Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Searching for the Media's Soul

When Wishing Can Make It So

"We have searched our souls. We must use this responsibility very carefully. Some day in our time, because of this technological and journalistic ability [to predict election outcomes and prematurely declare winners], all the polls in the United States -- in the 50 states -- will close at one time."

-- Fred W. Friendly, President, CBS News, 1964
[Robert Bendiner, "The Danger of Declaring Winners by Computer; Quickie 'Results' Could Sway the Election," Life Magazine, September 18, 1964, pp. 125, 133]

Last evening (June 6) the Associated Press sent out a story asserting that Hillary Clinton was now the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. Hope Yen, Stephen Ohlemacher, Lisa Lerer and Caterine Lucey, "AP Count: Clinton Has Delegates to Win Nomination," Associated Press, June 6, 2016. The AP's account was picked up by everything from The New York Times, to National Public Radio, to local papers around the country. As the Los Angeles Times headlined, Chris Megerian, "Hillary Clinton Clinches Democratic Nomination in Historic First," Los Angeles Times (online), June 7, 2016, continuing with the lead sentence: "Hillary Clinton has secured enough delegates to claim the Democratic presidential nomination, the Associated Press said Monday night . . .."

As the AP reported, "The former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady reached the 2,383 delegates needed to become the presumptive Democratic nominee on Monday with a decisive weekend victory in Puerto Rico and a burst of last-minute support from superdelegates."

This is wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin.

And that's without even addressing what to all appearances has been an anti-Bernie Sanders orientation on the part of some media organizations and reporters since the beginning of this presidential campaign.
(Full disclosure: I have been, and remain, a Bernie Sanders supporter who has fought against the Democratic Party's transformation over the past 25 years into a 21st Century equivalent of the 1960s and '70s Republican Party of Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon. Gallup reported last January that 42% of Americans identify as independents, 29% as Democrats, and 26% as Republicans. Given these numbers, why would the Democratic Party elite not want to make a bona fide effort to serve, energize and thereby retain, its original, natural base of the poor, working poor, and working class -- with whose support they could win every election from city councils to the White House?

In fairness to the thousands of professional, independent journalists who recognize the importance and responsibility associated with their role, as the bumper sticker has it, “The 'liberal media' are only as liberal as their conservative owners permit them to be." Having said that, however, it does seem fair to note that the media seems to have had a preference for Hillary over Bernie -- a subject I have addressed before: "Why Won't Media Give Bernie a Break?" March 23, 2016; "Bernie's Extraordinary, Unacknowledged Accomplishment," February 3, 2016; "Why Nobody 'Wins' the Iowa Caucus," February 1, 2016.)
So, putting aside the pro and con arguments about a media Bernie Sanders bias, what's the problem?

For starters, the Democratic Party's nomination requires a candidate receive the affirmative votes of 2383 delegates. As of last evening, Clinton had 1812 pledged delegates -- those who had been chosen in caucuses, primaries and conventions, and are required to vote for her on the first ballot.

Second, the votes in that "decisive weekend victory in Puerto Rico" (the delegates from which were apparently counted among her 1812) had not even been counted Monday. Puerto Rican officials stayed up late Sunday night counting ballots, only got through about half of them, and decided to take Monday off. ("It will be a little while longer before final vote totals are known in Puerto Rico's Democratic presidential primary, because the U.S. territory's election commission workers took the day off on Monday." Danica Coto, "Vote Count Stalls in Puerto Rico as Officials Take Day Off," Associated Press, June 6, 2016.) That assertion of a "decisive victory" was based on projections from the votes that had been counted. And as we've all seen from numerous elections over the years, the actual, future, final result is not really known until all the votes have been counted. Nor would the 60 Puerto Rican delegates, even if she ends up with all of them, be enough to bring her to the necessary 2383.

Third, the AP "Clinton Clinches Democratic Nomination" story contains a single sentence with a number of errors: "Indeed, Clinton's victory is broadly decisive. She leads Sanders by more than 3 million cast votes, by 291 pledged delegates and by 523 superdelegates. She won 29 caucuses and primaries to his 21 victories."
(1) "She leads by more than 3 million cast votes." (a) Clinton did comparatively better in primaries than caucuses; Sanders did comparatively better in caucuses than primaries. (In my Johnson County, Iowa, precinct, there were over 500 who caucused for Bernie, and about 90 for Hillary.) Since the number of primary voters are reported (and apparent from the total votes) and the numbers of caucus attendees are known only to those attending a given caucus, and "cast votes" excludes Bernie's caucus "voters," it's not surprising that Hillary would appear to have the larger number. (b) Votes, "cast" or otherwise, are irrelevant in this process. It's delegates that matter. Clinton apparently has 291 more than Sanders -- though not enough to say she's already "clinched" it. It will be the same story in the general election next November; the total, national popular vote is not irrelevant, but neither is it decisive. It's the Electoral College vote that picks the president. Just ask Al Gore who had 543,895 more votes than George Bush in 2000 (50,999,897 to 50,456,002) and yet watched President Bush take the oath of office.

