11/17/2004

Media Accused of Ignoring Election Irregularities

by Mark Jurkowitz

Two weeks after Election Day, explosive allegations about a media coverup are percolating. There's the widely circulated e-mail about a CBS producer who complained that a news industry "lock-down" has prevented journalists from investigating voting problems that cropped up on Nov 2. There's the rumor that MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who has devoted serious air time to discussing Election Day irregularities, was fired for broaching the topic. There's the assertion by Bev Harris, executive director of Black Box Voting Inc., that she had received calls from network employees saying they had been told to lay off the sensitive subject of voting fraud.

In the days after Nov. 2, the Internet was abuzz with charges from partisans that voting irregularities might have cost John F. Kerry the White House.

With some media outlets moving swiftly to debunk the notion that the election had been stolen by the Republicans, the press itself has come under scrutiny, accused of everything from a conspiracy of silence to a collective passivity about pursuing voting irregularities.

"The mainstream media is not treating this as an important story overall," said Steve Rendall, senior analyst at the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting."The mainstream media has largely treated the story as some crazy Internet story." At the same time, Rendall acknowledged: "There has been excess in the way stuff has flown around the Internet and e-mail lists."

Tracking down the sources of the rapidly proliferating online allegations about a media "lock-down" is a daunting task. But the response to them has been unequivocal. "Absolutely untrue," a CBS spokeswoman, Sandy Genelius, said when asked about the report of the whistle-blowing CBS producer. "Absolutely, positively, categorically false. Besides that, it's absurd."
"There are a lot of nervous people out there," said Olbermann, whose disappearance from MSNBC was the result not of being terminated but of taking a vacation. "I'm both amused and a little terrified that I became the subject of an Internet rumor."

In an appearance Nov. 8 on the "Democracy Now!" program, Harris, whose organization is investigating allegations of voter fraud in Florida and Ohio, told host Amy Goodman that sources in television news have told her "there is now a lock-down on this story. It is officially . . . 'Let's move on' time." In an interview with The Boston Globe, she reiterated those potent allegations but declined to reveal her sources. She also appeared to soft-pedal the idea that the media was at fault, saying instead that it was too early in the fraud-investigation process to blame reporters for not being more aggressive.

"I'm not terribly concerned about . . . the media's coverage of it yet," she said. "We're still early. . . . Caution's probably appropriate. [It's] a very sensitive story."

Not all accusations that journalists have not vigorously pursued allegations of voting problems involve speculation that they are being muzzled by their bosses. But several left-leaning critics complain that reporters have lost interest in what is still an important story because the outcome of the 2004 election, unlike in 2000, is not being contested.

Media Matters for America, a liberal media monitoring organization, posted an item on its website recently that cited several stories about faulty voting equipment in Ohio that did not generate much media interest. David Brock, the organization's president, said in an interview: "I haven't seen anything that is suggesting that further probing of the issue would change the results of the election." But he added that "there are some irregularities, and I would imagine some reader and viewer interest. . . . It seems that there should have been somewhat more coverage of this. There was all this pressure and buildup and very little follow-up."

TomPaine.com, a liberal website that collects news and commentary about public policy issues, has posted several analyses arguing that Kerry was hurt in Ohio by a shortage of voting machines, as well as by discarded votes that came disproportionately from minority precincts. The website's executive editor, Alexandra Walker, said her organization leaves the conspiracy theories surrounding the media's behavior to "the blogosphere."

But she also argued that, with the election results not being disputed, "the public interest angle was not enough to keep [voter irregularities] in the sights of political reporters. The horse-race coverage of political campaigns shortchanges readers."

No one has been more engaged in the issue than Olbermann, the host of MSNBC's prime-time "Countdown" program.

"The thing that woke me up was the lock-down in Warren County," he said, referring to a Cincinnati Enquirer report that officials in that Ohio county, citing terrorist threats, barred observers from the vote count. "I began to investigate then or at least raise questions. . . . It turns out there are a lot of valid stories, at least valid stories worth investigating."

Olbermann said there are a number of reasons much of the media have not been pursuing the story as ardently as he is, including "a love-hate [relationship] with the blogs. Whatever new media is appearing, the established news industry tend to look down on it." At the same time, Olbermann flatly denies the blogger-fueled rumor that he was fired for his interest in voting irregularities, pointing out that MSNBC has let him pursue the probe.

"It's still largely a game of telephone on the Net," he said.

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