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The Untold Story Of Florida Remains Untold

The Florida election fiasco ridiculed the cardinal democratic principle "one person one vote" -- why does the Public Broadcasting Service now refuse to show this untold story?

The Untold Story Of Florida Remains Untold


Article & Essay: PBS Rejects An Untold Story
By Danny Schechter

In a typical understatement, The New York Times called the 2000 vote in Florida the most "flawed and fouled up election in American history."

Everyone knows who won, but few realize how many voters lost, or that a whopping 175,000 ballots went uncounted in balloting that turned on 537 votes when the Supreme Court stepped in. Even fewer know about purges from the voter rolls or how the recount in key counties was undermined, if not deliberately delayed, and, in effect, sabotaged.

When it was over, the new Administration asked Americans to forget Florida, to "move on" or "get over it." Much of the media did just that -- never fully investigating the charges of voting irregularities and claims of disenfranchisement by minorities. The "newspaper of record" -- The New York Times -- quipped that the Florida debate shifted from "who won?" to "who cares?"

In truth, millions do care. Many were shocked when new ballot machines misfired in Florida once again during the 2002 primary. Others commented that voter turnout had fallen to 30 percent nationwide. One TV journalist suggested that there might be a "voter boycott" underway. Many of these problems surfaced for all to see during the 2000 election that was covered and miscovered only as a horse race, as if only the main candidates had a stake in its outcome. Later, the networks were forced to apologize to Congress for their "serious mistakes" in their screwed up, deceptive and inept election-eve forecasting. When it was over, they dropped the story like a hot potato with no follow up. Their long delayed "media review" was an incomprehensible mishmash that was interpreted in some, but not all, newspapers as validating a Bush verdict. Many media analysts criticized the big media consortium for misrepresenting their findings and "burying the lead" that showed a narrow Gore victory.

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"Case closed."

Of course since then, over a year after the election, the federal government sued three Florida counties for voting rights violations. Other cases were heard in the Florida courts. At the end of August, a tiny item moved on the Associated Press wire: "The NAACP's lawsuit over Florida's disputed 2000 presidential election appears headed for a close as the state and two counties the only remaining defendants have agreed to a settlement, attorneys said Tuesday. Attorneys would not discuss terms of the settlement. The class-action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups argued voters were disenfranchised during the on Nov. 7, 2000 election; it included allegations that blacks were kept from voting in some counties." Since then, the primary voting in several counties was fouled up when the new machines intended to replace the old discredited system "mis-fired."

These developments were reported but not widely followed up on. They were hardly bathed in national television attention. The media had moved on.

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The Questions That Remained

For some time, big questions nagged at the national conscience. Like the ones my colleague Faye Anderson, a one time Republican and now African-American political consultant, and I investigated for a new film called Counting On Democracy that takes a new look at the untold story in the context of the fight for voting rights.

The film is narrated by the gutsy actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who worked on earlier films with Martin Luther King on the struggle of the 1960’s civil rights movement for voting rights. Our film is not about Gore or Bush but the still outraged voters of Florida and all Americans who watched what happened there with disgust and embarrassment.

In making the film, we tried very hard to avoid strident voices and conspiracy theorists, instead elaborating on the argument that a "tyranny of small decisions" was responsible. We sought out credible figures including civil rights leaders and top journalists with Newsweek and the New York Times. We even featured the President of the Associated Press. We tried to interview leading Florida Republicans too, but they all refused, perhaps believing (correctly it may turn out) that the film would be perceived as "biased" if they were not part of it. We told PBS before the decision that they refused to respond. It didn’t matter. Their absence just proved "bias" on our part.

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Representing "All Sides"

We did manage to get two top officials of the GOP, including the man who ran the Bush Campaign’s recount-stopping strategy, and a GOP former Governor. We also showed an interview with Florida Elections Director Clayton Roberts and testimony by Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris. On the Democratic side, we spoke with members of Congress, the lawyer who argued in the Supreme Court and the head of the Gore campaign, among others. She admitted that they had made big mistakes that cost them the election. The main characters were voters, labor organizers and civil liberties union monitors. The film indicts Bush and Gore equally for compromising their commitment to small "d" democracy to get elected.

After a year-long battle of our own, we raised the money to make the film. We did so in the spirit of a call by Alex Jones of Harvard University’s Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy who wrote in The New York Times: "The answer is tough investigations of what happened in the voting and the vote counting, uncompromised by the false notion that avoidance of controversy will be healing. The answer is also tough reporting on what happened in Florida that does not confuse fairness with the unsatisfactory practice of quoting one strident and then its opposite in every story."

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A "Thriller"

Counting On Democracy was hailed at a film festival. "This tale of race, political payback, voter fraud and justice deferred could have come out of a Hollywood thriller. But no -- this is the story of the 2000 Presidential election in Florida," wrote the Taos Talking Picture festival that screened it to an enthusiastic SRO crowd. It was praised in the Palm Beach Post in Florida, a paper that knows the story well, and then licensed by the Independent Television Service for airing on public television.

