The signal moment of the 2000 election occurred at 2:16 on election night when Fox News freelance consultant John Ellis called Florida and the election for his cousin George W. Bush. The anchors of NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC followed, lemminglike, within four minutes. Ellis had previously admitted, “I am loyal to my cousin…. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone else,” a view that appeared consistent with the We Distort, You Deride standards of Murdoch’s toy network. Alas, Fox is a relatively simple case. But how to explain the pro-Bush postelection of the rest of the mainstream media?
Part of the answer lies in the original goof itself. Network executives enjoy profits, ratings and scoops, but their first priority is to try not to look like idiots. And given their premature election-night ejaculations, this is just what happened. “Sip it, savor it, cup it, photostat it, underline it in red, press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on the wall. George W. Bush is the next President of the United States,” advised a hypercaffeinated Dan Rather, outdoing his colleagues in poetical, if not political, perspicacity.
From that moment on, media bigfeet adhered to a Bush-camp script that deemed the counting crisis a mere bump on the road to a restored Bush regency. Did Gore win the popular vote? Never mind. What was once feared by all as a potential crisis of legitimacy evaporated into ether when the perceived winner and loser in the equation switched places. Chris Matthews had complained days before the election that “knowing him as we do, [Gore] may have no problem taking the presidential oath after losing the popular vote to George W. Bush.” But he quickly developed a case of selective amnesia afterward and called on Gore to concede. Before the election, it was the Bush team that was quoted in the New York Daily News as planning to overturn an Electoral College count in its disfavor. And it was the party’s House whip, Tom DeLay, who has been openly plotting with his Congressional cronies to reject the Florida vote if it does not go their way.
Never mind, also, that when you factor in the mistaken votes for Pat Buchanan and the disallowed ballots for Gore, the Democrat is the clear favorite of Florida voters. Thousands of absentee ballots in Seminole County, moreover, appear to have been manipulated for Bush, greatly exceeding his razor-thin statewide lead. Such machinations are hardly a surprise in a state run by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris. Al Gore would have needed a mighty margin indeed to win with this crowd at the helm.
Inside the punditocracy, the battle for a Bush putsch was led by rabid conservatives like George Will, the Wall Street Journal editors, Michael Kelly, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Novak, Bill Bennett and Rush Limbaugh. Barely a day went by without hysterical cries of a Gore “coup d’état” or “slow-motion larceny” of the election: terms they used as synonymous with the lawful manual counting of election ballots as required in Florida and Texas. Novak seriously used the word “tragedy.” Next came the centrist and nominally liberal pundits who, while unwilling to echo the debased discourse of the Bush camp, nevertheless professed to fear for the fate of the Republic should the workings of democracy be allowed to grow too messy. Al Hunt demanded of Gore that he “give the hook to Jesse Jackson, with his phony claims of African-American disenfranchisement.” The Washington Post editors viciously attacked the Gore team for its “poisonous” assertions of victory when in fact, these were made with considerably more justice and less hubris than those coming out of Austin at the time. These “sensible liberals”–as Murdoch’s Weekly Standard condescendingly called them–screamed themselves blue in the face about Gore’s alleged eagerness to go to court. They were joined by Congressional Democrats like Bob Torricelli, who have every reason to prefer a Bush victory, as it sets up the party to win a majority in 2002.
Such accusations might have reached their hysterical climax but for the Bush campaign’s last-minute realization that it could probably not survive a fair hand-count of the Florida votes. This forced Baker and company to turn on a dime and rush into federal court to try to have Florida’s election laws invalidated. The Gore team took tactical advantage of this hypocritical flip-flop by offering to abide by the results of any hand counts the Bush team desired. Given the weakness of the Bush/Baker position, the punditocracy’s center of gravity drifted back toward Gore, as Times and Post editors took to lambasting Bush in the same language they had used against the Vice President a day earlier. But the cost was considerable. To win this round, the Gore team had to promise to drop all its potential legal avenues to victory. It had to promise to concede the election regardless of the rights of tens of thousands of Gore voters whose franchise was being denied owing to the vagaries of the confusing–and probably illegal–butterfly ballots, to say nothing of the Republican-aided absentee voters of Seminole County.
The conservatives got at least one thing right. “This is the impeachment process being played out all over again,” Rush Limbaugh complained. Indeed, it is. Once again, everyday Americans evinced a degree of common sense that found few counterparts in the media. “Our polls are showing that the longer it goes on, the less people have confidence in the accuracy of the count,” intoned a characteristically clueless Cokie Roberts. “People are growing less confident in the vote with each passing week.” In fact, every single poll that had been taken by the time of Roberts’s November 19 comments demonstrated strong majorities of voters preferring accuracy to speed in determining who our next President will be. Unfortunately we are stuck with media that, time and again, give us exactly the reverse.
(Note: It is moments like this that make the shock of losing such a tough-minded and ferociously independent reporter as Lars-Erik Nelson of the Daily News and the New York Review of Books so much harder to bear.)