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[Washington Babylon]

The Question of Balance: Revisiting the Missouri Election Scandal of 2004


“Missouri’s election was ground zero for GOP,” was the headline of a terrific story by Greg Gordon for McClatchy Newspapers:

Accusations about voter fraud seemed to fly from every direction in Missouri before last fall’s elections. State and national Republicans leaders fretted that dead people might vote or that some live people might vote more than once. The threat to the integrity of the election was seen as so grave that [the acting chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division] twice wielded the power of the federal government to try to protect the balloting.

Yet now, Gordon reported, it’s clear that the “Republican campaign to protect the balloting was not as it appeared. No significant voter fraud was ever proved.” The McClatchy story said that the GOP’s “voter fraud” campaign in Missouri, which was enthusiastically backed by Karl Rove, was part of a wider national effort. It also noted that three of the U.S. attorneys recently fired by the Justice Department “charge that they lost their jobs because they failed to prove Republican allegations of voter fraud. They say their inquiries found little evidence to support the claims.”

Before the 2004 elections, working for the Los Angeles Times, I made a reporting trip to Missouri. The GOP was hurling the same bogus charges of voter fraud back then, too. I filed a story that tried to debunk the charges, but my reporting was incorporated into a broader piece on how Republicans and Democrats were accusing each other of electoral dirty tricks in key battleground states. The resulting story was perfectly balanced, perfectly neutral, and perfectly useless.

I went to Missouri with the idea that I would write a piece about Democratic efforts to mobilize African-American voters and about the possible GOP attempts to suppress the vote in St. Louis and other heavily Democratic areas. This was especially notable because, though lost in the controversy over Florida, the Justice Department found that in 2000 huge numbers of black voters in St. Louis had been improperly turned away from the polls. Democrats believed that Republicans might try to do the same thing in 2004, and I learned during my visit that those fears were not unfounded.

Not that I was alone. In July of 2004, three months before I arrived in St. Louis, the New York Times had run an editorial (“An Umpire Takes Sides”) that criticized Republican Secretary of State Matt Blunt. Blunt, a candidate for governor (he won) who was active in the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, was supposed to ensure the impartiality of the vote. At the same time, many accused Blunt of attempting to suppress the turnout in Democratic strongholds. Blunt, for example, had sought to block early voting in St. Louis and also to restrict the use of provisional ballots, which allow voters to cast ballots in cases when his or her eligibility is in question (The voter’s eligibility must be confirmed before the ballot is counted.)

Meanwhile, Republican officials, including Senator Kit Bond, were accusing the Democrats of wholesale fraud. The Democrats and their supporters, I was told while in St. Louis, had submitted hundreds of voter applications with invalid names, including the names of people who were dead. But there didn’t seem to be much evidence to support a systemic voter fraud campaign by the Democrats.

Dario Gambero, chairman of the St. Louis Election Board, told me that there had been an “unprecedented effort to clean up the rolls.” Gambero was a Democrat, but one of his Republican colleagues on the board, Mike Lueken, told me the same thing. There had been “no intent to commit fraud” on the part of pro-Democratic voter registration groups and the voter rolls were, Leuken said, “generally in good shape. The quality of the cards has been high after we met with [the voter registration groups] to discuss early problems.” It seemed pretty obvious that there weren’t going to be large numbers of people using fake names turning up to vote come Election Day, and certainly not in numbers large enough to influence the outcome. (In Gordon’s story, Congressman William Lacy Clay points out that during the past 50 years, “no one in Missouri has been prosecuted for impersonating someone else at the polls.”)

Based on my reporting, I filed a roughly 2,500-word draft story that focused on the more serious issues raised by the Democratic side. I briefly reported the GOP claims but said that they appeared not to be serious. Soon, though, I was told that the Los Angeles Times had sent reporters to three other states and that my findings would be incorporated into a broad national story about how during the run-up to the election each side was accusing the other of cheating.

The story ran on October 26, 2004 under the headline of “Partisan Suspicions Run High in Swing States; Democrats say the GOP aims to disenfranchise the poor and minorities. Republicans counter with claims of voter registration fraud.” It was a classic of “he said, she said” journalism. The 2,500 words that I’d filed had been reduced to a small section that was roughly divided between charges and countercharges from Democrats and Republicans.

“Everywhere, it seems, the presidential campaign is awash in reports of fraud, dirty tricks and intimidation,” the Times breathlessly (and spinelessly) reported. The story went on to discuss how “Democrats and Republicans seem convinced their opponents are bent on stealing the election,” described the “extraordinarily rancorous and mistrustful atmosphere that pervades battleground states in the final days of the presidential campaign,” and suggested that the whole thing might be nothing more than paranoid, overheated complaints by party hacks. “Each side sees the Nov. 2 balloting as a critical choice between clashing values and ideas about where the country should be heading,” read the story. “Each state, precinct and volunteer organization is convinced its efforts alone stand between the nation and a catastrophic miscarriage of electoral justice.”

In other words, we had sent four reporters to four states and spent untold thousands of dollars to produce a story that said absolutely nothing. I sent a note to editors saying as much, arguing that this:

insistence on ‘balance’ is totally misleading and leads to utterly spineless reporting with no edge . . . I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should . . . attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes. “Balanced” is not fair, it’s just an easy way of avoiding real reporting and shirking our responsibility to inform readers.

(I couldn’t find a copy of my original e-mail, so I’m quoting myself here from [a 2005 story by Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books( I gave Massing a copy of the e-mail at the time and he wrote a brief account about this incident in a bigger story about the press.)

Let me emphasize that the other reporters who contributed to the Los Angeles Times were first-rate, and possibly had similar experiences to my own. I don’t recall which editors worked on the story, but they were probably very good editors as well. I didn’t get into any trouble for giving Massing the memo; when I alerted one top editor that the piece was coming out, he told me that I had the right to say what I wanted and told me not to worry about it.

But sending the memo didn’t have any impact, either. In my experience newspapers are usually afraid to look like they might be “taking sides,” especially in the midst of a political campaign–even in specific cases where the facts clearly support one side or the other. That could lead to accusations of bias (even worse, liberal bias). Rather than going with the facts, newspapers often present readers with important stories that have been edited into meaninglessness. McClatchy deserves credit for taking on the issues that were raised by the GOP in 2004. Hopefully the press will be willing to challenge similar dirty tricks in 2008.

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