EDITORS NOTE: As is our tradition, each year on our anniversary we publish a special article about the state of our much-vaunted freedom of the press that we believe will be a service to our readers. The following story is by a U.S. journalist who now lives and works in England, where he reports for the Guardian newspaper and the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC).
Heres how the president of the United States was elected: In the months leading up to the November balloting, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, ordered local elections supervisors to purge 64,000 voters from voter lists on the grounds that they were felons who were not entitled to vote in Florida. As it turns out, these voters werent felons, or at least, only a very few were. However, the voters on this scrub list were, notably, African-American (about 54 percent), while most of the others wrongly barred from voting were white and Hispanic Democrats.
Beginning in November, this extraordinary news ran, as it should, on Page 1 of the countrys leading paper. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong country: Britain. In the United States, it ran on page zero—that is, the story was not covered on the news pages. The theft of the presidential race in Florida also was given big television network coverage. But again, it was on the wrong continent: on BBC television, London.
Was this some off-the-wall story that the Brits misreported? A lawyer for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called it the first hard evidence of a systematic attempt to disenfranchise black voters; the commission held dramatic hearings on the evidence. While the story was absent from Americas news pages (except, I grant, a story in the Orlando Sentinel and another on C-Span), columnists for The New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post cited the story after seeing a U.S. version on the Internet magazine Salon.com. As the reporter on the story for Britains Guardian newspaper (and its Sunday edition, The Observer) and for BBC television, I was interviewed on several American radio programs, generally alternative stations on the left side of the dial.
Interviewers invariably asked the same two questions, Why was this story uncovered by a British reporter? And, Why was it published in and broadcast from Europe?
Id like to know the answer myself. That way I could understand why I had to move my family to Europe in order to print and broadcast this and other crucial stories about the American body politic in mainstream media. The bigger question is not about the putative brilliance of the British press. Id rather ask how a hundred thousand U.S. journos failed to get the vote theft story and print it (and preferably before the election).
Think about investigative reporting. The best investigative stories are expensive to produce, risky, and upset the wisdom of the established order. Do profit-conscious enterprises, whether media companies or widget firms, seek extra costs, extra risk and the opportunity to be attacked? Not in any business text Ive ever read. I cant help but note that the Guardian and Observer is the worlds only leading newspaper owned by a not-for-profit corporation, as is BBC television.
But if profit-lust is the ultimate problem blocking significant investigative reportage, the more immediate cause of comatose coverage of the election and other issues is what is laughably called Americas journalistic culture. If the Rupert Murdochs of the globe are shepherds of the new world order, they owe their success to breeding a flock of docile sheep, the editors and reporters snoozy and content with munching on, digesting, then reprinting a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by officials and corporation public relations operations.
Take this story of the list of Floridas faux felons that cost Al Gore the election. Shortly after the UK and Salon stories hit the worldwide web, I was contacted by a CBS network news producer ready to run their own version of the story. The CBS hotshot was happy to pump me for information: names, phone numbers, all the items one needs for a quickie TV story.
I also freely offered up to CBS this information: The office of the governor of Florida, brother of the Republican presidential candidate, had illegally ordered the removal of the names of felons from voter rolls—real felons, but with the right to vote under Florida law. As a result, thousands of these legal voters, almost all Democrats, would not be allowed to vote.
One problem: I had not quite completed my own investigation on this matter. Therefore CBS would have to do some actual work, reviewing documents and law, and obtaining statements. The next day I received a call from the producer, who said, Im sorry, but your story didnt hold up. Well, how did the multibillion-dollar CBS network determine this? Why, we called Jeb Bushs office. Oh. And that was it.
I wasnt surprised by this type of investigation. It is, in fact, standard operating procedure for the little lambs of American journalism. One good, slick explanation from a politician or corporate chieftain and its case closed, investigation over. The story ran anyway: on BBC-TV.
Lets understand the pressures on the CBS producer that led her to kill the story on the basis of a denial by the target of the allegations. (Though lets not confuse understanding with forgiveness.)
First, the story is difficult to tell in the usual 90 seconds allotted for national reports. The BBC gave me a 14-minute slot to explain it.
Second, the story required massive and quick review of documents, hundreds of phone calls and interviews—hardly a winner in the slam-bam-thank-you-maam school of U.S. journalism. The BBC gave me two weeks to develop the story.
Third, the revelations in the story required a reporter to stand up and say the big name politicians, their lawyers and their PR people were freaking liars. It would be much easier, and a heck of a lot cheaper, to wait for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to do the work, then cover the Commissions canned report and press conference. Wait! Youve watched Murphy Brown, so you think reporters hanker every day to uncover the big scandal. Bullshit. Remember, All the Presidents Men was so unusual they had to make a movie out of it.
Fourth, investigative reports require taking a chance. Fraudsters and vote-riggers dont reveal all their evidence. And they lie. Make the allegation and you are open to attack, or unknown information that may prove you wrong. No one ever lost their job writing canned statements from a press conference.
Fifth—and this is no small matter—no one ever got sued for not running an investigative story. Let me give you an example close to home. The companion report to my investigation of the theft of the election in Florida was a story about Bush family finances. I wrote in the Guardian and Observer of London about the gold-mining company for which the first President George Bush worked after he left the White House. Oh, you didnt know that George H. W. Bush worked for a gold-mining company after he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992? Well, maybe it has to do with the fact that this company has a long history of suing every paper that breathes a word it does not like—in fact, it has now sued my papers. Ive gotten awards and thousands of letters for these stories, but, honey, that dont pay the legal bills.
Finally, theres another little matter working against U.S. reporters running after the hard stories, papers printing them or TV broadcasting the good stuff. Ill explain by way of my phone call with a great reporter, Mike Isikoff of Newsweek. Just before the elections, Isikoff handed me some exceptionally important information about President Clinton, material suggesting corruption in office—the real stuff, not the interns-under-the-desk stuff. I said, Mike, why the hell dont you run it yourself? and he said, Because no one gives a shit! Isikoff was expressing his exasperation with the news chiefs who kill or bury these stories on page 200 on the belief that the public really doesnt want to hear all this bad and very un-sexy news. These lambchop editors believe the public just doesnt care.
But theyre wrong. When I ran my first story in the London Observer about the theft of the Florida vote, Americans by the thousands flooded our Internet site. They set a record for hits before the information-hungry hordes blew down our giant server computers. When BBC ran the story, viewership of the webcast of Newsnight grew by 10,000 percent as a result of Americans demanding to see what they were denied on their own tubes. Obviously, some Americans care.
And its for them that I say, This is Greg Palast reporting from exile.
This story originally appeared in The Media Channel (www.mediachannel.org), a not-for-profit project of OneWorld and The Global Center, produced by Globalvision New Media. Greg Palast writes a fortnightly column, Inside Corporate America, for The Observer of London (Guardian Media Group). His stories about the purge of Florida voters are collected on his Web site, www.GregPalast.com.
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