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Recount Reconsiderations

By Ben Fritz
April 17, 2001
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After five months, not many people still care who "actually won" in Florida. With the final total down to a tiny margin of error, different counts will inevitably lead to different conclusions, and partisans on both sides will continue to claim victory for as long as anyone will listen.

Once you take a close look, though, it's tough not to care about the media spin that the most recent recount effort has created. On April 4, The Miami Herald with parent company Knight-Ridder and USA Today published the results of a review of 64,248 ballots in all 67 Florida counties. Among their findings were that hundreds of ballots were arbitrarily discarded, discernible votes were not counted by machines, and overvotes with a clear intent were ignored. Ironically, the study also found that under the counting standards advocated by Gore and the Florida Supreme Court, George W. Bush would have won, but under the standards Republicans pushed for, Gore would have been the winner.

The Herald's headline? "Review Shows Ballots Say Bush." USA Today's? "Newspaper's Recount Showed Bush Prevailed."

Why lead with this one finding in a story analyzing a very complex study? Taking facts presented in the Herald's piece, here are some other potential leads that could have been used: "Had discarded ballots in two counties that bore marks no different from others accepted been counted, Gore would be in the White House today." ... "By a standard many Republicans, including the Florida Republican Party, advocated, Al Gore would have won the election by an indistinguishable three votes." ... "Although overvotes would not have been counted under the Florida Supreme Court's order, Herald reviewers found numerous ballots where a voters accidentally voted twice for the same candidate. Election supervisors agree that under a manual recount, many of these could have been rehabilitated using nothing more than common sense."

The Herald and USA Today led with a Bush "win," however, because headlines that read "Study Finds Florida Election Results Vary Depending on Standard" don't sell papers. Instead, these analyses arbitrarily focus on what would have happened if Gore had his way. Since he didn't, though, there is no rational reason to make that the exclusive focus of the first five paragraphs of the Herald's story. One has to get to the sixth paragraph of the Herald piece to discover that "Bush's lead would have vanished ... if the recount had been conducted under severely restricted standards advocated by some Republicans." USA Today doesn't find this fact worth mentioning at all. Why is it more "ironic," and therefore newsworthy, that Gore pursued a strategy that would have led to a Bush victory than that George W. Bush did the exact same thing?

Even readers who get their news from a variety of outlets would likely reach the same conclusion. In this case, as in many others, the news media became an echo chamber, with articles taking their cues from the first written as to what facts matter, what the lead should be, and even how the headline should read. The New York Times, The San Jose Mercury News, and many other papers ran wire stories that followed the original Herald/USA Today leads. Unfortunately, the stories are so similar, it becomes clear that this agreement has nothing to do with independent papers coming to the same conclusion, and everything to do with a media caught in a spin cycle of endless repetition.

It's that repetition that fueled the Wall Street Journal's editorial the next day, which takes as a given that George W. Bush has been proven the clear winner of the presidential election. Even ignoring the fact that the Herald/USA Today story leaves that outcome very much in doubt, the Journal's editorial is a marvel of faulty logic and unsupported accusations. One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The Journal leads off by letting former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos legitimize the Supreme Court's highly controversial decision stopping the Florida recount. "The bottom line," it quotes him as saying, "is that this undercuts the Democrats' argument that the Republicans stole the election by having the Supreme Court stop the count. Democrats will still be able to say somehow that they were robbed because of unfair ballots ... but they can't say the Supreme Court took away their rights and would have cost them the election."

The irony of this quote is incredible. Stephanopoulos, and thus the Journal, seem to believe that the only "rights" at stake in this case were the right of one candidate to win. After all, if it was about the rights of citizens to have their votes counted, the Supreme Court still denied that right to a number of citizens. Instead, the issue is framed as only being about who won and, since George W. Bush got more votes, the U.S. Supreme Court was correct to overrule the Florida Supreme Court. Ipso facto.

But wait. The whole point of the Herald and USA Today stories was that George W. Bush would have won the election even if the Supreme Court had not intervened. So if the question is whether anybody's "right" to win the election was violated, clearly it was Bush. No worries, though, The Journal addresses that point near the end of the editorial when it states "If the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't intervened, we have no doubt that Team Gore would still be arguing in some court, somewhere."

The logic, then, is as follows: George W. Bush would have won the Florida election even if the state Supreme Court-ordered recount had taken place. Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court was correct to stop that recount and declare Bush the winner because, if it hadn't, Gore's lawyers would keep on suing. If you have a headache, you clearly don't read Journal editorials often enough.

As one would expect, the Journal ignores all of the evidence that suggests many vote-counting procedures would have resulted in a Gore victory, focusing only on the lead that many of the news articles used. This allows it to conclude that "Al Gore's desperate attempt to manufacture votes out of thin air in Florida would still have fallen short if he had gotten his way." Why was Gore desperate to request recounts as provided for under Florida law? The Journal doesn't have time to answer that, as it proceeds to call his supporters "rabid partisans" and his lawyers a "scorched-earth corps of litigators who for the first time ever challenged a presidential election." One would think the fact that the Florida Supreme Court accepted Gore's arguments would have some bearing on whether they are "desperate," but that is not deemed noteworthy by the Journal. It only notes that "[f]our judges with Democratic Party backgrounds ... rejected the Gore arguments in whole or in part."

Such blatant non-inclusion of relevant facts, disjointed logic, and ungrounded accusations are cause for serious concern, even on the right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial page. Even more disturbing, though, are the biased and irrational news reports that form the editorial's foundation. When the media is caught in a spin cycle, one or two papers' take on a highly complex issue guide almost all the "objective" news that follows. Thus a study whose only definite conclusion is that differing assumptions lead to different conclusions becomes clear evidence that George W. Bush won the election. USA Today and The Miami Herald spin it that way, other papers follow their lead, The Wall Street Journal bases an editorial on it, and thus spin starts to become publicly accepted fact.

-Martin Merzer, "Review Shows Ballots Say Bush." The Miami Herald, April 4, 2001.
-Dennis Cauchon, "Newspapers' Recount Shows Bush Prevailed." USA Today, April 4, 2001.
-Associated Press, "An Analysis of Florida Balloting Favors Bush." The New York Times, April 4, 2001.
-The Wall Street Journal, "The Myth of Florida." April 5, 2001.

Other Links:
-Jacob Weisberg, "A Road Map to the Recount." Slate, April 5, 2001.
-FAIR, "USA Today Concels Key Information in Recount Story." FAIR Action Alert, April 11, 2001.

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