By John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail , Thursday, October 11, 2001
WASHINGTON -- Just weeks ago, it would have been the biggest story in the land: A final, comprehensive audit would reveal whether Al Gore or George W. Bush should be president. Today, it seems to be nobody's news.
A consortium of major U.S. news organizations has decided unanimously not to analyze and report the results of the $1-million (U.S.) audit they commissioned to identify which presidential candidate received the most votes in Florida in last November's election.
By "spiking" the story, they have raised questions about whether the country's biggest media conglomerates are suppressing news that potentially could tarnish the image of Mr. Bush in the midst of the President's war on terrorism.
"I find it truly extraordinary that they have made this decision," said Jane Kirtley, media ethics specialist at the University of Minnesota. "I am so chilled by what is going on."
The Supreme Court, in ordering an end to the recounting of votes in Florida last December, effectively handed the presidency to Mr. Bush. But there was evidence that, had accidentally mismarked ballots such as the famous "dimpled chads" been properly scrutinized, Mr. Gore might have won the state and the presidency.
Last January, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Newsweek, CNN and several other news organizations banded together and commissioned the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center to conduct a comprehensive examination of the ballots not officially counted in the Florida result. The centre was charged with examining each of about 180,000 uncounted ballots, reporting on which marks are on each ballot.
The survey was completed around the end of August, Julie Antelman, a spokeswoman for the centre, said. Reporters and editors from each member of the consortium were then to review the survey and attempt to discern how each voter had intended to vote, and who, on that basis, won Florida.
But shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the consortium unanimously agreed not to proceed with the analysis.
To choose deliberately not to report major news is a remarkable decision for them to take. But they say the decision was taken because of a lack of resources and that the war on terrorism has made the story irrelevant.
"Right now, we don't have the time, the personnel or the space in the newspaper to focus on this," Catherine Mathis, vice-president of corporate communications at the New York Times Co., said in an interview. "There's a much bigger story right now."
Work on the Florida recount, she said, has been "postponed indefinitely."
"Our belief is that the priorities of the country have changed, and our priorities have changed, and we need to marshal our person-power and our financial resources to cover the events of Sept. 11 and its aftermath," said Steven Goldstein, vice-president of corporate communications for Dow Jones & Co., which publishes The Wall Street Journal. "When times have settled down, I'm sure all of this will come out. But not in the next few weeks."
There have been previous efforts to examine rejected Florida ballots in an attempt to divine the intent of the voters who cast them, including a survey by The Miami Herald that suggested Mr. Bush indeed won the state.
But the study commissioned by the news consortium was by far the most detailed and objective. Because antiquated voting machines were used in Florida and the punch-card ballots were complicated, many votes were marked as spoiled when a machine failed to punch cleanly the ballot's chad -- the bit of paper to be punched out.
To help divine voter intent, each of 180,000 uncounted ballots was examined by a three-person panel, and its marking described. Was the chad "dimpled," (bulging, but intact)? Hanging by one or three corners? Could light be seen through the intended hole?
The results were tabulated in a set of tables. "The National Opinion Research Center has completed its part of the task," Ms. Antelman said. "What remains is for the media group to request the data set."
Neither the centre nor the consortium knows whether the data suggest that, had the uncounted votes been tallied, Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush would have won the state. Mr. Goldstein rejected the suggestion that the media might be avoiding the story for fear of embarrassing the President in a time of national crisis.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with that whatsoever," he said. "The priorities have changed. People are focused on the fact that we're at war."
But "to say it is not a story any more is an utterly ingenuous thing to say," Prof. Kirtley said. "Of course it's still a story, whatever are the results of that audit.
"They should just do it."