IN JOURNALISM, it's called "burying the lead": A story starts off with what everyone already knows, while the real news - the most surprising, significant or never-been-told-before information - gets pushed down where people are less likely to see it.
That's what happened to the findings of the media study of the uncounted votes from last year's Florida presidential vote. A consortium of news outlets - including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Tribune Co. (Newsday's parent company), The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and CNN - spent nearly a year and $900,000 reexamining every disputed ballot.
The consortium determined that if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed the ongoing recount to go through, George W. Bush would still likely have ended up in the White House. That's because the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court - as well as the more limited recount asked for by Democratic candidate Al Gore - only involved so-called undervotes, ballots that when counted mechanically registered no choice for president.
Gore and the Florida Supreme Court ignored overvotes - votes where mechanical counting registered more than one vote - on the assumption that there would be no way to tell which of the multiple candidates the voter actually intended to pick.
But as the consortium found when it actually looked at the overvotes, one often could tell what the voter's intent was. Many of the overvotes involved, for example, a voter punching the hole next to a candidate's name, and then writing in the same candidate's name.
Since the intent of the voter is clear, these are clearly valid votes under Florida law. And Gore picked up enough of such votes that it almost didn't matter what standard you used when looking at undervotes - whether you counted every dimple or insisted on a fully punched chad, the consortium found that Gore ended up the winner of virtually any full reexamination of rejected ballots.
So there are two main findings: The Supreme Court's intervention probably did not affect the outcome of the limited recounts then under way, and more people probably cast valid votes for Gore than for Bush.
If the first finding was the important news, the consortium was scooped long ago: The Miami Herald and USA Today, working as a separate team, published stories in April that argued persuasively that the particular recounts that were halted by the Supreme Court probably would have produced a Bush victory.
What's new is the finding that, since voters are supposed to decide elections rather than lawyers or judges, the state's electoral votes appear to have gone to the wrong candidate. Given that the outcome in Florida determined the national victor, this is not just news but a critical challenge to the legitimacy of the presidency.
So how did the media report the results of the ballot reexamination?Overwhelmingly, they chose to lead with the news that was comfortable, uncontroversial - and seven months old. "In Election Review, Bush Wins Without Supreme Court Help," was The Wall Street Journal's headline on its story, paralleling The New York Times' "Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote." That angle would be fine if you believed that the Supreme Court was the most important aspect of the story; but what about the presidency?
Other members of the consortium emphasized the most Bush-friendly aspects of the story: "Bush Still Had Votes to Win in a Recount, Study Finds," was the Tribune Co.'s Los Angeles Times' main headline on its report, matching The Washington Post's "Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush" and CNN.com's "Florida Recount Study: Bush Still Wins." The St. Petersburg Times' Web site put it succinctly: "Recount: Bush." While some of these outlets tried to convey greater complexity in subheads, all these headlines obscure the fact that the outlets' most comprehensive recount put Gore ahead of Bush.
Emphasizing the old and conventional while playing down the new and controversial is a recipe for being ignored, and sure enough, few outlets that were not part of the consortium did much with the findings. A story that may well be mentioned in high school history classes a hundred years from now didn't even merit an editorial comment from most newspapers.
It's tempting to attribute this coyness to Sept. 11, and news outlets' reluctance to undermine the legitimacy of the presidency when the country is at war. But the coverage of the consortium's findings is similar to the way earlier media recounts were handled; even the most preliminary Miami Herald/USA Today ballot stories prompted "Bush Really Won" stories across the country. Similarly, when Bush's inauguration was greeted by raucous marchers contesting his victory, many outlets played down the significance of the protests. The New York Times virtually ignored them.
War or no war, many journalists are instinctively protective of the legitimacy of the institutions they cover, but the job of a journalist is not to promote but to question. The theory behind the First Amendment is that the system will be strengthened by an unflinching look at the system's flaws. In looking back at the results of the Florida election, the media flinched.
Jim Naureckas is the editor of Extra!, the magazine of the media watch group FAIR.
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.