The Guardian

The Guardian December 13, 2000


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Scandal what scandal?

The media coverage of the aftermath of the US Presidential elections has 
been a very interesting exercise in itself. At first, journalists simply 
did their job and reported the news, which was essentially that Al 
Gore had won the majority of votes but George Bush Jr might still be 
elected President.

This embarrassing anomaly was undoubtedly the real news  not the fact 
that the result might not be known for a few days. It provoked some serious 
questioning of the US electoral system.

In most other countries with first-past-the-post voting for President, if 
no one candidate receives a majority of the popular vote, the two 
candidates with the highest tallies face a run-off election a couple of 
weeks later.

This system gives small parties the chance to run a candidate and campaign 
around issues, but then in the second round to throw their support behind 
one or other of the front runners.

In the US, this would probably have meant more candidates like the Greens' 
Ralph Nader in the first round, but then a run-off between Gore and Bush in 
the second round, in which case a majority of the Nader supporters could 
have been expected to vote for Gore.

The media, however, were not very interested in promoting superior methods 
of electing "the leader of the Free World", especially methods developed in 
Europe.

But while they were still floundering around looking for a "line" on the 
election, they did give some space to the other real piece of news: the 
large-scale disenfranchising by Florida electoral officials  and police -
- of black and Hispanic voters and anyone who'd spent time in prison.

Black and other ethnic minority voters favoured Gore by a huge percentage 
and no ex-con was likely to vote for George "Death Penalty" Bush. Turning 
black voters away from the polls has been a tradition in Florida since the 
Civil War.

In the circumstances of this election, however, the prevention of tens of 
thousands of likely Gore supporters from voting is surely the sensational 
news that tabloids and broadsheets alike could be expected to play up in a 
big way. Especially when you consider that the governor of Florida, Jeb 
Bush, is the brother of Gore's opponent.

With many millions of dollars spent on the election by corporations and 
many billions more hinging on the outcome, any self-respecting reporter 
would have got the whiff of chicanery and corruption.

Curiously, the disenfranchising story  a scandal that in other 
circumstances would have been used to destroy political careers or bring 
down administrations  was quickly down played and then allowed to drop.

Within days  certainly within a week  the media had mysteriously 
discovered the "line" for this election.

The anti-democratic aspect would be relegated, to be replaced by mind-
numbing legal minutiae and a concentration on Al Gore as a "sore loser".

The forces behind Bush staged what amounted to a putsch to coerce the 
Florida electoral officials to declare Bush the winner and not to bother 
checking whether he actually got the necessary votes.

The US Intelligence community has had a lot of success with this technique 
in recent years, most recently in Yugoslavia.

Amazingly, this attempted hijacking of the election was presented in the 
media as merely the logical outcome of the frustration caused by the 
Democrats' refusal to "accept the result". That that result was fatally 
flawed was no longer an issue.

With no real news being reported, no serious analysis in the popular media 
of what was really going on, and a parade of trivia being produced instead, 
it is small wonder that US citizens began to lose interest in the election 
as a question of democracy.

They began  by sheer coincidence, of course  to echo the media's 
implicit call for Gore to "be a sport and accept the result".

Not for the first time, the bourgeois media, instead of reporting the news, 
was creating it. By providing a mass of data but very little information  
they reported every word spoken at and by the Supreme Court, for example  
they successfully took the worst electoral scandal in US history for yonks 
and made it tedious.

The short attention spans and craving for sensation that have been 
assiduously cultivated by the US media paid off as people found the drivel 
they were being fed boring. Homer Simpson is a creation of the media in 
more ways than one.

* * *
You can trust me I'm a judge
As mentioned above, a great deal of media time and space was given to the deliberations of the US Supreme Court on the debacle in Florida. When the court ruled against Al Gore and the Democrats it was presented as the final "umpire's ruling". But despite the general "line" described above, some of the US mass media kept their integrity and their nose for journalism. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Dennis Roddy points out that William H Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who presided over the Court's hearings on the validity of the Florida poll, has a record of voter intimidation himself for the Republicans, too. In 1964, it appears, the Republicans in Arizona had what they called Operation Eagle Eye. Young Republicans, especially young republican lawyers, were sent to polling booths frequented by black or immigrant voters to "intellectually harass" them with interminable questions. The intention was to so delay and frustrate people that they would give up and leave without voting. The operation skilfully manipulated Arizona electoral law. (It was changed two years later.) Anyone with broken English or poor education was asked to interpret a passage of the Constitution to see if they "had the language skills necessary to vote". If they didn't, they were turned away. In Phoenix, Democrat poll watchers had to resort to a bunch of iron workers they had standing by in a motel to physically remove at least one of these "Eagle Eye" activists. His name was Bill Renquist. At his confirmation hearings in 1971, Renquist denied ever having intimidated voters. So that's all right then.

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