U.S. Presidential Elections in the Age of Millenium Media
On November 2nd, 2000, FOX News declared George W. Bush to be the next President of the United States (Moore 36). Within four minutes, CBS, ABC, CNN, and NBC had all decided this was also true (36). The source of this knowledge was none other than the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush (36). When Al Gore saw the news, he decided to concede graciously. However, when he saw that the Florida votes were completely muddled, he withdrew the concession.
This move was met with Republican ire. The New York Times ran headlines that gave Bush supporters microphones for sentiments urging Gore to "'Not to Stand in [the] Way'" (Bruni 1). They also demanded a halt to the manual recounts (1). Any attempt by Gore to stay in the race until the votes were recounted was dismissed as the behavior of a sore loser (Moore 34).
The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago later took the painstaking effort to recount all the votes in Florida and found that Gore would have won Florida and, therefore, the presidency (Miller 8). When these findings were published, they mysteriously ran in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal as evidence that Bush's victory was legitimate (8).
George W. Bush was not elected by the American people, he was elected by the American media. Jeb Bush's fallacious claim that his brother had won was spun into truth by all major news networks. Then, the only coverage of the recount consisted of Republicans telling the Gore party to give up, that the recounts wouldn't change anything, and they were a waste of time and energy. Had the media instead favored Gore with this spotlight, there would never have been a second Bush in our country's history.
This is how the media has begun to totally control elections. Since the 2000 elections, things have gotten even worse. Sound bites and character issues have replaced anything of substance. News cycles have become based on themes. Even the worst scandals are only analyzed by “belated critics who then move on as if it hadn't happened; nor do they dare 'connect the dots' between the scandals" (Miller 1). This is the new journalism.
So the media's attention span becomes the American attention span (and vice versa). This paper's goal is to provide a brief overview of the thematic and trivial material now called "news" in our country, with the particular focus being on the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008. The New York Times has been chosen as the source for these headlines, as it is supposedly one of the most liberally-biased papers. After observing what The Times decided was important in the election months of 2004 and 2008, we will enter the forbidden territory of election fraud, the biggest and most unmentioned scandal of all. From here, we will finally explore what President Obama had to do in order to defeat the Republican rumor machine.
Media is a form of entertainment. From Lost to The O'Reilly Show, we tune into television shows and expect them to play with our emotions. The problem is that these expectations drive media to become more entertaining than informative. And some, like The O’Reilly Show, are mutant hybrids of news and opinion. In reality, Bill O’Reilly does to news what Jerry Springer does to domestic turmoil.
Since the newspapers and news stations of our media must compete with each other, and compete compete with sitcoms and dramas, their first goal is to grab the attention of readers and viewers. This enforces an eerie style of objectivity, where issues that are too unpleasant, complex, or controversial become dropped from news cycles for the sake of simplistic sensationalism (Dautrich and Hartley 92).
During presidential elections, we are now accustomed to a barrage of background checks and character inspections. We no longer have elections, we have battles. A cursory glance at the online archives of the New York Times over the past eight years reveals the headlines of all election coverage. Candidates "jab," "criticize," "clash," and "counterattack" while decrying opponents as "out of touch" and "unfit to lead." These are universal remarks. McCain and Obama both headlined with the accusation of the other being "out of touch" in July and September 2008, respectively (Rutenberg 1, Zeleny and Rohter 1).
Rather than dwelling on the ridiculous repetition of these trite accusations and exaggerated verbs, the media examines the basis for the attacks in a guilty-before-innocent kind of way. This kind of dirt-digging, virtue-stabbing mission forgoes an actual analysis of each candidate's campaign promises. We no longer vote for the best candidate, we vote for the better one, the more appealing one, the one who appears to be more trustworthy. We don't vote for a candidate so much as fiercely not vote for another.
John Kerry worried over this style of reporting intensely. He constantly challenged the Republicans to talk about real issues. Unfortunately, the Republicans countered this approach with the use of the group known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. They also called every single one of Kerry's opinions into question by labeling him as a flip-flopper. Even less fortunate is that, in the public memory, these are the only election themes that can readily come to mind.
