Why did the media delay its Florida recount study?

The New York Times and other news companies say the Sept. 11 terror attacks made the timing inappropriate. But media experts now say enough time has passed.

Published October 6, 2001 12:32AM (EDT)

It has unfolded like a "What-if?" debate lifted from a journalism school seminar.

What if a consortium of prestigious news organizations, including the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, banded together and spent the last nine months (and $1 million) analyzing disputed ballots from last year's divisive presidential election in Florida. And then, just as the results were about to be released, terrorists attacked America and the nation responded by declaring war on terrorism.

As editors and producers, do you run the potentially explosive recount results, or do you shelve them?

For executives of the real-life news consortium, busy devoting unprecedented resources to covering the biggest breaking news story of their lifetime, the answer was easy: shelve the recount story "indefinitely."

That's the word the New York Times used to alert readers in passing about its decision. In an essay about the political fallout of the terror attacks that ran in the paper's This Week in Review section on Sunday, Sept. 23, staff reporter Rick Berke revealed the Times' decision almost offhandedly, remarking that the recount "might have stoked the partisan tensions" and "now seems utterly irrelevant."

That phrase raised some eyebrows, suggesting to some readers that the New York Times and its partners had decided what type of news was in the nation's best interest. (The other members of the consortium did not even bother to inform their readers and viewers of their decision.)

Consortium members stress their decision was dictated more by newsroom priorities than political considerations; during the current terrorism conflict, they insist, they simply don't have the editorial resources, time or space to devote to the complicated recount story. But one representative at an organization involved in the project concedes "there is some truth" to the idea news organizations are uncomfortable revisiting a divisive topic like the 2000 election as the country prepares for some kind of military strike.

The coalition's decision has sparked debate in journalism circles about whether it should be up to editors to decide when is the best time to report news, let alone whether national events clearly deemed newsworthy before Sept. 11 are now "irrelevant."

"I think you can't and shouldn't stop reporting, from disclosing the results of, a legitimate news story, and this is a legitimate news story," says Robert Zelnick, former ABC correspondent, current acting director of the journalism department at Boston University, and the author of a new book about the contested Florida vote, "Winning Florida: How the Bush Team Fought the Battle."

"I don't think historically anybody has proven good at news management and we shouldn't even try it. News is when news occurs."

But Bill Hamilton, an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post who oversees the paper's enterprise projects, suggests the recount effort is a different breed of news that doesn't necessarily demand immediate attention: "We're not covering up that the president has cancer. It's a study. And if we're going to do it, we want to do it right. So we'll take our time on it. The fact is it's not something that has to go in the paper right away."

Hamilton notes the initial deadline for completing the study was last April, but it's been delayed many times due to logistical hurdles. He says the recount study will likely run by the end of the year.

Not surprisingly, the consortium's quietly made decision has sparked wild speculation and debate on the Web, with one report alleging that the recount proved Vice President Al Gore scored a decisive victory, which the consortium was covering up under pressure from financial interests worried about undermining President Bush during a national crisis.

This conspiratorial buzz appears to have no basis, though, since consortium members haven't yet received the ballot results from the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, which was hired to examine all 180,000 of Florida's rejected under- and overvote ballots, and to categorize them.

According to NORC's Julie Antelman, the firm was preparing to hand over the final data to consortium members, who had agreed among themselves to embargo the information for one week as their reporters sifted through the information and prepared stories. But right after the Sept. 11 attack, the consortium contacted NORC, advising the research organization that its plans had changed and telling NORC to hold onto the final data until consortium members were ready to receive it. "They felt like it was wiser to leave it with one disinterested party," says Antelman, who insists participating news organizations "have no idea what the data shows."

Many media observers agree that it was not appropriate to release the recount results the week following the terrorist attacks. "All kinds of things are put on hold during an extraordinary crisis," says Alex Jones, former New York Times reporter and director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "So I can understand delaying the study in the midst of a crisis. But it seems after a suitable delay, the story should proceed."

And when should that "suitable delay" be over? "That's right about now," suggests Jones.

Robert Jensen, associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas, agrees: "I can see not running it on Sept. 17. But how long do you delay it? One week, one month, until the end of the war? This crisis is of an unknown duration, so how long do you justify not pursuing other legitimate news stories? They should run it soon, in a timely fashion."

The next move for consortium members, advises Boston University's Zelnick, ought to be taking possession of the final data, picking a publication date, and sticking to it. "They should say, 'We have the results in hand. We're going to release what we have. History is history.' And let it go at that."

But Hamilton at the Post argues it's not that easy, because the news media are focused overwhelmingly on all things Osama bin Laden: "Literally finding room in the paper right now is a problem. We'd planned an extensive package of stories (on the recount) and there's just no way to get them in the paper right now."

Hamilton estimates it would take 10 or 11 staffers, including reporters, graphic designers and copy editors, working over a one week period to put the Florida election package together. This is a resource allocation that even the amply staffed Washington Post can't afford right now, he insists.

Spokespeople for the other media consortium members echo that sentiment. At CNN: "The journalists assigned to the Florida project have been reassigned to coverage of the terrorist attack and that is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. CNN will regularly revisit the question of their availability as the terrorism story develops." At the New York Times: "The review is being delayed because of the current demands on the reporting staff."

Skeptics aren't buying this explanation. The consortium is made up of some of the biggest news organizations in the world. The New York Times employs over 1,000 editors and reporters. It's hard to believe that none of these vast news operations can spare a dozen employees for one week to work on an historic electoral analysis.

Hamilton stresses it's also a case of context and timing. He says the Washington Post, along with companion consortium members, has spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money during the past several months shepherding the ballot study to fruition, and doesn't want to publish it at a time when it will be essentially ignored. "We want people to read what we do," he says. "This [study] was in part a public service, to set the historical record straight. And if you don't think people are going to read it because of distraction, you don't run it. We're all journalists and have a sense of when a story feels right and when it doesn't. You just kind of have to go with your instinct. To try to fit this in between 30 columns on bin Laden would be kind of appalling."

In the meantime, consortium members "owe people an explanation" about the study's status, says Jones at Harvard. "There's a matter of trust, and people don't like to have information withheld."

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler agrees. "I think the paper should find a way to write a story and inform readers about the issue, and not pretend it's not there," says Getler, who recently made the same point in his weekly memo to the paper's staff. "Readers following the issue know there's this body of work out there but that it's not been reported."

As for the question of when to publish, Getler warns that given the current circumstances, "There may never really be an opportune time." Instead, news organizations may have to simply "bite the bullet" and go to press regardless of the national mood.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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