Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jonathan Chait on Bush v. Gore and journalistic cowardice

On the heels of an exceptionally clear-eyed take on the health care debate, Jonathan Chait follows up with an exceptional piece of journalistic criticism:

The myth that Bush would have won had the recount proceeded dates back to a recount conducted by a consortium of newspapers that examined the ballots. The consortium found that “If all the ballots had been reviewed under any of seven single standards, and combined with the results of an examination of overvotes, Mr. Gore would have won, by a very narrow margin.” But the newspapers decided that this was not how the counties would have actually tabulated the votes. By the variable standards they would have used, the papers reported, Bush would have prevailed. Thus the national news reported a slew of headlines asserting that Bush would have prevailed.
The conclusion was erroneous. The newspapers assumed that the counties would only have looked at “undervotes” — ballots that did not register any votes for president — and ignored “overvotes” — ballots that registered more than one vote for president. An overvote would be a ballot in which the machine mistakenly picked up a second vote for president, or in which a voter both marked a box and wrote in the name of the same candidate. A hand recount in which an examiner is judging the “intent of the voter” would turn those ballots that were originally discarded into countable votes.
Counting overvotes in which the intent of the voter was clear would have resulted in Gore winning the recount. And subsequent reporting by the Orlando Sentinel and Michael Isikoff found that the recount, had it proceeded, almost certainly would have examined overvotes. (Most of the links have been lost over time, but you can find references here and here.)
The newspapers’ error has to be understood in the context of the time. After Bush prevailed in the recount, there was massive pressure to retroactively justify the processes that led to his victory, in the general spirit of restoring confidence in the system. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, that pressure intensified to the point where it was commonly opined that the newspapers ought to entirely cancel the recount (scheduled to come out in November 2001, at the height of the rally-around-Bush moment). In that atmosphere, the newspapers grasped for an interpretation that would both reassure most Americans of what they wanted to believe and avoid placing themselves in opposition to a powerful and bipartisan rallying around Bush that was then at its apogee.

Over the past quarter century or so, journalists have managed to fashion an ethical code so self-serving and cowardly that they can justify going to any length to avoid covering a difficult story, revealing uncomfortable facts about the profession or challenging powerful people. It's the same code that allows James Stewart to defend a press favorite like Paul Ryan by lying about Ryan's positions.

We still have some good, independent-minded journalists and pundits out there, but they're doing good work despite, not because of their profession's value system.

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