Kerry's many Vietnam medals intimidated the Republican Party, so they systematically destroyed the credibility of each one. The media was obsessed with the Swift Boat story of Kerry’s disservice and betrayal, but every article was careful to avoid connecting any dots. John McCain, when running against Bush in the 2000 Primaries, underwent a similar attack on his Vietnam credentials (Davis and Simmonds 1). One Swiftboat veteran, George Elliott, accused Kerry of dishonest wartime service in 2004, but had praised Kerry’s wartime achievements in Kerry's 1996 Senate campaign (1). Worst of all, only one veteran of the Swift Boat Group had actually served with Kerry (1). Somehow, none of these revelations lasted on the media radar. The Swift Boat Veterans' reign of terror went uninterrupted.
It is not coincidence that the "battle" between Kerry and Bush culminated in the most epic advertising campaigns to that date (a "Frantic Presidential Race" that "Ends with a Flood of Ads," as advertised by The New York Times on November 1st, 2004). Despite Kerry's distaste for such campaigns, these are unavoidable investments in our age. Approximately $550 million dollars were spent in advertisements (Halbfinger and Rutenberg 1). The media reported on the obviously tainted information from these advertisements and, amazingly, reported on the amount of advertising in the advertisements. Did anyone bother investigating the Swift Boat group and its connections? Perhaps. But mainstream media never touches the core of these issues. Every article, every report skims the surface of everything, but never dares make a real splash.
What did the media's behavior in the 2004 election do for the campaigns? It won the race for President George W. Bush. Again. If anyone had bothered looking somewhere else for news, things would have turned out very differently. As it was, the electoral burglary that occurred in 2000 happened again in 2004. The Bush administration assassinated Kerry's character while hijacking votes in contested states. The media investigated these voting troubles, but only under the Republican whip of "voter fraud."
The New York Times, on several occasions, reported this phenomenon. "Mark Pfeifle, the Republican spokesman, said the numbers showed that in their zeal to register new voters, Democratic-aligned groups had committed fraud," one article reports (Zernike and Yardley 1). '''I'm astonished at the lack of concern with the fraud that exists out there,' said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, an adviser to the Florida Republican Party" (1). Needless to say, there is not a single Democrat in the article. Neither is there a person who was personally afflicted or instigated with the fraud. Zeal is also an interesting word choice.
From 2002 to 2005, only "twenty people were found guilty of voting while ineligible and five people were found guilty of voting more than once" (Burmon 1). The Time article just quoted stated that the Republican Party sent out "130,000 letters congratulating newly registered voters but that 10,000 were returned, indicating that the people had died or that the address was nonexistent" (Zernike and Yardley 1). Given these numbers, one would think at least a few people would have been caught for such blatant fraud.
Interestingly enough, this article is about a practice that, as dictated by a federal consent order, is forbidden- sending out congratulatory letters (Kennedy and Palast 5). In 2004, the GOP sent out countless versions of these letters “to 'confirm' the addresses of voters in minority precincts (5). If a letter was returned for any reason — because the voter was away at school or serving in the military — the GOP challenged the voter for giving a false address" (5). This is the magic formula for accusing people of voter fraud and purging all the registered voters who are involved.
The charges of voter fraud organize tremendous responses from conservatives who want tighter restrictions on voting to ensure that no fraud is committed. These restrictions are thinly disguised attempts at voter suppression (Burmon 1). And, while voter fraud is undeniably low, voter suppression is outrageously high. In the 2000 elections, 180,000 Florida ballots went uncounted (Piven et. al 138). Fifty percent of these ballots were cast by African-American voters, but only twelve percent of the state's population is black (138).
In 2004, during the travesty of Ohio, some African-American wards of Cleveland observed votes for an uncommonly high number of obscure third-party candidates, while neighboring wards were ninety-percent for Kerry (Fitrakis 193). The blight of electronic voting machines was even worse. In one county, there was a recorded "negative 25 million votes for Kerry" (193). In many Democratic city precincts, voters who pushed touch screens for Kerry saw Bush's name light up, while many other voting machines in the inner city and in campus areas frequently broke down and required repair (192). In another ward where only 638 people voted at a fundamentalist church, there were 4258 votes tallied for Bush (192). This was one of many glitches that were supposedly fixed. At Kenyon College, some voters had to wait for upwards of eleven hours but, at a nearby Bible school, the wait was mere minutes (193).
This is an example of state-of-the-art voter fraud, especially when one considers the leaders of the companies that made the electronic voting machines were intimately connected with the G.O.P- the CEO of Diebold Election Systems was a major donor and organizer of the Bush campaign (SourceWatch). On January 3rd, 2005, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, largely dismissed as an eccentric by the media, organized a bus ride to Washington D.C. in order to demand answers to the 2004 Ohio voting (Fitrakis 195). There was a two hour protest in front of Congress concerning the disenfranchisement of African-American voters, but the protest was met with a "virtual blackout" by the national media (195). They were evidently covering something more important than the illegal alteration of the election.