The ITVS, born out of the fight by U.S. producers to get funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting when PBS was spending a small fortune overseas to buy shows from BBC, enthusiastically embraced Counting On Democracy. They paid for its completion and offered it to PBS for airing. Films with an ITVS imprimatur often have an inside track because they have gone through a due diligence process by public television professionals. We had rushed to get it done in time to be seen before this year’s election. The film is timely, with updated information about reform efforts in Congress and Florida to fix our broken electoral system.

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PBS Says: No Way

PBS has now spoken. In early August, they decided they will NOT screen Counting On Democracy. They gave it a resounding "no:" no broadcast, and, then, a second no to distribution by the PBS "Plus" feed that gives local stations the option to air the show or not. Here’s what ITVS told us PBS said: "They felt strongly that the program was not journalistic in that it tried to appear to be unbiased by including a Republican, but he was mocked and made to look silly. They felt it was 'full of cheap shots' and the narration was overly simplistic. They felt that 'due to the subject matter, care needed to be taken to present a more balanced look at the subject matter.'"

It is hard to respond to this type of a vague attack. As someone who has made over 200 magazine shows that aired on PBS stations, produced 50 segments for ABC’s Prime Time 20/20 newsmagazine, and directed ten major documentaries, I think I know something about journalistic standards, and would beg to differ. Suffice it to say, we have "creative differences." As for only featuring three Republicans, before PBS made their decision we told them that other Florida Republicans refused to be interviewed. It didn’t matter. To them, their absence just proved "bias" on our part.

I must admit that I was not surprised by their mechanistic thinking and nit-picking that one political insider I know rightly labels an "alibi." It felt like that scene from the Shawshank Redemption where inmates line up for parole hearings to collect their annual rejection, knowing full well that the decision to reject them has already been made. PBS is not known for courage in broadcasting. Activists have fought for years against the banning of many independent documentaries that take on controversial issues. Rather than offer an outlet for hard hitting independent work, PBS invariably features blander fare built around "story telling" or high priced films about history rather than topical muckraking, save for Bill Moyer’s new fine NOW series that even many PBS stations will not carry.

Our company Globalvision has experienced PBS’s rejection mania over the years when our award winning human rights series Rights & Wrongs (which aired on selected local PBS stations, not nationally) was rejected because, get this, "human rights is an insufficient organizing principle for a TV series" (unlike cooking!) Some stations considered our work "not corporate friendly." Others branded us, falsely, as one-sided left-wingers while continuing to broadcast right-wing fare with no such hesitations. Even Bruce Springsteen was denounced by a PBS exec as a self-promoter when they rejected a non-profit film I produced on the making of the anti-apartheid song Sun City in l986. It later won the Independent Documentary Association prize, the top in the industry. PBS later aired another "making of documentary," but on a commercial project, Raiders of the Lost Ark. That program was produced by the for-profit company that made the blockbuster movie.

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If Not Us, Who?

It turns out PBS also has another idea for how to treat the Florida issue too. No, not with a competing investigation or an expose that shares our focus. Oh no! PBS has opted instead, literally, to treat the issue as a joke, with a satirical show about Florida. Counting On Democracy is out; counting on comedy is in.

Again, here is what ITVS told us: "CPB did commission a documentary on the Florida recount. It is completed and will be on the PBS national schedule in October. The title is Who Counts? Election Reform In America. The show is very, very different from Counting On Democracy. Here is a short description:

"Comedian and "Saturday Night Live" cast member Darrell Hammond and former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno headline Who Counts? Election Reform in America, to be broadcast on Thursday, October 17, 10 p.m. on PBS.

"Who Counts? will combine original comedy and reporting on the 2000 presidential election -- with balloting issues in Florida as a key element -- in looking at election reform today. Darrell Hammond will portray Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and himself in all-new material written and produced especially for the one-hour program. He will be interviewed in character by Mr. Sesno, who will also narrate." A reporter for the Orlando Sentinal told me that fully one third of the PBS stations in Florida will not even carry this film. One third will "bury it" in off times and one third will run it.

Only one station in Florida (Fort Myers) is carrying Counting On Democracy. Only one, and despite a powerful endorsement in the Palm Beach Post. Overall only 17 of more than 300 PBS stations are presently committed to carry the program

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Making Fun Of Florida

Behind their false characterization of our documentary as biased and the surrealistic logic that prefers to make fun of Florida rather that explain what happened there, is the possibility of a more insidious scandal like the one that came to light in the very week that we learned that our film was being censored. It is an episode, just coming to light, that shows how PBS operates -- in the shadows. It concerns an earlier PBS financial payoff to an aggressive conservative zealot who a decade ago crusaded against our South Africa Now TV 156 week series that critiqued apartheid every week. According to the Los Angles Times, this individual was successful in getting the PBS affiliate in Los Angeles, KCET, to drop the show and, then, later claimed a victory in his own publication for muzzling it. (Protests by the black community there later forced it back on the air.) He had labeled Nelson Mandela a "Marxist," and baited us with similar language for our tough reporting on South Africa’s fight for freedom.

