If you watched the beginning of the pseudo-drama going on in Florida over the Presidential vote, you probably noticed the large amount of whining and criticism directed at the news media for disenfranchising western voters by incorrectly announcing that a winner had already been selected, thus committing Florida's electoral votes and finishing the process. Of course what they mean is not that anyone was literally disenfranchised, or actually deprived of the right to cast a vote, but rather that those voters were cajoled, by a factually incorrect analysis of the election, into not bothering to vote.
Why all the fuss? Isn't this exactly what was done, not in one evening but over a period of months, to supporters and potential supporters of Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Harry Browne, John Hagelin, and every other small-party Presidential candidate, before the election? And weren't they all told to quit their bellyachin'?
The saccharine controversy over the TV networks' premature prediction is a clear acknowledgement that, as long as voters pay attention to the news media, the way those news media cover election campaigns has the potential to influence the outcome, not just to report on it. When the voters who find their candidate's prospects adversely affected by this influence turn out to be supporters of one of the two anointed major-party candidates, suddenly it's a big scandal, worthy of extensive media analysis and hand-wringing.
But where was the hand-wringing as the media relentlessly repeated the incorrect message, both by overt statement and by omission, that no one should bother to vote for Nader, Buchanan, Browne, Hagelin, or any of the other candidates (Yes, there were still more candidates on Colorado's ballot!) for President? No one seemed offended that this message had the effect of cajoling people into not casting their votes as they otherwise might have, thus effectively disenfranchising them.
Yet such metaphorical disenfranchisement was exactly what the media accomplished through their skewed coverage. When you pick up your daily newspaper, when you turn on your radio each morning, when you sit in front of your TV night after night, and you see only an endless string of images of Bore and Gush campaigning, and you hear only an endless string of recordings of their voices, followed by detailed analysis of every wrinkle of every phrase they utter, you're supposed to conclude that there's no one else to consider casting your vote for on Election Day.
This process of cajolery was only reinforced, not ameliorated, late in the campaign season, when polls and commentators began reporting small percentages of the expected vote for Nader, and sometimes for Buchanan, and once in a great while for Hagelin, but never for Browne. Nader was clearly the alternative candidate who was the darling of the media. He was considered safe to cover. He received the bulk of the scraps of coverage not lavished on Bore and Gush. But most of even that coverage was negative whining and speculation about his taking votes away from one of the anointed or about what a waste it would be to vote for him.
And guess what? The cajolery worked. The election results came out exactly as the media worked to make them come out: The dominant parties' candidates maintained their dominance, splitting all but a few percent of the vote. Nader came in a clear third, but with such a low total that he couldn't even achieve the modest goal he set for himself of qualifying the Greens for a federal tax subsidy in 2004. And, perhaps most importantly, by giving Buchanan 60 times as much coverage as Browne, the media got Buchanan a fraction of a tenth of a percent more votes than Browne. Of the candidates the media mentioned, only Hagelin failed to out-poll Browne.
As a voter, does this offend you? It should -- no matter for whom you voted. Even if you voted for one of the pre-determined winners, this should make you wonder if you really voted for your choice, or for somebody else's choice, covertly foisted off on you by denying you any real exposure to the platforms and proposals of most of the candidates for President.
One thing's certain: The media won't change this practice of manipulating the outcomes of elections just because it's disingenuous and dishonest. Only when the voters, on their own initiative, rebel against being treated so arrogantly, will objective coverage of campaigns emerge in place of manipulation through self-fulfilling prophecies. And only when that happens, will any real change in law or public policy become likely.
Patrick Lilly ran for Colorado state representative on the Libertarian ticket this election.
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