerry, honesty, and presumably “I was following instructions from Jon Stewart.”

Oh and by the way: how come the “Kerry’s winning” part of the election night exit polling is presumed to have been wrong, or tampered with, but the “Moral Values” part of the same polling is graded flawless, and marks the dawn of a new American century?

On Vaco but still reading your e-mails. Write to me at


Comment: Write to Keith and encourage him to continue covering the post election examination of the ballots.