Thursday, December 02, 2004

More than one kind of black box
December 01, 2004

More than one kind of black box
Keith Olbermann

NEW YORK - I’ve been avoiding this topic for four weeks now, but given what I understand are a lot of dropped jaws around the blogosphere, I think I better spill this.

I don’t think Bev Harris of Black Box Voting is doing anybody any favors.

I suggested as much tonight on Countdown and there were a lot of understandably surprised emails. Some profane, incidentally, which had previously been the exclusive province of those who notified me of their opposition to anybody covering anything about voting irregularities or especially Jesse Jackson’s F-Word.

Each and every day since our coverage of all this began on November 8, I have received a set of emails, some times a few, some times many, asking “Why don’t you have Bev Harris on Countdown?,” “Why don’t you run the Bev Harris videotapes?,” “Why don’t you show the voting tapes Bev Harris found discarded in the trash in Florida?”

Because she won’t let us.

I have not dealt with Ms. Harris directly, but my staff has, and though we have asked her on a regular basis to let us show these tapes on national television, she has declined.

We are running in risky waters as it is, offering a platform for tapes we can’t independently verify. But I have heretofore been convinced that she had credentials sufficient to make an interview segment with her both useful and reasonable.

My ample gut has lately sent me a different message, and her showdown with Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore on Monday seemed to buttress my instinct. She burst into LePore’s retirement ceremony, her cameraman rolling tape as she did so, and she raced to the podium to announce to the shocked room full of supervisors that she was “serving” LePore with papers as part of her lawsuits over what she claims are LePore’s evasions in providing records of the 2004 vote.

The usefulness of that videotape to the immediate issue at hand - were there widespread failures of the electronic voting systems in this country on November 2nd, and if so, were those failures enabledby any malfeasance - has an expiration date. If they show irregularities, if they show public servants at their worst, even if they’re guerrilla-style political confrontations, they have a public value - an urgent one.

Have you seen them?

What Ms. Harris has left herself open to is a charge that as much as any interest she has in the justifiable public concern over our most precious right - the right to a reliable, honest election - she may also have an interest in making her own documentary, on her own schedule, for her own purposes.

What Ms. Harris has also left herself - and by extension anybody who is advocating investigation, or merely covering the story - open to,is the charge of grandstanding, of tin-foil hatting, of being somebody who bursts in to a room and screams at public officials, videotape running all the time, artificially creating news.

Me - I think that can be justified. Guerrilla politics - even guerrilla news - isn’t pretty, but it’s often necessary, as long as it’s news you’re interested in. It’s necessary, as long as you take advantage of the opportunity to disperse what news you’ve gathered, promptly and professionally, especially if that opportunity can serve the public good, and comes with relatively few strings attached (“can we see it first so we know what the hell we’re broadcasting?” - the same thing we ask anybody with news videotape not shot by an NBC or affiliated camera crew, whether they’ve recorded a hurricane or a cat nursing a puppy).

It has been pointed out that Bev Harris was scheduled to be on Countdown back on November 8 but her appearance was cancelled. I haven’t addressed this before, either. But we didn’t cancel on her - we wanted, on that first night raising this touchy subject nobody else had previously covered, to have more mainstream guests. And we wanted her back another night. And since then we’ve wanted her to come back with her video. And she hasn’t.

I don’t know her motivations and I don’t know her bona fides. But I’m afraid at this stage, intentionally or by the simplest of communication failures, she isn’t helping illuminate this issue. And every step that attracts heat but not light is another step towards discrediting the entire process.

Thougths? Email me at