December 27, 2000

A Lesson in Humility for Journalism

Coming from press critics, the following may strike some as out of character: We believe journalism should be praised for its work in the wild epilogue of election 2000. One reason the American people seemed calm but fascinated during the spectacle–even as they witnessed sometimes disgraceful tactics and rhetoric on both sides–was that the press made the whole process transparent. No one could think the election was being secretly stolen. The whole extraordinary episode of recounts and lawsuits, however perfect or imperfect, was going on before our eyes.

This is the most basic function of the press and one reason for the 1st Amendment protection: to make the exercise of power transparent to the many. The most intriguing moments were precisely those when we watched the process itself. There was something strangely riveting about watching those ballots being slowly counted in Broward County, hour after hour. Other memorable momentswere equally low tech, a further sign that the news in the mixed media culture of the 21st century is still the news. It was fascinating, exciting and even educational to listen to taped transcripts of the Supreme Court on television an hour after the court had heard the arguments. No spinning graphics. No anchor analysis. No cross-fire of uninformed, party-injected hack spinners offering useless and predictable verbal sludge designed to manipulate rather than inform the public.

The strengths and weaknesses of the modern press culture were all laid bare during the 36 days that followed the election. The strength of television was its technology, capturing the news live, those vote counts, court hearings, Florida Supreme Court announcements, the Al Gore and George W. Bush appearances.

Mostly by choice, the medium of television news did not distinguish itself with digging, enterprise or reflection. This is one reason, we suspect, why television is suffering more long-term audience loss today than other news media.

A few newspapers demonstrated that more classic role of the press finding stuff out.

The nation’s biggest papers demonstrated the intelligence, diligence and resources to follow other strains–the disparity of vote counts with the use of different machines, the fact that the mob that intimidated vote counters in Miami-Dade was often imported and paid by the GOP, the problems with voting across the country, the role of the Miami mayor and much more.

The local papers in Florida, now accessible each day on the Web, were often first with each turn in the story, including the discovery of the undercounted ballots. Local reporters, including several who cover politics in Florida, New Mexico and Washington state, emerged as reliable authorities, often far more knowledgeable and helpful than the national stars.

The Web gave us direct access to their expertise. We learned about a core of law professors–beyond the usual cast of TV lawyers–who came across as impressive, calm, expert and appealing. They weren’t playing for the cameras. They were making certain, first; they knew the law and what the judges were saying about it and then sharing with us their knowledge and not their suspicions.

The Internet emerged most interestingly as a graceful portal for people to comb for news. Even casual Web users were checking sites hourly. The more famousand argumentative aspects of the Web media culture–the sites of opinion–were less useful in this case. Events were moving too fast. Facts drove the story. Enterprise, not argument, distinguished the journalism. And enterprise is increasingly limited to the few organizations that support a strong reporting and editing staff.

The spin campaign, in which both camps tried to shift public opinion to forceone side or the other to concede defeat, was tedious and predictable. As it did us, it may have driven the audience to hunt for factual detail on the Internet.

The overtime election ended quite differently than it began. The fascinating spectacle of watching journalists trying to read and translate a confusing court opinion live on television could not have been further from the phony omniscience of TV anchors calling and miscalling states on election night based on sometimes shaky exit poll data.

The lesson at the end is about humility; of never pretending to know more than you know. The news is always more interesting than the journalists who cover it. The campaign epilogue of election 2000 was historic. The press redeemed itself when it covered rather than exploited the story.