Hands up for a recount
Last month this column focussed its attention on the coverage of the US Presidential debates by the BBC, thinking that little would need to be said on the subject of American elections for another four years. How wrong this assumption now appears with hindsight. It is therefore with some gusto that we return to the subject after probably the craziest election in the history of Western democracy.
The television news networks, being reflective of the ideological status quo, were keen to present the election as a shining example of American democracy in action, a beacon to the entire world, and an exemplar of sound democratic practice. What they got was an utter farce that could have been scripted by any number of political satirists but rejected on the grounds of its unbelievability.
There was much to be fascinated about in this election, e.g.:
- the fact that the candidate with the most votes had a better than evens chance of coming second
- the fact that the political gangs of Belfast clearly have a lesson or two to learn about voter fraud (and primarily from the state which has the brother of one of the Presidential candidates as its Governor)
- that segments of American society and its state apparatus were shown once again to be endemically racist (let’s just add at this point that it would appear wise for any readers of this journal travelling to Florida on their holidays in the next few months to make a precautionary check for ‘misplaced’ or hidden ballot boxes when they arrive in their hotel rooms, especially if they are staying anywhere near a voting precinct mainly populated by Afro-Caribbean residents)
- and finally and most appropriately, that the society with more lawyers per head of the population than any other in the world should eventually descend to choosing its head of state via the courts rather than through the ballot box (or the dumped and abandoned voting machines—whichever you prefer).
But in addition to all this (as if it wasn’t enough), the US television networks came up trumps. Not content with just reporting on this entire dreadful farrago of democratic malpractice they had to get in on the act by contributing to it as well. In fact, as the evening unfolded it was the news networks which appeared to set it all off in the first place.
Rather in a lather
The networks are in competition for advertising—their life-blood—and to attract advertising they need to attract viewers. The news networks, some of whom already have niche markets, try to increase their established audience share by being the most up-to-date with the news, marketing themselves as the channel “where it all happens”. It was the pursuit of this strategy which led them to make colossal mistakes on election night. A similar thing has happened previously in Britain with news networks trying to gazump one another with the earliest projected result and getting it quite wrong (a fact which went largely unmentioned by the television news media here, which has been overcome by an all pervading and totally unjustified bout of smugness).
In the US, where opinion polls—especially exit polls—have a far better reputation than they do in Britain, “calling” results before the votes are actually in has a long history. Rarely, if ever, has it caused problems. This time, though, was different.
The networks “called” the key state of Florida, primarily on the basis of an exit poll before it was wise to do so (in actual fact, one network did this and all the others followed within seconds of hearing of it). This, combined with a couple of other “calls” for bell-weather states, led to commentators claming that the election was pretty much wrapped up for Gore before the polls had even closed on the west coast.
A couple of hours later came the first hiccup: an adjusted pronouncement which put Florida back into the column of being “too close to call”. A couple of hours after this, the networks announced that Bush had actually taken the state and would therefore become President and then a couple of hours later still, the networks revised their prediction yet again and put Florida in the “too-close-to-call” column once more. As Dan Rather, the veteran news anchor man put it, it was one of the darkest days in the history of US network television.
Since then the networks—as anyone who has watched CNN can testify–have been on a political feeding frenzy. To be fair, some of their coverage has been surprisingly good, including their investigative, discussion and talk show programmes. But this has, by and large, been an attempt to make amends for their own rather shabby role in one of electoral history’s shabbiest episodes. If anything good comes out of it at all it will be what is the apparently re-awakened interest of a lot of workers in America in political matters. And it is only to be hoped that this renewed interest will lead to a questioning of the entire political system in operation not just some of its component parts, a political system which has been revered or ignored in almost equal measure in the US but never seriously and actively opposed by anything other than small groups and parties. After all, real meaningful democracy is going to have to mean something a lot more than hand recounts in Palm Beach county and Al Gore with his feet up in the White House.