His name is David Horowitz, a 1960’s revolutionary leftist turned 1980’s revolutionary rightist. He surfaced up as an activist-advisor in the George W Bush Campaign in 2000. Years earlier, he was well known for his well-publicized attacks against progressive PBS programming and even the middle of the road documentary series Frontline. For years, Horowitz lobbied right wing congressman and Senators to pressure public television stations. He orchestrated calls for de-funding PBS, as well, which he denounced as part of the irresponsible "liberal media." He savagely attacked Bill Moyers for profiting off of public television.

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Paying Off?

It now turns out that while he was mouthing off publicly against PBS, he was privately meeting with former PBS President Ervin Duggan demanding money to produce a right-wing version of Frontline. Current, the public broadcasting trade publication reports this week on "how Horowitz’s campaign against liberal bias on public broadcasting opened the door to talks with CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) leaders about corrective right leaning programs." Duggan was posturing as a man of the middle, writing "Counterpunch" op-eds for the Los Angles Times denouncing the denunciations of the right and the militants of the left. At the time he had been considered a "liberal" because he had worked in the Lyndon Johnson Administration and was an FCC lawyer.

Although he had no prior TV experience, Horowitz says he and his partner received $250,000 for a "treatment" from CPB. According to his account, CPB and PBS later committed $1.3 million to the project. Duggan later turned against Horowitz as many who know him tend to do in the same way he turns on almost every one he ever worked with. Horowitz still praises Duggan as "fair minded" because "he brought us into the system."

Was this payment a pay-off to quiet the hornet’s nest of rightist pressure that he was stirring? He claims he drew up the project’s proposals and was poised to profit personally. How do we know? No media outlet has exposed this political deal making and evident cave-in to pressure. PBS never told us about it either. At the time, Duggan was giving speeches denouncing both the right and the left to pretend at evenhandedness. He turned us down when we asked him to support our human rights series.

We only know about wheeling and dealing now because David Horowitz himself has gone public about it, and not simply for purposes of self-aggrandizement. He is suing his former partner in the venture, claiming that he "enriched himself at my expense." This story is page one in Current, out in the very week that PBS kaboshed the broadcast of Counting On Democracy, no doubt fearing it might rankle the White House, "due to the subject matter," to quote PBS. Of course, their rejection was couched in the language of journalistic standards and concerns about "fairness," as it always is.

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Need For Transparency

Maybe it's time to call for an investigation of PBS, starting with the slimy details of this Horowitz affair. At a time when Americans want transparency and accountability in their institutions, why not ask how many other right wingers and Bush backers were offered similar deals. That probe might start with queries about programs made by Fred Barnes of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard, who also became an filmmaker overnight with PBS and CPB largesse. There are many others.

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Relating This To Florida

How does what happened in Florida fit into all of this? It shows how political PBS is, and how unwilling to carry programs that they think go too far. How many other important stories unwanted in the dumbed-down commercial media are also being axed by PBS, the only TV programming service with a mandate to serve the public interest? In their first year anniversary coverage of the fiasco in Florida, the editors of the Economist, the world’s top magazine offered what they later called a "joke." They apologized to readers for declaring President Bush the winner in Florida because "the election is STILL too close to call." No one has apologized to the voters of America for what happened in Florida, a story that you still may not be able to find out about thanks to PBS’s refusal to broadcast it.

That "joke" is not so funny. It is an insult.

And in fact, if you want to read something we used to call "funny business" about this ongoing story, here's a murky tale just posted on a website in Flori-DUH:

"A car was being dredged up after sinking in a canal in Miami Dade County on August 9th, 2002. Divers who found the car also found a locked metal box that when opened contained uncounted ballots from the November 2000 election. The large majority of the presidential votes in the lost container were for Al Gore. Of the approximate 2500 soaked ballots over 1600 were for Al Gore. The election of 2000 just won’t go away…. Local police spokesperson Jeanne Pierre Dorvil stated that the matter would be investigated."

You bet that that "investigation," if it ever occurs, won’t be seen on PBS.

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What You Can Do

Please help us get the word out on Counting On Democracy. Pass this story along. Find out if the program is being aired in your community, and if not, why not. Please be polite when calling PBS stations because often the last thing people in public television want is heat from the public. Counting On Democracy will be screened at the Hamptons Film festival In East Hampton at 2PM on Sunday, October 20th. Tapes are available for screening in schools and communities as well. Screenings in Philadelphia, New York, and News Jersey have been arranged.

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- Danny Schechter is executive editor of mediachannel.org and contributing editor of Intervention Magazine.

Write dissector@mediachannel.org with suggestions and comments.

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