Silence of the Media Lambs
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Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Greg Palast's book, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy." Five months before the November 2000 election, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and his Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, moved to purge 57,7000 people from the voter rolls, supposedly criminals not allowed to vote. Almost every one was innocent of crimes -- though the majority were guilty of being African American. BBC reporter Palast asks, "How did 100,000 US journalist sent to cover the election fail to get this vote theft story?"
Investigative reports share three things: They are risky, they upset the wisdom of the established order and they are very expensive to produce. Do profit-conscious enterprises, whether media companies or widget firms, seek extra costs, extra risk and the opportunity to be attacked? Not in any business text I've ever read. I can't help but note that Britain's Guardian and Observer newspapers, the only papers to report this scandal when it broke just weeks after the 2000 election, are the world's only major newspapers owned by a not-for-profit corporation.
But if profit lust is the ultimate problem blocking significant investigative reportage, the more immediate cause of comatose coverage of the election and other issues is what is laughably called America's "journalistic culture." If the Rupert Murdochs of the globe are shepherds of the New World Order, they owe their success to breeding a flock of docile sheep -- snoozy editors and reporters content to munch on, digest, then reprint a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by government and corporate public-relations operations.
Take this story of the list of Florida's faux felons that cost Al Gore the presidential election. Shortly after the U.K. story hit the World Wide Web, I was contacted by a CBS TV network news producer eager to run a version of the story. The CBS hotshot was happy to pump me for information: names, phone numbers, all the items one needs for your typical quickie TV news report. I freely offered up to CBS this information: The office of the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican presidential candidate, had illegally ordered the removal of the names of felons from voter rolls -- real felons who had served time but obtained clemency, with the right to vote under Florida law. As a result, another 40,000 legal voters (in addition to the 57,700 on the purge list), almost all of them Democrats, could not vote.
The only problem with this new hot info is that I was still in the midst of investigating it. Therefore, CBS would have to do some actual work -- reviewing documents and law, obtaining statements.
The next day I received a call from the producer, who said, "I'm sorry, but your story didn't hold up." And how do you think the multibillion-dollar CBS network determined this? Answer: "We called Jeb Bush's office." Oh.
I wasn't surprised by this type of "investigation." It is, in fact, standard operating procedure for the little lambs of American journalism. One good, slick explanation from a politician or corporate chieftain and it's case closed, investigation over. The story ran on television, but once again, in the wrong country: I reported it on the BBC's Newsnight. Notably, the BBC is a publicly owned network -- I mean a real public network, with no "funds generously provided by Archer Mobil Bigbucks."
Let's understand the pressures on the CBS TV producer that led her to kill the story simply because the target of the allegation said it ain't so. The story demanded massive and quick review of documents, dozens of phone calls and interviews -- hardly a winner in the slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am school of U.S. journalism. Most difficult, the revelations in the story required a reporter to stand up and say that the big-name politicians, their lawyers and their PR people were freaking liars.
It would be much easier, a heck of a lot cheaper and no risk at all to wait for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to do the work, then cover the commission's report and press conference. No one ever lost their job writing canned statements from a press release. Wait! You've watched Murphy Brown so you think reporters hanker to uncover the big scandal. Bullshit. Remember, All the President's Men was so unusual they had to make a movie out of it.
The Election Fix Story Steals Into the States
In London the Guardian and Observer received about two thousand bless-you-Britain-for-telling-us-the-truth-about-our-elections letters from U.S. Internet readers circulating the samizdat presidential elections coverage. I also received a few like this:
You pansey brits seem to think that the average American is as undereducated and stupid as the average british subject..Well comrad [sic], I'm here to tell you . . . . . .which ended with some physically unfeasible suggestions of what to do with the Queen (figure 1.1).
My Observer report went to print within three weeks of the election. The vote count in Florida was still on. Watching the vote-count clock ticking, Joe Conason, the most determined of American investigative reporters, insisted to his editors at Salon.com, the Internet magazine, that they bring my story back to America. Salon posted "Florida's Ethnic Cleansing of the Voter Rolls" to the Net on December 4, 2000. It wasn't exactly "print," but at least it was American. Still, not one U.S. news editor called, not even from my "sister" paper, the Washington Post, with whom the Guardian shares material and prints an international weekly.
From a news perspective, not to mention the flood of site hits, this was Salon's biggest politics story ever -- and they named Part I their political story of the year. But where was Part II? On their Web site and on radio programs the magazine was announcing Part II would appear in two days... and in two days... and in two days... and nothing appeared. Part II was the story blown off by the CBS Evening News about an additional 40,000-plus voters whom Jeb Bush barred from voting. The fact that 90 percent of these 40,000 voters were Democrats should have made it news... because this maneuver alone more than accounted for Bush's victory.
I was going crazy: Gore had not yet conceded... the timing of Part II was crucial. Where the hell was it? Finally, an editor told me, "The story doesn't check out. You see, we checked with Jeb Bush's office and they said..."
Argh! It was déjà vu all over again.
Another staffer added, as a kind of explanation, "The Washington Post would never run this story."
Well, he had me there. They hadn't, they didn't. Not yet. At least Salon helped me sneak the first report past the border patrols. So God bless America.
While waiting for the United States to awaken, I took my BBC film crew to Florida, having unearthed a smoking-gun document: I had a page marked "confidential" from the contract between the State of Florida and the private company that had purged the voter lists. The document contained cold evidence that Florida knew they were taking the vote away from thousands of innocent voters, most of them Black.
It was February. I took my camera crew into an agreed interview with Jeb Bush's director of the Florida Department of Elections. When I pulled out the confidential sheet, Bush's man ripped off the microphone and did a fifty-yard dash, locking himself in his office, all in front of our cameras. It was killer television and wowed the British viewers. We even ran a confession from the company that was hired to carry out the purge operation. Newsworthy? Apparently not for the United States.
My program, BBC Newsnight, has a film-trading agreement with the ABC television network. A record twenty thousand Net-heads in the United States saw the BBC Webcast; and several banged on the door of ABC TV's Nightline to run our footage, or at least report what we found. Instead, Nightline sent its own crew down to Florida for a couple of days. They broadcast a story that ballots are complex and Blacks are not well educated about voting procedures. The gravamen of the story was, Blacks are too frigging dumb to figure out how to vote. No mention that in white Leon County, machines automatically kicked back faulty ballots for voter correction; whereas in Gadsden County, very Black, the same machines were programmed to eat mismarked ballots. That was in our story, too.
Why didn't ABC run the voter purge story? Don't look for some big Republican conspiracy. Remember the three elements of investigative reporting: risk, time, money. Our BBC/Guardian stories required all of those, in short supply in U.S. news operations.
Finally, in February, my Part II -- the report that was too scary and difficult for Dan Rather's show -- found asylum in the Nation magazine, that distant journalistic planet not always visible to the naked eye.
And then, mirabile dictu , the Washington Post ran the story of the voter purge on page one, including the part that "couldn't stand up" for CBS and Salon . . . and even gave me space for a bylined comment. Applause for the Post's courage! Would I be ungrateful if I suggested otherwise? The Post ran the story in June, though they had it at hand seven months earlier when the ballots were still being counted. They waited until they knew the findings of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report, which verified BBC's discoveries, so they could fire from behind that big safe rock of Official Imprimatur. In other words, the Post had the courage to charge out and shoot the wounded.