San Francisco Examiner
I told myself I wasn’t going to write a column about the elections or the Florida vote. What’s the point? Do you know a columnist who hasn’t? And won’t it be over before it’s printed? But dammed if the whole craziness doesn’t pull one in, like a sort of political Event Horizon, that bizarre zone bordering a Black Hole.
At first, the cynical part of me dismissed the media’s non-stop obsession as little more than proof of the late A.J. Leibling’s Second Law of Journalism: “There is an inverse relationship between the number of reporters at an event, and the importance of the event.”
But then the numbers began coming in: The TV audience for the returns was bigger than the audience for the last “Survivor” show. The bored voter index dropped from 48 percent to 17 percent. Want to start a conversation? Walk into a, 1) Grocery store; 2) Laundromat; 3) Elevator, and ask anyone, “So, what do you think about the election?” Instead of a shrug or a blank stare, you are likely to get a real discussion.
Media obsession, however, has not necessarily translated into good journalism.
First off, the job the networks did on election night played no small part in starting the whole mess. First CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN called Florida for Gore, then reversed field, and finally stampeded for Bush when Fox News declared the Texas Governor the winner. Now it turns out George Bush’s first cousin, John Ellis, was at Fox’s helm, and in constant contact with the Republican campaign throughout the night. Fox apologized, and the other networks are conducting a review of their own conduct.
Second, the media has deep sixed what may be the real story of the Florida election: The systematic disenfranchisement of African-American voters and direct violations of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. In a November 14 letter, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) called on Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate what it called “substantial evidence” for systematic irregularities and discrimination in Black and Haitian precincts.
According to testimony gathered by the NAACP, thousands of African-Americans were denied the right to vote, required to show photo IDs when whites were not, and had polling places moved without forwarding addresses. Haitian Creole speakers were denied assistance, even though Florida law allows interpreters into the voting booths. In a number of cases, police demanded to see voter IDs.
The CBC letter also points to similar incidents in Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri. So far, however, the Black Caucus’ complaint has gone largely unreported. Given the closeness of the count in Florida, this hardly seems an issue the media should go silent around. Nor does one have to be paranoid to suggest that pre-election polls showing overwhelming preference by African-Americans for Gore over Bush might influence the behavior of certain overly partisan voting officials. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ duel role as election arbiter and Bush For President state co-chair is a case in point.
Sooner or later, of course, all this will pass. Someone will be President, the public will change channels, and the media will go back to…what? The temptation will be more of the same: Four years of partisan bitterness, civil war and political gridlock leading up to a sequel in 2004: “The Bush vs Gore Rematch.”
Or the media can learn a very valuable lesson from this imbroglio: their audience is a lot more engaged with political issues than it thought. Americans are not apathetic or cynical, they’re ambivalent. With the campaign (and the candidates) we all just went through, who can blame them? But ambivalence is not disengagement.
Further, regardless of what finally happens in Florida, there are still some stories out there that ought not vanish down the memory hole when the dust settles.
First and foremost, was there an attempt to systematically disenfranchise minority voters in Florida, and other parts of the nation? Given that “minorities” now make up close to 30 percent of the population, and are a majority in California, that is not an abstract question
Secondly, what role did the media itself play in influencing the behavior of voters on election night?
Some serious sanity just might come out of all this craziness.