These are more obvious methods of Republican tampering. The true genius lies in the discreet methods of voter suppression, found in the fact that at least 1.6 million votes were never counted in the 2004 Florida elections (Kennedy and Palast 2). How does this happen? Much of it is made possible by the Help America Vote Act, the body of rules and restrictions passed in 2002 to help avoid a repeat of the 2000 elections (2). The design of HAVA, however, impeded voting more than helped it.
For example, under HAVA, "some states now reject first-time registrants whose data does not correspond to information in other government databases" (Kennedy and Palast 3). If information such as "social security number, street address and…name, right down to a hyphen," were different in other databases, your registration would be invalid (3). With these rules in their fist, Florida Republicans rejected more than 15,000 new voters in 2006 and 2007 (3). Three-fourths of them were Hispanic or African-American (3). There are also now two dozen states with stringent Voter ID requirements for the polling stations (4). Minorities and those in poor income areas are less likely to have the valid IDs- in fact, one study found that "one in ten likely white voters" do not have the materials to cast their vote, while the number is twice as high for black voters (4).
One of the most interesting scams is the "provisional ballots." Voters whose registrations were challenged, sometimes on very flexible technicalities, are forced to cast one of these instead of a real ballot. In 2004, one million (out of three million) of these provisional ballots were cast into the trash instead of the elections (Kennedy and Palast 5). The 2004 Times article about voter fraud also reports on this by quoting an altruistic Florida election official who stated that "a challenged voter should still be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that will be considered later by the county canvassing board" (Zernike and Yardley 2). Apparently, this means there is a one in three chance your vote will be discarded.
HAVA also enforces the purging of convicted felons from voting eligibility (138 Piven et. al). The first, middle, and last names of these felons do not have to be in any particular order: "John Andrew Smith and Andrew John Smith" would both be purged and spelling only has to be 90% accurate (DeHaven-Smith 49). If you're lucky, the birth date will also be considered (49). Before the 2000 elections, "Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and her predecessor, both Republicans" purged 57,000 voters, primarily African-Americans, because of these kinds of sloppy rules (Kennedy and Palast 3). The voters were made eligible again... in 2002 (3). This, of course, being the same year that these biased restrictions were “nationalized” by HAVA (3).
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the scandalous voting of 2000 and 2004, the ignorance of the media when it comes to voter fraud, can be easy to dismiss now (although it shouldn't be). The Bush administration is gone and Barack Obama is our new president. Does this indicate a decrease in voter suppression? No, it only indicates that Obama won in a landslide election. There were too many votes to properly suppress or otherwise eliminate.
This wasn't because of a lack of Republican effort. One only has to recall the riotous behavior regarding ACORN to see that the same tricks were in play. ACORN is a group that registered 1.3 million new voters in 2008, "'60-70 percent'" of whom were "'people of color'" (Wiener 1). Out of the 13,000 employees in the organization, some, ACORN admitted, tried to "'pad their numbers'" (1). ACORN employees were the first to report these scandals and, besides, “fake registrations [do not] equal fake ballots” (Burmon 1-2). However, the charges of "widespread voter fraud" brought against them by Republicans in 2008 were never validated or even backed up with legitimate evidence. As we can see, this attack was calculated as a good way to justify acts of voter suppression and a good way to try and purge some of these new voters before they could cast a ballot.
Misinformation campaigns have always run rampant. In 2008, a delegate to the Republican National Convention told "out-of-state undergraduates at Colorado College, falsely, that they couldn't vote in Colorado if their parents claim them as dependents on their taxes" (Kaplan 1). Meanwhile, in Middleton, Wisconsin, "Democratic voters received absentee ballot requests addressed to the clerk in Madison -- the wrong address. Both mailers were sent by the McCain campaign" (1).
This a very small sample of widespread tactics. Interestingly enough, no specific federal law prohibits these practices (Piven et. al 167). It is perfectly legal for, as in the 2000 race, a prerecorded phone call to be made to black households, deceptively claiming to be a call from the NAACP, and urging people to vote for George W. Bush (167). Voter suppression is perfect at adapting to contemporary circumstances. "If you [were] one of the million Americans who lost a home through foreclosure, and if you didn't file a change of address with your election board," Republican poll monitors could have easily challenged your 2008 voting eligibility (Kaplan 1).