(2) "She won 29 caucuses and primaries." A presidential candidate in a general election can be said to have "won" a state (meaning the votes of its electors in the Electoral College), because it is a "winner-take-all" election. Whoever gets a majority, or plurality, of a given state's popular votes usually gets all of that state's electoral votes. But most of the Democratic Party's primaries and caucuses were not winner take all; they resulted in a proportional allocation of delegates. You can say, if you want to, that whoever got the most delegates "won" that state -- as the media has persisted in doing -- but it is meaningless in terms of who gets the ultimate nomination. It is only meaningful because the media (and Hillary Clinton) say it has meaning.
Fourth, "superdelegates." Superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention are elected officials (all Governors, U.S. House and Senate members) who belong to the Democratic Party along with Party leaders.
(1) As the costs of campaigning have risen over the years, these are the very individuals who have become most dependent upon the contributions of the nation's richest donors, corporations, lobbyists, Wall Street banks, Big Pharma and Oil, and their secret and public PACs. They may hate to ask for money as much or more than the donors hate to have to give it. But they are all in a tight symbiotic relationship from which divorce is impossible, and all of whose futures and fortunes turn on successfully protecting their circled wagons. So at the outset, there is a real question as to whether this Party Establishment's choke hold on the pledged delegates' choice should even exist for a political party that calls itself "Democratic."

(2) But even if Establishment-superdelegate veto power was appropriate for the Democratic Party, the Party's rules provide that, unlike pledged delegates (whose "votes" are essentially cast early in the primary season), the superdelegates can, by definition and rule, have no more than a "leaning" -- for this day and time only -- prior to the time they cast their first "vote" at the Convention itself. Until then, they are free to change their minds, and leanings, as often as they choose and changing conditions warrant. No matter what the pressures may be from the Clinton campaign, the Party Establishment, and perhaps even the Associated Press, it is inappropriate to designate Clinton as the nominee until the superdelegates have actually cast their votes -- on July 25.

(3) Stuff happens. This is June 7. The Convention is July 25. That's 49 days of political time -- the equivalent of a light year in space. As those of us following this presidential primary have observed, and as Rachel Maddow has relied upon for a daily show, unexpected events, from the trivial to the blockbuster lie along the path to victory like Improvised Explosive Devices along the roads in Afghanistan and Iraq. Clinton (and Trump) have some of the highest unfavorable poll ratings ever seen. Bernie has one of (if not the) highest positive ratings. Most (all?) polls show him running well ahead of Hillary in a head-to-head match up with Trump. We still don't know if Hillary will be indicted, or what more Trump will uncover and throw at her and how that will affect her standing. She (or Bernie) could have a sudden, serious health problem. Twenty percent of Sanders' supporters say if she's the nominee they'll vote for Trump. Bernie has had both the largest, and the most enthusiastic crowds. Considering where he's come from, his strength has been awesome. He's not just talked about, but demonstrated and used, a funding mechanism that eliminates the need for PACs. There aren't enough members of the Democratic Party to elect Hillary. Bernie has strong appeal with independents, newly-registered and young voters -- needed to build a future Party. When it comes to the crunch, if it looks like Hillary can't win, and that Bernie can, the Party Establishment may still decide they'd rather go down to defeat with her than win with Sanders. But it is not inconceivable that a majority of superdelegates might then decide to switch.
Fifth, media corruption of the electoral process. CBS News President, Fred Friendly (and then-CBS President Frank Stanton) were broadcasters of the old school during the 1960s and '70s when I was serving as an FCC commissioner. They, and their general counsel, Dick Salant, were not always on the same page with me. But what I admired then, and even more so now, was their sense of public obligation, and responsibility, for their use of "the public's airwaves."

The Fred Friendly quote, with which this blog essay begins, is an example. They were dealing with mainframe computers that could handle big data, in rapid time, and make much more accurate predictions, sooner, of an election's outcome. Choose the right precincts and do enough exit polling during the day (or vote counting immediately after their polls close) and the final statewide result could be anticipated relatively accurately, and broadcast, before one's competitors. Unfortunately, if done before the polls closed, there was the possible consequence of potential late voters choosing to stay home rather than make the effort to cast a pointless vote.

Given trans-continental television programming networks (CBS' Edward R. Murrow had the first simultaneous coast-to-coast broadcast November 18, 1951) an even more serious problem emerged in presidential elections. With four (actually more) U.S. time zones (when it's 8:00 p.m. in New York, it's 5:00 p.m. in California), if early projections of Central and Eastern time states' results indicate the ultimate winner, all west coast evening voters may be deprived of a meaningful incentive to vote.

The point is that back then there were some with the journalistic ethics, and sense of public responsibility, to be concerned about the media's potential interference with the actual process of voting. They agonized over it. They proposed potential solutions: have voting end and polls close at the very same moment all across America, say, 10:00 p.m. Eastern Time, 9:00 p.m. Central Time, 8:00 p.m. Mountain Time, and 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time.

We all know the expression, "Wishing doesn't make it so." But the power of today's media is such that media owners, and their journalists, who wish for Hillary's nomination, can make it so. Last night's AP assertions, the their viral distribution and acceptance by the rest of the media, are but one example.

Today's media not only don't propose solutions, they don't even see the problem. They see nothing wrong with proclaiming the nomination process is over -- the very evening before the day of what are arguably (at this point in this campaign's history) the six most significant primaries of the season insofar as the Sanders-Clinton contest is concerned. This would be serious enough if Clinton already had the 2383 pledged delegates. Why discourage letting the primaries run their course, and give everyone a chance to vote? But that they were willing to do this with an inaccurate and misleading analysis is shameful and depressing.

In Fred Friendly's day CBS' executives were honestly able to say "we have searched our souls" regarding their ethical and legal obligations -- because they still had souls to search. Today neither they nor we can search their souls, for there are none to be found.

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