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Gore’s Happy Handmaidens
Anything but objective.

Op-ed by Tim Graham, director of media analysis, MRC,
as printed in the November 14, 2000 edition of National Review Online

By Tim Graham

Before Election Day, the alleged political referees of the national media used their power in setting the national agenda to set the table for a Gore victory. When their intended result was slow in coming, they acted even more obviously like tools of one party rather than objective observers of two. 

The Bush and Gore campaigns are each struggling for an advantage. The Bush campaign has the advantage of the letter of Florida election law and the current margin of victory. The Gore campaign has the advantage of the media suggesting that the Republicans are partisan manipulators, while the Democrats only care about the people's will not being frustrated. 

Last night, ABC and CBS focused on the partisan affiliations of Florida's GOP Secretary of State Katherine Harris, but neither uttered a word about Donald Middlebrooks, the federal judge who turned down the request to halt the hand-counts, who donated to the Clinton-Gore campaign. NBC detailed the judge's political actions, but promised that people on both sides of the aisles insist he's "really known as an independent-minded thinker." ABC's Linda Douglass described Harris as "politically ambitious" and concluded "Democrats say if she does stop the vote count tomorrow, the country will always wonder about her motives." On CBS, reporter Byron Pitts described Harris as "a GOP loyalist" who "was a delegate for Bush at this year's Republican National Convention." 

This morning on MSNBC's simulcast of the Imus in the Morning radio show, Dan Rather warned that if we aren't "careful," George W. Bush would be compared to squeaker President Rutherford B. Hayes, who he said was addressed for four years as "His Fraudulency." 

On NBC's Today, co-host Katie Couric questioned Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, newly appointed to help oversee Florida elections. She argued with Crawford like a defense lawyer for Gore. "Why not let these counties, if the overseas absentee ballots have until Friday, why not let the counties that have deemed them necessary to do a manual recount finish their business?" Couric did not make the obvious distinction that overseas ballots may still be arriving, while the in-state votes are long counted and re-counted. While Couric might like to be interpreted as suggesting increased precision while the final verdict is still out, she did not make any allowance for the Republican point of view, that selective manual recounts in Democratic strongholds may not increase precision at all, but lead instead to a biased transformation of questionable ballots into Gore ballots. 

But then, nothing she asked Crawford would be mistaken for a question from the Republican viewpoint. She went on to plead that somehow the slim margin is comparable to a natural disaster: "We are talking about the presidency of the United States, Mr. Crawford. I mean, you do make exceptions for hurricanes. Why not make an exception in this very delicate situation where the presidency hangs in the balance?" 

Couric then went on to demonstrate the media's Tactic of the Week: the Bush folks are partisans, the Democrats are not. She told Crawford: "Now you are a Democrat, but you support George W. Bush. Katherine Harris is a Republican and she also supports George W. Bush. I understand she's a Jeb Bush appointee. Doesn't this smack of par..." She was interrupted. "Well she is a friend of Jeb Bush's. Is that accurate?" When Crawford suggested Harris was independent, Couric added: "What about the appearance of partisanship, as Warren Christopher has charged?" Couric implied that somehow, Warren Christopher was placidly sitting Indian-style at the top of Mount Olympus, above any suggestion of petty partisanship. She concluded as she began, with pleading for more time: "If you want to get it right and you want to make sure the votes are counted accurately, why not allow the counties to do just that?" 

Couric also asked in-house NBC pundit Tim Russert about Harris: "She is a Republican, a supporter of George W. Bush. What do you think of Warren Christopher's allegation that this smacks of partisanship?" Russert noted Republicans would say many Florida election officials are Democrats, such as Palm Beach County canvassing board member Carol Roberts. But the networks have presented Roberts without any questioning of her motives. (On CBS, Jim Axelrod, praised the "public servant" and "mother of six" as a "homemaker turned kingmaker.") 

Matt Lauer's interview with Gore aide William Daley was more even-handed. The worst softball question echoed Couric: "Secretary of State Katherine Harris in Florida. As you know, she's a Republican, a Bush supporter. Warren Christopher said yesterday that her decision on this five o'clock deadline has the look of trying to produce a certain result in the election. Do you think, to use a rather crude term, that her decision does not pass the smell test?" 

Lauer did ask Daley: "On Monday, quietly, some people in the Democratic Party started releasing information about Bob Crawford and Katherine Harris. Negative information…. If this is coming from the Democrats, is this not the equivalent of a smear campaign?" 

But the networks kept the focus on Harris. In another segment, Lauer began: "The decision by Florida's Republican Secretary of State to stick to today's 5pm deadline to end the recounting has caused some controversy to say the least. The question for some are her actions according to the law or according to her political leanings?" He asked Newsweek's Public Partisan Number One, Jonathan Alter: "Jonathan, do the actions of Katherine Harris pass the smell test?" Alter replied: "I don't think so Matt. I mean this is not a Survivor episode — 'you have 36 seconds to squeeze through the fence.' This is supposed to be an election. And if she used the hurricane as an excuse to extend the deadline the last time, why not this? It's at least as important." 

Lauer then asked former Florida Secretary of State Sandy Mortham: "Obviously Ms. Harris is a Republican, she supported George W. Bush. She has leanings toward the Republican party as is obvious. Why shouldn't Democrats be up in arms about her actions?" After wrangling about which section of the Florida election law Harris is upholding, Lauer returned to Harris's partisanship: "Should she have recused herself in this situation?" Mortham and Lauer's third guest, longtime Florida political reporter Tom Fiedler, said no, but Alter kept piling on the cynicism: "I don't think she could recuse herself but I do think that if Bush is elected she'll get an ambassadorship to Togo out of it." 

In any partisan dispute, the media are the last partisans to consider recusing themselves from judgment, and once again they are placing their meaty hands on the scales of political justice in favor of liberalism. Like their heroes in the Clinton-Gore administration, their response to legal issues is predictably fluid and tactical. When delays favor your side, favor delays. When an abrupt ending favors your side, favor the abrupt ending, as the media sought to strangle a Senate impeachment trial in 1999. If anyone comes away from the final result of this electoral mess with a sense that the process wasn't clean, certainly the bias-infected media are in no way, shape, or form to be perceived as an antiseptic.

National Review Online | Back to Op-Ed Archives



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