There is also abundant evidence that thousands of voters had been illegally purged. So much evidence, in fact, that The New York Times ran an article on the front page about it. The headline was: "States’ Actions to Block Voters Appear Illegal" (Urbina 1). This was an actual investigation by the newspaper, but the information was cramped with strange phrases: "Tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law, according to a review of state records and Social Security data by The New York Times" (1). How can something like this appear to violate a law and not violate it?
The article quickly adds that "the actions do not seem to be coordinated by one party or the other" and actually seem to be honest mistakes in the electoral process (Urbina 1). Such is the passive and ineffectual process of mainstream reporting. As tepid as it is, this article is outstandingly important compared to the rest of the issues that were announced for us by the media in the fall of 2008.
What names and themes come to mind when reflecting upon the most recent presidential election? William Ayers, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, ACORN. Obamamania, experience, age. Obama's religion, Joe the Plumber, and elitism. Joe Six-Pack and Hockey Moms. Not to mention partial-birth abortions, Fannie Mae, and Obama's birthplace. What else is there? McCain calling Obama "that one," not looking at him during debates, and McCain being a "repeat" of Bush. The content here is sensational and evocative. It is not substantive in any way.
The news media is not interested in information, it is interested in advertisement. The articles that run on the front page are the ones that will provoke emotion, not thought. There is barely a whisper of voter suppression or electoral tampering, because this kind of action would require finger-pointing and evidence. Not only that, a lengthy, investigative piece that would draw on history and data would lose the patience of many readers. News must remain totally simplified in order for it to be published and profitable.
We have defined the news of this millennium. We have also uncovered what issues should be covered. Voter suppression is embarrassingly predominant in our country. It doesn’t help that we have the third lowest voter turnout among major democracies at 51.2% (Piven et. al 13). There are almost no articles about voter suppression at all, but there is evidence everywhere you turn. Given the grim circumstances, it is almost unbelievable that Obama is now our president. So what happened? Why wasn't Republican voter suppression enough?
The 2008 campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain appealed to this form of neo-news like no others before them, but the disorganized McCain campaign took longer to adapt to the model. Conservatives tried to scorn Obama's celebrity status and convince the American public that he was a hollow icon of a hollow movement. When this didn't work, they jumped on the celebrity wagon by selecting the vice-presidential candidate of Sarah Palin.
Palin's introduction put a damper on Obama's own celebrity status and turned the spotlight back over to the Republicans. However, the Obama campaign also exploited new media that McCain's campaign was slow to use. Youtube and Facebook were primary tools for Obama to connect with younger voters. Not only that, Obama's constant circulation on the web did make him an icon. Hockey Moms and Joe Six-Packs, Palin's base, are not part of the Youtube and Facebook demographic. In fact, the base most exhilarated by Palin's appearance was the base that would have been voting for McCain anyway.
Most important to Obama's campaign was "Change," "Yes We Can," and the economy. When the recession began appearing in the public light, people suddenly understood these three things as applicable to their immediate circumstances. McCain's promises became stagnant and inflexible, while Obama's promises were broad enough to attract a very large audience. He effectively generalized his campaign to market it to the largest consumer base possible.
The 2008 campaigns were marketing campaigns. When the McCain product proved stale and outdated, the Republican Party tinkered with it and added Sarah Palin. The news media went along with this newly furnished concept and advertised it into oblivion. Unfortunately for the McCain campaign, Sarah Palin proved to be defective and a little eccentric. She effectively excited the G.O.P and even passed her ignorance as the trait of a common Washington Outsider, but brought absolutely no new substance to the campaign.
Obama made history by being the first African-American presidential candidate. He is also tall, dark, and handsome. Well-spoken, well-educated, and well-meaning. Better than that, he's young. Best of all, he had $750 million to spend on his campaign (Luo 1). The Obama campaign spent $160 million on television advertising- the McCain campaign only spent $61 million (1). It is clear that the Democrats were petrified of being smeared and destroyed by the Republicans again. So this time, by forgoing the public financing process, they made sure that they could raise enough money to absorb and disable any negative campaigning.
With the financial leverage of his campaign, Obama could market himself to voters much better than McCain. Even Republicans admitted that "in this environment, McCain should almost ignore Obama and sell himself directly to America” (Bumiller and Healy 1). The deciding factors in 2008 were appeal and economy. Obama presented new ideas, even if they were sketchy at best, and focused on issues that were truly affecting millions of Americans. Meanwhile, McCain was "turning tetchy over a 1960s radical" (1). The simple problem was that Obama didn't have enough background bloopers for the Republicans to distort.
