New York Times Perpetuates the Myth that George Bush Won the 2000 Election
"In 2001 painstaking postmortems of the Florida count, one by the New York Times and another by a consortium of newspapers, concluded that Mr. Bush would have come out slightly ahead, even if all the votes counted throughout the state had been retallied." Alessandra Stanley, New York Times, May 23, 2008, in a review of the HBO television movie, "Recount"
That's not true.
The New York Times did not do its own recount. It did participate in a consortium. Here's what the consortium actually said: "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." Ford Fessenden and John M. Broder, New York Times, Nov. 12, 2001.
Why did Ms. Stanley make such an important and fundamental error?
It is not a trivial matter. It is a common piece of misinformation. Many, many people believe it. Now a few more do, as a result of Ms. Stanley's review. It is not a trivial matter. Because that misinformation was created by one of the most bizarre, and still completely unexplained, journalistic events in modern times.
Here's what happened.
George Bush appeared to have won Florida, and therefore the presidency.
The law in Florida was actually quite simple and direct:
Ã†â€™(4) If the returns for any office reflect that a candidate was defeated or eliminated by one-half of a percent or less of the votes cast for such office ... the board responsible for certifying the results of the vote on such race or measure shall order a recount of the votes cast with respect to such office or measure.That is one of the simplest and most clearly written bits of legislation I've ever seen anywhere. The Florida court thought so too and ordered a recount. Then the United States Supreme Court stepped in and shut the recounts down. Bush was left as the victor and became the president. But, presumably, the whole world wanted to know who actually did get the most votes. It would make a great and important story. But getting the truth was too time-consuming and expensive for any single news organization, so a consortium was formed. It consisted of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Tribune Company, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the St. Petersburg Times, the Palm Beach Post and CNN. It took almost a year and cost more than a million dollars. All the news organizations had the same information: Al Gore got more legal, countable votes than George Bush. Here are the headlines:
New York Times: "STUDY OF DISPUTED FLORIDA BALLOTS FINDS JUSTICES DID NOT CAST THE DECIDING VOTE"
Wall Street Journal: "IN ELECTION REVIEW, BUSH WINS WITHOUT SUPREME COURT HELP"
Los Angeles Times: "BUSH STILL HAD VOTES TO WIN IN A RECOUNT, STUDY FINDS"
Washington Post: "FLORIDA RECOUNTS WOULD HAVE FAVORED BUSH"
CNN.com: "FLORIDA RECOUNT STUDY: BUSH STILL WINS"
St. Petersburg Times: "RECOUNT: BUSH."
If you were still interested, after the headlines, and bothered to read the stories, it didn't get much better. I read it in the New York Times. Frankly, I missed the key paragraph, until I saw it pointed out in an article by Gore Vidal. I subsequently went back and read all the stories. The Times was the worst in terms of active misdirection. They spent the first three paragraphs supporting the headline, and they explicitly stated that Bush would have won even with a statewide recount. Finally, in the fourth paragraph -- if you got that far -- was the statement quoted above:
"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."
There it was. A very simple statement. Al Gore got more votes in Florida than George Bush. It is also very well buried. It had arcana about chads on both sides of it. Even so, as if in a panic to make sure that nobody might think that it mattered that Al Gore got more votes than George Bush, the Times dismissed what the consortium had spent a million dollars to find out: "While these are fascinating findings, they do not represent a real-world situation. There was no set of circumstances in the fevered days after the election that would have produced a hand recount of all 175,000 overvotes and undervotes." That would seem to be a fairly obvious interpretation of the law, and it is what was found when someone actually did sit down and count the votes.
The rest of the story, another four paragraphs, detailed a variety of other possible recounts, all partial recounts -- these counties, but not those counties -- that the Gore lawyers or the Bush lawyers asked for at various times. Bush would have won all of those variations; he just didn't get the most votes in Florida. Not that the all variations mattered much. The Florida court had ordered a statewide hand recount.
The news story spinners hung their hat on a technicality.
Florida law, as affirmed by the courts, says a vote most be counted if there is "a clear indication of the intent of the voter." When the questions and lawsuits started, they were about undervotes. An undervote is when a voter has tried to vote but for some reason the counting machines fail to accept it. The most common cause, in Florida, which used a punch system, was that the punching device did not make a clear hole in the voting card. The piece of paper that was supposed to be knocked out, a chad, was hanging, or only broken on two corners, or merely dented. While the machines couldn't discern the "intent of the voter," the human eye often could. So we had the spectacle, and the jokes, about "hanging chads" as the recounts began. If only the undervotes were counted, by some standards of judging them, then Bush would have won.
But the consortium recount came across something else: overvotes. An overvote is when someone punches in the name of the candidate, and then, just to make sure, writes their name on the ballot. The machines could only read that the ballots had been marked in two places and threw them out.
But a human being, who saw that the place to vote for Gore had been punched and then that Gore's name had been written in, could easily determine the intent of the voter. So the reporters for the consortium kept track of those too, and found out that Gore actually won.
Had the people inspecting the votes in the actual recount also noticed overvotes, and would they have done something about them? The answer appears to be yes.
Newsweek has uncovered hastily scribbled faxed notes written by Terry Lewis, the plain-speaking, mystery-novel-writing state judge in charge of the Florida recount -- just hours before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its order -- showing that Lewis was actively considering directing the counties to also count an even larger category of disputed ballots, the so-called "overvotes," which were rejected by the machines because they purportedly recorded more than one vote for president:
"Judge, if you would, segregate 'overvotes' as you describe and indicate in your final report how many where you determined the clear intent of the voter," Lewis wrote in a note to Judge W. Wayne Woodard, chairman of the Charlotte County Canvassing Board on the afternoon of Dec. 9, 2000. "I will rule on the issue for all counties, Thanks, Terry Lewis."Newsweek, "The Final Word?" by Michael Isikoff, 11/19/01
That leaves us with a big question.
The largest, most prestigious news organizations in the United States -- pretty much in the world -- discovered a great and exciting story: The wrong guy was president of the United States. Also, that the Supreme Court of the United States had interfered in an election to frustrate the actual will of the voters. (Justice Antonin Scalia wants us to get over it.) Why did they so distort the story with misleading headlines, by burying the lead, by blowing so much fog and confusion around it, that almost everybody who read or heard the story walked away with the false impression that they had deliberately created? Created so successfully that the New York Times TV show reviewer is repeating it as fact seven years later.
There is no hard, on-the-record answer to that. None of the editors or publishers have come forward and said, "This is why we spun the story the way we did, even if it meant pissing away the million dollars we spent to get it." Nobody has, and nobody can, sue them for gratuitous misinformation and malfeasance, and put them in the witness box under oath to get to the bottom of it. There is only speculation. The story is dated Nov. 12, 2001, just two months after Sept. 11, 2001. We can imagine that they universally felt it was not the time to announce a pretender was on the throne and that the system was rotten, right to the top. But I sure would love to know how they all got on the same page about it. That would make a terrific story. Not as great as the one they threw away, but good enough.
I wrote to the Times and suggested a correction. At the time that I've submitted this, none has appeared. However, the Gray Lady did correct an article that appeared the same day about "Sex and the City" that got the number of its television seasons wrong. You have to know when accuracy is important.