Terrorism Trumps Release of Election Review
A consortium of the nation's most prestigious news organizations has
stalled the release of its presidential election ballot analysis, citing
commitment to coverage of September 11 as the cause.
By Janet Kolodzy
A year ago, hanging chad commanded headlines. Now, a major reporting
project on the troubled Florida presidential vote can't make it into
Janet Kolodzy teaches journalism at Emerson College.
The September 11 terrorist attacks have waylaid the election ballot
analysis by a consortium of the nation's biggest and most prestigious
news organizations. None of the consortium members have had the time,
the resources or the newshole to devote to the recount effort, they say.
In fact, they didn't even have the time for a conference call to talk
about the future of the project until September 26, two weeks after the
attacks and a week after news organizations were to start analyzing the
"The people who had been working on the Florida ballot project as of
10 a.m. September 11 are working on the coverage of the war on
terrorism," says Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau
chief. And even if the reporters, editors and data analysts were
available, the space is not, noted Associated Press Managing Editor
Michael Silverman. "To present all that material right now would be
unfair to AP's more than 1,500 members in this country because they
would have trouble making full use of it," Silverman says.
Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald, which did its own
ballot analysis, published in April, points out that every newspaper in
the country has probably far exceeded budgetary limitations on news
space because of the terrorism story. "To properly tell the recount
story would require significant expansion of the paper beyond what
papers could afford right now," he says.
The consortium is the last major media effort to analyze the Florida
ballots to determine what went wrong with the electoral system on
November 7, 2000. Both the project's cost and the amount of time
collecting the data exceeded original estimates. The now indefinite
delay in releasing the data and the fact that the country's
preoccupation with Florida is long since past raise questions about
whether there'll be any interest in the results at all.
Editors of the Associated Press, CNN, the Tribune Co. (which owns the
Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and numerous other media outlets),
the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Palm Beach
Post and St. Petersburg Times decided in December to review 175,000
questionable ballots cast in the November election (see "Strange
Bedfellows," May). The group hired the National Opinion Research Center
at the University of Chicago in January to review overvotes (ballots
indicating two or more candidates chosen) and undervotes (ballots that
were not clearly marked).
In mid-April, NORC and the consortium suffered a setback. Kirk
Wolter, NORC senior vice president of statistics and methodology, said
the research team discovered it missed some entire precincts in its
first review of ballots. It repeated its effort, which doubled the price
tag to about $1 million and extended the data collection into midsummer.
In the meantime, the news organizations were developing computer
programs to analyze the data once they got them from NORC. The data
transfer was tentatively set for mid-September. It never happened.
"We have the programs written, but no data," says Dan Keating, a
database editor for the Washington Post. "NORC has the data but no
programs." During the September 26 conference call, consortium members
agreed that the data shouldn't change hands just yet.
John Broder, New York Times Washington editor, and other consortium
editors dismiss speculation that patriotic sentiment played a role in
their decision. "Other people are reading things into it," Broder says.
Since no one has analyzed the results, no one knows if the review
questions the validity of the George W. Bush presidency. But the editors
maintain that wasn't the point of the review anyway. "It's not just a
story on who won; it's more complex than that," says Bill Rose, deputy
managing editor of the Palm Beach Post. "We're looking at how the
election system responds to more pressure than it was ever designed to
Media watchers say publishing the results will be worthwhile no
matter when that happens. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for
Excellence in Journalism, calls the analysis "an absolute national
service," needed to find out what went wrong in the election, to learn
how to count votes better and to determine the best way to do recounts.
"The legitimate question on the table is how to build a better balloting
system," says Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for
Civic Journalism. She says the framing of the story should not focus on
who won but on "how to build an electoral system to ensure the
confidence of voters."
But some acknowledge that it would be difficult to find an audience
for any recount story right now. "Nobody's panting for this," says
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He adds that
he can accept the judgment that people are more interested in other
things and that news organizations' resources are better used elsewhere
at this time. But Hess says the review findings need to come to light
A few consortium members hope it could be done by the end of the
year, but as of mid-October, no date had been set. "We had long ago
abandoned any hope of being fast or timely," McManus says. "We'll
publish when we are able to calmly and confidently analyze the data."###