In this improbable presidential election, the news media have taken yet another road more traveled and left a potentially bigger story mostly by the wayside.
A month ago, even before the long Election Day and Night stumbled to a conclusion, there were rumblings of ballot trouble in Palm Beach County. Within days, the world had read hundreds of newspaper and magazine stories and seen many hours of television coverage about the saga of the "butterfly ballot" and the thousands of votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan that were likely intended for Democrat Al Gore.
It was a big story, media heavies seemed to agree, with all sorts of delicious (to the media, at least) elements. It was easy to put a human face on the story -- the "victims" of the confusing ballot included outraged and embarrassed voters, many of them highly educated, many of them older, some who had been through the hells of the Holocaust. The ballot itself was highly photogenic and a blown-up version became a staple of newspapers and television coverage. There was even the quasi-catharsis of Buchanan saying he suspected most of the Palm Beach votes were not intended for him.
At the same time, another story of election irregularities -- of civil rights violations against black voters throughout the state on Election Day -- was circulating. But this one was passed around much more quietly and narrowly. First, within black communities, tales were exchanged of harrowing allegations: of intimidation directed at blacks at polling places, of black male voters singled out for criminal background checks, of blacks denied routine assistance at polling places.
Despite the potential explosiveness of these allegations (and probably also because of that combustibility), major media, both print and electronic, paid only limited attention. A media horde had quickly descended on Florida, but few of the many hundreds of reporters wrote or aired stories about the racial charges.
The Buchanan butterfly ballot story grew quickly and then was supplanted by wall-to-wall coverage of chads -- the alleged undercount of ballots in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
Meanwhile, the civil rights story stayed small. Even more damning of the media's lack of interest, a disproportionate amount of early coverage given to the blacks' charges came from black journalists and columnists. Here was a story of outrage and, by and large, only black journalists were paying great attention.
The civil rights story is limited by a number of factors. First and foremost, the allegations are hard to prove definitively. The confusion of the butterfly ballot is obvious to people who see it or have it described to them. By contrast, the rights violations take hard, time-consuming reporting to prove or reject. Much of the reporting in Florida since the election has been by reporters who don't know the territory and find it easiest to cover news conferences, county elections officials recounting ballots and now court action. A lot of shoe leather needed to be expended to check out the racial charges.
There was also the distraction of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson went to Palm Beach soon after the election and organized rallies against both the butterfly ballot and the civil rights charges. But the media concentrated on his butterfly ballot attacks, pointing out how unusual it was for him to be supporting the grievances of older Jewish voters. When Jackson left town, many media outlets acted as if they had adequately covered the racial allegations.
Putting a human face on the race charges was more difficult than for the butterfly ballot. Blacks who claimed to have been disfranchised were dispersed around the state and, as alleged targets of intimidation, would have reason to be wary of a news corps dominated by whites.
The media's lack of interest in the race allegations was also connected to the low profile of some of the journalists' main sources. Gore put together enormous margins in the black community nationwide. But his campaign staff was cautious in pushing forward the grievances, perhaps fearful of being overly identified as the candidate of blacks. (Tuesday, Gore answered a reporter's question on the charges and said he was "very troubled" by the "serious allegations.") The Justice Department, probably concerned about being seen as partisan, also has taken a low-key stance.
Not until Nov. 30 was a major newspaper study of the race charges published. The New York Times ran a lengthy Page 1 article headlined, "Arriving at Florida Voting Places, Some Blacks Found Frustration."
The Times did extensive interviewing and computer analysis, finding that some black voters, "it is unclear exactly how many," were "turned away from the polls." The Times story said that extremely high turnout among black Florida voters led to a buckling of the election system. The story documented how areas with high numbers of black voters had weak election technology.
The Times story was followed by a Sunday story in the Washington Post that did a precinct-by-precinct analysis and found that "heavily Democratic and African-American neighborhoods in Florida lost many more presidential votes than other areas because of outmoded voting machines and rampant confusion." Also Sunday, the Miami Herald did an enterprising statistical analysis of the statewide vote that suggested that areas with large numbers of Democratic voters, many of which have large black populations, had a greater chance of ballots being thrown out than the statewide average. Similarly, TV coverage has perked up in the last few days, most recently with Tuesday's "Today" show segment on the charges.
It's not too late for the race charges to be investigated. But it is likely too late for the alleged civil rights violations to get front and center status in the minds of most readers and viewers. It is far more likely, at least as of now, that the battles over chads and the butterfly ballot will be remembered.
Besides the lesson that hard stories are less likely to be pursued, this tale of two types of election irregularities has another sad subtext. Journalists are less likely to push as hard to investigate the complaints of those without power, of color, of less social status and wealth. Some blacks who have said they were discriminated against on Election Day in Florida were well educated and middle-class. But there were many of lesser means, and those are people who typically have more trouble getting their complaints and grievances addressed.
Journalists like to think that they are of the people, are not class-conscious and are crusaders to right society's wrong. The Florida aftermath hasn't advanced that image.
© Copyright 2000 Star Tribune