Today's Papers

Maintaining an Election

The papers are awash in the non-election non-news. Everybody’s headlines focus on the ongoing recount in Florida, although the Washington Post’s assigns it to an abbreviated mention in the subhead. But the Post is also the only sheet whose headline includes–although alas, also only in the subhead–what seems like today’s most important fact: “Gore, Bush Claim White House.”

Both USA Today and the WP go highest with the main difference in yesterday’s statements by the two presidential contenders, namely George W. Bush’s emphasis on a quick resolution and Al Gore’s stress on not making a rush to judgment. The WP and the New York Times have the most detail about how belligerent this contrast could become. Too far down, the Post says that Bush is seeking to “project an image of a man already acting like a president-elect,” says Bush indicated (Waffle word: Did he say so or was he just pointing, or using hand puppets?) his choices for secretary of state (Colin Powell) and chief of staff (Andrew Card, who managed his nominating convention), and says Bush is trying to “minimize the dispute over the election and try to make Gore appear as if he were standing in the way of the democratic process.” The NYT sees Bush’s remarks as having the “ring of a truncated version of an acceptance speech.” On the Gore side, the Post says his supporters are preparing for a “tough legal battle,” and the NYT quotes an unnamed official close to the Gore campaign as saying, “The sense is we’re going to play hardball.”

The coverage identifies the main issues surrounding the Florida recount: 19,000 ballots in Palm Beach County that were disqualified by election officials because they contained votes for more than one candidate, which Democrats are complaining resulted from a confusing design, and a smaller number of ballots in that county (although also probably enough to change the state and the national election outcome) where it’s alleged the confusion resulted in votes being mistakenly cast for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. The papers report a lawsuit has already been filed over this confusion issue. The USAT front features a confusing picture of the confusing ballot. And also there’s the matter of Florida’s absentee ballots, which, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, still have more than a week to come in to be part of the state count.

Especially with the battalion of lawyers descending on Florida, these matters will probably take some time to resolve, which is most clearly explained by the WP and NYT, but the main headlines over these and the other leads are short on time references. The only clear time hack among them is the technically accurate but misleading NYT subheader “Tally Due Today.” If you allow for vagueness, then the WP’s headline is probably better: “NATION BRACES FOR LONG COUNT.” Only the Los Angeles Times makes room in its headline for the disqualification of those 19,000 ballots. USAT has the only lead that puts them in the first paragraph.

Given their pivotal role, the reporting on the absentee ballots seems a little light. Both the LAT and NYT report that many Florida absentee ballots went out to military personnel, whom the Republicans insist would vote predominantly Republican. The NYT quotes Democratic sources saying that military members would also include a lot of minorities, who tend to vote Democratic. The LAT has the Gore camp saying that many absentee ballots would come from American Jews living in Israel, who tend to vote Democratic. The papers seem to agree that the number of Florida absentee ballots is unknown. But how can this be? Can’t Florida officials say how many they mailed out? And how many they’ve gotten back so far, and something about the historical rate and distribution of returns? Didn’t last Monday’s USAT report there were 680,000 mailed out by Florida with 100,000 more going to registered Republicans? Follow up, please.

The NYT runs a very good who-struck-John inside on how the networks botched their Florida predictions. In a nutshell, the problem is that they all, as well as The Associated Press and most major newspapers, rely on a single exit poll survey organization called the Voter News Service. If there had been more than one such operation, then, the piece explains, there would have been a greater likelihood that some networks would have reported that there was disagreement about Florida or would have made their own mutually incompatible calls, including keeping Florida in the tossup column. Well, why isn’t there a plurality of such outfits? Each network used to run its own, but these were discontinued in 1990 in favor of the VNS consortium as a cost-cutting measure. Gee, maybe they could just pay Peter, Tom, and Dan a little less for saying, “I have no freaking idea.”

A letter to the LAT says that together Al Gore and Ralph Nader received 51.5 percent of the popular vote. An inside WP story quotes Nader as saying the assertion that he took votes from Gore is “the most impudent assertion” of the campaign. “By the way,” he adds, “I do think that Al Gore cost me the election, especially in Florida.” The WP’s Lloyd Grove does the annoying thing of telling readers how he, Lloyd Grove, got to go to an election night bash with Bill and Hillary and Ben and Uma, but then makes it pay off by reporting that at one point when Harry Evans (you know, Tina Brown’s husband) said, “I want to kill Nader,” Sen.-elect Hillary said, “That’s not a bad idea!” (And then too late said, “That’s off the record.”) And indeed, according to the NYT lead, President Clinton was overheard election night angrily denouncing Nader. Another NYT story quotes Sen. Joseph Biden as saying, referring to Capitol Hill access, “Ralph Nader is not going to be welcome anywhere near the corridors. Nader cost us the election.”

The Wall Street Journal runs a story about the numerous Whoops editions published Wednesday by the nation’s newspapers, mentioning such efforts as the 115,000 copies of the NYT with the headline “BUSH APPEARS TO DEFEAT GORE,” and noting that the WP Web site for a time said Bush had won. The story adds, “No copy of The Wall Street Journal declared a winner.” In a story that covers online editions as well as print ones, this is a bit disingenuous. After all, for a time on Tuesday night, visitors to the home page were greeted with an enormous headline proclaiming, “BUSH WINS THE PRESIDENCY.”

Both the NYT and LAT front the story behind the story of Al Gore’s last-minute Very UnMerry UnEection Call to George W. Bush. Both highlight the last minute cel call from a Gore vote counter in the field to a car in Gore’s motorcade as it carried the vice-president to the Nashville rally where he was about to give his concession speech. Both papers have the key moments in Gore’s second call to Bush, but the NYT has the good sense to play them high, while the LAT buries its treasure. Here is, according to the NYT how it went:

“You mean to tell me, Mr. Vice President, you’re retracting your concession?” Mr. Bush asked, his tone incredulous, one aide said. The Texas governor had already begun preparing his victory remarks. “You don’t have to be snippy about it,” Mr. Gore responded, according to several of those who heard Mr. Gore’s side of the conversation. Mr. Bush told Mr. Gore that his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, had just assured him that Florida was his, Gore aides said. “Let me explain something,” Mr. Gore said. “Your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this.”

Well, at least he didn’t say “controlling legal authority.”