We can rejoice that the instigators of so much voter suppression and deception, the Republicans, lost the Presidency. This does not mean, however, that the tricks will stop. Nor does it even hint that the news media is getting better. In fact, 2008 proved that news media has become a market for consumers and is getting worse. The Obama campaign essentially manipulated and monopolized the American obsession with celebrity and the American vulnerability to commercialized values. The versatility of the campaign, as well as its deft marketing to the media, decided the election. This, in turn, means that the media once again decided the election.
In the end, we still don't know much about our President. We have a very shaky grasp of his personality and his policies. Journalists should be probing and unveiling these kinds of mysteries, but we have accepted that this won't happen. The American public has gone from cynical to submissively cynical. We expect nothing from our papers and our news stations other than entertainment and talking points. We now value immediate gratification more than information. And, as all good businesses know, the customer is always right.
Bumiller, Elisabeth and Patrick Healy. "McCain Joins Attacks on Obama Over Radical." The New York Times Online. Published: 9 October 2008. Accessed: 23 May 2009.
Bruni, Frank. “Bush and Advisers, Confident of a Victory in a Recount, Urge Gore Not to Stand in Way; G.O.P Considers Trying for Injunction to Halt Manual Recounts.” The New York Times Online. Published: 11 November 2000. Accessed: 20 May 2009.
Burmon, Andrew. "Behind the GOP's Voter Fraud Hysteria." Salon Magazine. Salon Media Group. Published: 15 October 2008. Accessed: 20 May 2009.
Dautrich, Kenneth and Hartley, Thomas H. How the News Media Fail American Voters: Causes, Consequences, and Remedies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Davis, Teddy and Jan Simmonds. "Morning Show Wrap, by ABC News Political Unit." ABC News. Published: 6 August 2004. Accessed: 20 May 2009.
Halbfinger, David M. and Jim Rutenberg. "Frantic Presidential Race Ends With a Flood of Ads." The New York Times Online. Published: 1 November 2004. Accessed: 23 May 2009.
Kaplan, Marty. "Why the Debates Won't Matter." Huffington Post. Published: 28 September 2008. Accessed: 23 May 2009.
Kennedy, Robert F. and Greg Palast. "Block the Vote." The Rolling Stone. Published: 30 October 2008. Accessed: 23 May 2009.
Luo, Michael. "Obama Hauls in Record $750 Million for Campaign." The New York Times Online. Published: 4 December 2008. Accessed: 20 May 2009.
Miller, Mark Crispin, ed. Loser Take All. New York: Ig Publishing, 2008.
--> Moore, David W. "Because Jeb Said So: What really happened on Election Night in Florida." Miller 33-44.
--> Miller, Mark Crispin. "Introduction." Miller 1-32.
--> DeHaven-Smith, Lance. "Florida 2000: Beginnings of a Lawless Presidency." Miller 45-58.
--> Fitrakis, Bob. "As Ohio goes..." Miller 191-206.
Piven, Frances Fox and Lorraine C. Minnite and Margaret Groarke. Keeping Down the Black Vote. New York: The New Press, 2009.
Rutenberg, Jim. “McCain Tries to Define Obama as Out of Touch.” The New York Times Online. Published: 31 July 2008. Accessed: 20 May 2009.
SourceWatch: “Diebold Election Systems.” SourceWatch. Published: 22 October 2008. Accessed: 26 May 2009.
Urbina, Ian. “States’ Actions to Block Voters Appear Illegal.” The New York Times Online. Published: 8 October 2009. Accessed: 25 Mfay 2009.
Weiser, Wendy and Margaret Chen. "Voter Suppression Incidents 2008." The Brennan Center for Justice. NYU School of Law. Published: 3 November 2008. Accessed: 20 May 2009.
Wiener, Aaron. “The Truth About ACORN.” The Washington Independent. Published: 14 October 2008. Accessed: 25 May 2009.
Zeleny, Jeff and Larry Rohter. “Obama, Trying to Rally Jittery Backers, Attacks McCain as Out of Touch.” The New York Times Online. Published: 12 September 2008. Accessed: 20 May 2009.
Zernike, Kate and William Yardley. "Charges of Dirty Tricks, Fraud, and Voter Suppression Already Flying in Several States." Published: 1 November 2004. Accessed: 23 May 2009.