How the Networks Covered Newspapers’ Finding More Votes for Bush

Back in December, Dan Rather opened the CBS Evening News by asserting that the U.S. Supreme Court, which “some say” was “politically and ideologically motivated,” had “ended Vice President Gore’s contest of the Florida election and, in effect, handed the presidency to Bush.” But just under four months later, when a comprehensive newspaper hand count of all the “undervotes” in the counties which the U.S. Supreme Court order had stopped found Bush won by an even greater margin, Rather gave the development a piddling 23 seconds. And, of course, he didn’t bother to correct his impugning of the now vindicated U.S. Supreme Court.

ABC and NBC played the story much straighter than CBS’s Rather on Wednesday night as both delivered full stories about the new hand count of “undervotes” across Florida by Knight Ridder’s Miami Herald and Gannett’s USA Today which determined that if Gore had gotten the statewide recount using his preferred standard he would have endured a net loss in votes.

CNN’s Inside Politics ran a solid and thorough piece by Candy Crowley on the recount, but it didn’t make it into either of CNN’s prime time newscasts as CNN devoted the entire 8pm EDT Wolf Blitzer Reports to China and didn’t mention it on the 10pm EDT CNN Tonight. MSNBC’s The News with Brian Williams ran the same Kerry Sanders piece which had aired on NBC Nightly News.

On ABC’s World News Tonight, anchor Peter Jennings set up a story from Jackie Judd by leading with the recount’s key finding that Bush gained votes: “The first major, independent review of the Florida vote has found that President Bush would have won by an even greater margin if the Supreme Court had not stopped the recount.”

Judd concluded: “So does this recount end the debate? Probably not. Does it reconfirm this was a beyond belief close election? Absolutely.”

NBC’s Tom Brokaw introduced the April 4 NBC Nightly News look at the development: “NBC News In Depth tonight, the question we keep on asking: Who really did get the most votes in Florida, George W. Bush or Al Gore? After 36 long days Bush was declared the winner by just 537 votes. Is that the right answer? Tonight some affirming votes in the first major statewide recount.”

NBC reporter Kerry Sanders ran through the numbers generated by the various counting standards employed by the newspapers, specifically noting that Bush picked up votes using the standard proscribed by the Florida Supreme Court for the recount the U.S. Supreme Court blocked.

So, what did the review, completed by the Knight Ridder-owned Miami Herald in conjunction with USA Today, find? It’s a little complicated, so here’s an excerpt from USA Today’s April 4 story, headlined: “Newspapers' recount shows Bush prevailed.” Reporter Dennis Cauchon explained:

George W. Bush would have won a hand count of Florida's disputed ballots if the standard advocated by Al Gore had been used, the first full study of the ballots reveals.

Bush would have won by 1,665 votes — more than triple his official 537-vote margin — if every dimple, hanging chad and mark on the ballots had been counted as votes, a USA TODAY/Miami Herald/Knight Ridder study shows. The study is the first comprehensive review of the 61,195 “undervote” ballots that were at the center of Florida's disputed presidential election.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered Dec. 8 that each of these ballots, which registered no presidential vote when run through counting machines, be examined by hand to determine whether a voter's intent could be discerned. On Dec. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the hand count before it was completed….

USA TODAY, The Miami Herald and Knight Ridder newspapers hired the national accounting firm BDO Seidman to examine undervote ballots in Florida's 67 counties. The accountants provided a report on what they found on each of the ballots.

The newspapers then applied the accounting firm's findings to four standards used in Florida and elsewhere to determine when an undervote ballot becomes a legal vote. By three of the standards, Bush holds the lead. The fourth standard gives Gore a razor-thin win.

The results reveal a stunning irony. The way Gore wanted the ballots recounted helped Bush, and the standard that Gore felt offered him the least hope may have given him an extremely narrow victory. The vote totals vary depending on the standard used:

• Lenient standard. This standard, which was advocated by Gore, would count any alteration in a chad — the small perforated box that is punched to cast a vote — as evidence of a voter's intent. The alteration can range from a mere dimple, or indentation, in a chad to its removal. Contrary to Gore's hopes, the USA TODAY study reveals that this standard favors Bush and gives the Republican his biggest margin: 1,665 votes.

• Palm Beach standard. Palm Beach County election officials considered dimples as votes only if dimples also were found in other races on the same ballot. They reasoned that a voter would demonstrate similar voting patterns on the ballot. This standard — attacked by Republicans as arbitrary — also gives Bush a win, by 884 votes, according to the USA TODAY review.

• Two-corner standard. Most states with well-defined rules say that a chad with two or more corners removed is a legal vote. Under this standard, Bush wins by 363.

• Strict standard. This “clean punch” standard would only count fully removed chads as legal votes. The USA TODAY study shows that Gore would have won Florida by 3 votes if this standard were applied to undervotes….

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