Kausfiles Special

Kausfiles Answers the Miami Herald: This Time It’s Personal

In a letter posted in “The Fray” and on Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews, Martin Baron, executive editor of the Miami Herald, takes issue with a recent kausfiles item, “The Miami Herald Blows Its Pulitzer.” The item argued that Baron’s paper made a big mistake in deciding to recount only the “undervotes” (ballots on which machines detected no vote) in the disputed Florida election, rather than join the larger media consortium that will recount both the undervotes and the “overvotes” (ballots rejected because of apparent double-voting).

Baron says my article was “wrong or misleading on several matters.” Specifically, he says, “The issue of whether to count both overvotes and undervotes was not among the reasons that talks on collaboration between The Herald and a media consortium broke down.” He denies that his paper has cast doubt on the merit of counting the overvotes. He also denies the Herald is being “cheap,” or that it is not pursuing the “public’s right to know.”

On the first two points, Baron is either dissembling or deluded. Of course the overvote issue was “one reason talks between the Herald and the consortium broke down,” as kausfiles accurately reported. This is confirmed by Bill Keller, the New York Times managing editor who represented the consortium in negotiations with Baron–though Keller phrases his disagreement with Baron as diplomatically as possible. “In my mind, the overvote question was one of the critical questions in our failure to come to a common purpose,” Keller told kausfiles, “but I can understand that Marty, who wasn’t privy to our deliberations, might not understand the extent to which overvotes were a dealbreaker for many of the news organizations on our side.”

It’s true, as Baron notes, that the negotiators discussed a “two-track” approach, in which those news organizations that wanted to count the undervotes would count the undervotes, and those that wanted to also count the overvotes would pay for that count as well. But the two-track proposal ultimately didn’t fly within the consortium, for at least two reasons. First, members of the consortium wanted the same accounting firm that counted the undervotes to also count the overvotes, for consistency’s sake. Yet, according to Keller, the Herald’s accountants, BDO Seidman, didn’t think they could pull off this second task and still honor their “contractual obligations to the Herald” regarding the undervote count. Second, it’s pretty clear that at least one of the two organizations pushing hardest for an overvote count–the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press–would have pulled out of the deal if they’d been abandoned by the others and left to foot the cost of the second “track” (the overvote count) by themselves. So the overvotes remained a sticking point. Baron might not have been aware of these intra-consortium discussions, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

On the more important point–whether the Herald has denigrated the idea of counting the overvotes–Baron is more obviously disingenuous. He claims kausfiles “misinterprets” the Herald’s position. “We fully understand why others might wish to look at overvotes,” he says. If so, Baron has somehow failed to communicate this position to Mark Seibel, the Herald editor in charge of the project. When I called Seibel and asked him why the Herald was counting only undervotes, the first words out of his mouth were: “The big question to me is why bother to count the overvotes!” Then he said, “I’m just joking”–but proceeded to criticize overvote-counting on the various specious grounds I discussed in the item. Baron’s position in the negotiations, I’m told, was similarly disdainful of counting overvotes.

The essential point, which Baron doesn’t even address, is that overvotes have to be counted to get anything close to a fair hand recount. The surprising Lake County results, discussed here, show there may be as many valid ballots hidden in the overvotes as the undervotes.

Baron’s other beefs are more with the Wall Street Journal’s Alan Murray–a leader of the overvote faction–than with kausfiles, although I may not have made Murray’s position clear enough. I don’t think Murray intended to say, and I wouldn’t say, that the Herald’s pursuit of a partial count doesn’t serve the “public’s right to know.” Murray’s point was that the Herald was also trying to gain a “competitive advantage”–a scoop–while the members of the consortium weren’t trying to scoop each other, but indeed were willing to risk financing the scoops of fellow members in order to get out the facts. There’s presumably nothing wrong with trying for your own scoop, unless it leads you to pretend that the story you’re getting is the whole story when it isn’t, as seems to have happened here.

Finally, Murray didn’t say the Herald itself was “cheap.” He said the Herald was pursuing the undervote-only recount because “it”–that partial recount–is cheap when compared with a full overvote/undervote tally. This idea of cheapness was first introduced to me not by Murray but by the Herald’s Seibel when he said he wasn’t “going to pay some accountant $110 an hour to look at the overvotes.”

Whatever Murray’s view is, I don’t think the Herald is cheap. I think it is foolish. It got itself locked into what turned out to be an inferior recount plan, and refused (for whatever reason) to recognize its mistake.