At the moment, history seems to be holding its breath. The reporters, pundits and pollsters all agree: The presidential race is a dead heat.
Despite the magnitude of what’s at stake, the vast majority of daily reporting has a fragmented quality. Yet the sum is immensely greater than the parts.
Journalism is potentially a terrific clarifying force. During the days and weeks ahead, we’ll see whether the news media are up to the challenge. The signs are not encouraging. So far this election year, under the guise of being evenhanded, the standard news reports just give us snippets of information, misleading assertions, speculation, claims and counterclaims.
The battle between George W. Bush and John Kerry is much more than a struggle for power. It puts to the test our capacity for democracy. Voters are supposed to choose the president. But this essential right is under dire threat. That’s the big story -- the GOP elephant in the national living room.
The last week of October began with reports of a concerted Republican strategy to mobilize several thousand poll watchers in Ohio to specifically challenge the right to vote. Naturally, poor people and racial minorities -- always the most vulnerable -- are being targeted with this Election Day maneuver. Such no-holds-barred gambits are widespread in a number of swing states.
A former participant in bare-knuckle White House skulduggery, John Dean, authored a chilling new article for the FindLaw publication. With the Nov. 2 election on the near horizon, “this is a climate for trouble” that could bring “post-election chaos unlike any we’ve ever known,” Dean wrote, much older and wiser than when he served as special counsel to President Richard Nixon.
Up close, in his capacity as one of Nixon’s legalistic henchmen three decades ago, Dean saw an ugly grasp for illegitimate power. Yet, he writes, “even Nixon had his limits.” Dean is more downbeat about the current regime. “There is Republicans’ history of going negative to win elections.” Plus, there is George W. Bush’s top strategist Karl Rove and what Dean describes as “Rove’s disposition to challenge close elections in post-election brawls.” And what about the press? Dean cites an article about Rove in the November 2004 edition of Atlantic Monthly, which points out that “Rove’s fiercest tendencies have been elided in national media coverage.”
That’s a polite way of saying that nearly all of the highest-profile journalists in our country have dodged the necessary task of fully exposing Rove’s long and sordid record as a political operative willing to do whatever it takes to win. The Rove repertoire, well documented in the recent book “Bush’s Brain,” ranges from media smears to legalistic sieges to manipulation of law-enforcement agencies to bogus events staged to pin wrongdoing on an opponent.
The field is now open for presidential dirty-fighting, on Election Day and well beyond, unparalleled in our lifetimes. “So far, no incumbent modern president has won or lost in a squeaker,” Dean writes. “Even races that looked close in the polls were subject to a last-minute surge in one direction.” But, he adds, “most of the undecided are now decided. So a true surge for either candidate is unlikely.”
According to Dean, “we could see simultaneous litigation in a number of states -- chosen either because the polling was especially close, or because there are significant numbers of vulnerable votes to try to disqualify. ... It may be days or weeks, if not months, before we know the final results of this presidential election. And given the Republican control of the government, if Karl Rove is on the losing side, it could be years: He will take every issue (if he is losing) to its ultimate appeal in every state he can.”
In this context, the journalists of the United States have their work cut out for them. Are they up to the task of exposing truth even when that means challenging the powerful? Like his boss, Rove is counting on them to fall down on the job.
Norman Solomon is co-author, with Reese Erlich, of “Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You.”