Unfinished Biz


“Now that the election is over,” declared The New York Times‘ Elisabeth Bumiller on the Monday after the nation voted, “there remains a piece of unfinished business.”

Make that several pieces. For all the type and tape spent on Election 2004, several loose ends are still in need of tying. Bumiller’s lighthearted column about the president’s tailor was an effort to lace up one of them: the persistent rumor that Bush was wired for the first presidential debate. A photograph of Bush’s back during the September 30 debate in Miami showed a peculiar bulge, leading to speculation that Dubya was being prompted via earpiece to say “hard work” 11 times during the 90-minute event.

The White House laughed off the idea and the mainstream press largely ignored it, but the story stuck around, especially after a NASA scientist enhanced photos to show peculiar shapes under the president’s jacket at all three debates.

FAIR, a liberal press watchdog, claims that the Times researched the bulge story, then killed it. A Times reporter alleged to have worked on such a piece says FAIR was totally off base: The paper never pursued the story.

But another Times reporter says the paper refrained from breaking major stories about either Bush or John Kerry in the last weeks of the election, although the Times did run the story about tons of missing explosives in Iraq only a week before the vote.

After the fiasco over fake National Guard memos, CBS News did not run a 60 Minutes piece about the forged documents that purported to prove an Iraqi bid for Niger’s uranium. A spokeswoman for CBS now says there’s no airdate yet for that segment because “we’re still reporting the story.”

Freelance journalist John Connolly completed a piece for Vanity Fair on the personal lives of Bush and some associates, but the magazine opted not to run it because of the CBS memos debacle, a source says. The piece is expected to run at some future date. (Vanity Fair hasn’t returned calls.)

What if . . .

Some of the unfinished business of Election 2004 concerns the election itself, and whether Bush in fact won it. Questions that began popping up on the Web immediately after Election Day and mainly focus on Ohio range from concerns over exit polls (were they really that far off, or did votes that were supposed to go to Kerry get lost somehow?) to computer problems (one county displayed 3,000 extra votes for Bush before the problem was corrected).

After a few days of sitting back, mainstream outlets began reporting the doubts, but always—and perhaps justifiably—in a skeptical frame. When quoted, aides to Kerry have been quick to deny that their man might have won. Several Democratic congressmen have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate problems with electronic voting, but do not question the election outcome.

On November 8, Newhouse News Service referred to doubts aired “on talk radio and the Internet.” The Nation examined and frowned on the theories the following day. On November 10, The Boston Globe concluded, “Much of the traffic is little more than Internet-fueled conspiracy theories.” Ditto The Washington Post, which weighed in by saying, “Ultimately, none of the most popular theories holds up to close scrutiny.”

The background to the stories is that when they ran, the official count in Ohio had not yet started. Bush holds a lead of more than 136,000 votes in the unofficial tally, but counties are only now beginning to go through the precinct ballots again, add in late-arriving absentee ballots, and see how many of some 155,000 provisional ballots are valid. Ohio’s election law requires a recount if the winning margin is within a quarter of 1 percent, or about 14,000 votes.

Kerry would need practically all the provisional ballots to be deemed valid, which is highly unlikely, and also go his way. That would be tough. But any substantial closing of the gap might change the way the election is interpreted.

For that reason, the polling problems (even ones as simple as long lines) could be more significant than first reports indicated. As Neil Oxford, an attorney who tells the Voice he was threatened with arrest for trying to tell Florida voters where their correct precincts were, puts it: “I doubt that it would have affected the result, but the idea that this was a flawless process is false.”

The nightmare continued

Readers who get their New York Observer by mail unfolded it on November 5 only to find the election still going on. “Bush on Brink,” the front-page subhead read, and the lead editorial began, “And so we went to bed, or to press, without a winner in the closest presidential election since, er, the last one.” For some depressed Democrats, it was like seeing a ghost of hopes past.

“We had no choice,” says city editor Terry Golway, who penned the front-page piece for the weekly, which hits the streets at the earliest on Wednesdays. “We held the paper for as long as we could, and with the worst possible scenario: no decision.”

This wasn’t the first time the Observer took the risk of hanging the front page on election results; previously, the gamble has paid off. In this case, the other options were ignoring the election or penning a piece generic enough to fit either a Kerry or Bush victory.

“I’d much rather gamble on holding the paper on election night and hope for a victory,” Golway says, admitting he almost reported the wrong victory: He planned on leading with “Kerry Wins” until editor Peter Kaplan predicted that Bush might prevail.

Second verse, same as the first

Alas, Bush did win (maybe), and so the D.C. press corps gets another four years with Mr. No-Follow-Ups. Do the Washington reporters for New York’s dailies think anything will change?

“They start out with a clean slate, simply because this time Bush was elected by the people,” not a court, says Daily News reporter Ken Bazinet, who detects “relief” in the press corps that someone was actually elected on Election Day. Timothy Phelps, Newsday‘s D.C. bureau chief, says, “Bush is likely to get an easier ride by the press by being re-elected” with a “mandate.”

Recently, second terms have been marked by scandal for the press to feast upon—from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica. There are perilous stories still out there for Bush, from the CIA leak probe to the Halliburton inquiry. But given his track record, it’s not clear that any story can stain this president.

“These guys are Teflon. They went through Enron, Halliburton, no WMD, no ties to Al Qaeda,” Bazinet says. “Nothing sticks.”