George W. Bush’s inauguration as president a year ago followed one the most controversial and tainted elections in US history. A year later, with all attention turned to the ‘war against terrorism’, he hopes to be remembered as a great president. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ has a better memory...
Americans claim to be the champions of democracy in the world, yet their current president came to office in dubious circumstances. A recent report by a media consortium sheds new light on the American presidential election fiasco of 2000, in which Bush won the coveted office in one of the closest and most controversial elections in the short history of American democracy. The report is by no means unanimous in its analysis, but does suggest that Bush’s victory was at the expense of fairness and honesty. Some commentators on the report have gone so far as to suggest that in November 2000 American democracy was hijacked. The American public’s response to this revelation? The attitude of most was “who cares?” and “old news.”
True to form, the corporate media downplayed or ignored the results of the study, choosing instead to headline misleading conclusions that support the status quo and then burying the more nuanced analysis of the report in the back pages. Publication of the report, which was finally released in November 2001, was also delayed by the events of September 11, and therefore the results were even more subject to patriotism and public rallying behind the president, rather than to the truth, with most public mentions of the report prefacing comments with patriotic platitudes.
The consortium developed several recount scenarios in the disputed Florida elections. In six of the eight scenarios Gore would have come out ahead, while in the remaining two Bush was only ahead by a slight margin. Scenarios had to be developed theoretically because the Supreme Court halted the actual recount process of the Florida elections, essentially handing the vote to Bush. Once that had happened the political establishment closed ranks, and even Gore dropped his suit and gave up hope of the presidency. Several months later, with September 11 releasing a wave of American jingoism, few have dared to challenge the way the election stalemate was resolved.
Instead of informing the American public about this significant report and its implications, the corporate media are emphasising several misleading themes, the most common of which is that the report shows that Bush “won” the elections, with headlines trumpeting “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush” or “Ballot Recount Supports Bush Win.” Readers have to look in the back pages for details of the report, which are far from validating a Bush win, or check with the few news sources that were more true to the findings. But even those, such as the Associated Press or the Los Angeles Times, were misleading: saying in effect that the report shows that, depending on how the votes were counted, either could have won.
Although the report had to be theoretical and conjectural because of the Supreme Court halting the actual recounts, the media have misled the public by proclaiming that the report vindicated the Supreme Court, since “Bush would have won anyway.” However, no one asked the bigger question of how the Supreme Court could have been empowered to choose either presidential candidate, instead of letting the recount proceed. The corporate news headlines obfuscated this complex constitutional issue, choosing instead to focus on the “winner take all” mentality fostered by the American electoral system. Some news outlets even accused Gore of “interfering with democracy”, choosing to ignore the reality that any election should be decided by accurate vote-counting.
Even when the story reached the public, it was filtered by the corporate news moguls with spin that made it seem that Americans don’t care about such “ancient history” as the 2000 elections. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer summed up this ruse, proclaiming “The election was settled a year ago, President Bush won and the voters have long since moved on.” But Fleischer is deluding himself and his viewers, as independent polls of citizens continue to find that more than half of all Americans believe either that Bush won on a technicality, or that he stole the election outright. Part of the problem is that the political system and its corporate media cheerleaders are detached from the opinions of the citizens whom they claim to be representing and informing, choosing instead to cite each other’s relatively uniform opinions.
The major American corporate news media, at the forefront of Bush’s “war on terror”, were also quickest to chastise those who dared question the legitimacy of the 2000 election results. For example, the New York Times published an analysis of the election recount report claiming that, because of September 11, the results were “utterly irrelevant”. It seems that, for the American corporate media, promoting patriotism and rallying citizen-consumers behind the current president are more important than reporting the truth. Many international newspapers also joined the chorus of support, such as Britain’s Guardian, which proclaimed “Ballot Paper Study Makes Bush Winner in Florida,” or the Sydney Telegraph, which announced: “Recount Shows Bush Won Election.”
There were, however, a few dissenting voices. For instance, the London Independent noted that “Gore Could Have Won Florida Vote with Full Recount, Says Media Study,” or the New York Daily News, which buried a story in the back pages that admitted “Full Florida Recount Favored Gore.” The Florida paper Palm Beach Post was more direct, noting in an editorial that “The wrong man became president of the United States in January. That isn’t an opinion. It’s a fact.” Similarly, the Washington Post published an editorial saying that “the media consortium confirmed beyond any doubt that a substantial plurality of Florida’s voters intended to vote for Gore.” But the exceptions only prove the rule, that the truth is too painful to report when it comes to questioning those who claim a right to demand one’s loyalty. While in itself loyalty is not a problem, when it is advocated by corporate media that are supposed to be independent of government and business, the result amounts to a significant loss of freedom of the press.
The problem of “freedom of the press”, another tenet of the American system, has received even less attention in the corporate media in recent months, again in part because of the post-September 11 war-hysteria. In November New Yorkers elected a new mayor, media tycoon Michael Bloomberg, who has been dubbed the “American Berlusconi” (an allusion to the Italian prime minister, who is also a media tycoon). Bloomberg, a billionaire, owns Bloomberg News, a 24-hour news service that reaches 200 million people daily, including 8 million New Yorkers. Although his buddies in the corporate media adopted a “no original coverage” policy during the election, and subjected Bloomberg to little public scrutiny, it later transpired that he had outspent his opponent by a factor of four to one, spending nearly $70 million on his election campaign. Bloomberg’s election calls into question the relationship between media, business and politics in what is supposed to be a government of the people.
The American corporate media have become virtually useless as a way to understand what is really going on in American politics and public life. They are quick to focus on the latest sex scandals (unless their own are involved), yet bigger issues, such as the Florida elections or campaign finance reform, receive little or no sustained attention. The presidential elections of 2000 raised serious concerns about the American electoral system, which is not a direct democracy and which is based on the antiquated electoral-college system, unlike any other modern democracy. The author of a recent book, Democracy Held Hostage, sums up the problem with the system this way: “Few Americans knew it, but most of their electoral systems were designed to accommodate voter apathy rather than voter enthusiasm. These systems were based on the premise that turnout would always be low, margins of difference would always be high and the exact vote count would never really matter.”
Along with the Enron crisis shining the light of suspicion on the highest offices of American politics, the American election imbroglio of 2000 suggests that the self-proclaimed bastion of democracy in the world is in reality riddled with scandal and corruption, and that its system is at times no more legitimate than the worst ‘third world’ dictatorship. The American difference is that the public is propagandised, rather than bullied and battered, into submission. But at least those who are so roughly dealt with know what has happened to them; most Americans seem not to know or care, and their much venerated free press has done nothing but collaborate. Perhaps Americans will find somehow, some time, the will to challenge their corrupt rulers strongly, and reform their political system properly. But until that happens, it is ludicrous to venerate American democracy as the best political system on the planet. The need for such challenge and reform calls into question America’s self-proclaimed mission as champion and example of democracy.