United States Newspapers Would Rather Not Say
by Charles Laurence
in New York
The most detailed analysis yet of the contested Florida votes from last year's presidential election -with the potential to question President Bush's legitimacy - is being withheld by the news organisations that commissioned it.
Results of the inspection of more than 170,000 votes rejected as unreadable in the "hanging chad" chaos of last November's vote count were ready at the end of August.
The study was commissioned early this year by a consortium including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times, the nation's most powerful newspapers, and the broadcaster CNN.
It was regarded as a means of supplying final answers to the nagging questions over President Bush's razor-thin victory margin. The cost was more than £700,000.
Now, however, spokesmen for the consortium say that they decided to "postpone" the story of the analysis by the National Opinion Research Centre (NORC) at the University of Chicago for lack of resources and lack of interest in the face of the enormous story of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent "war on terrorism".
Newspapers were saying last week that the final phase of the analysis, the actual counting of the 170,000 votes, had been "postponed" but would become known at an appropriate time.
America's liberal newspaper establishment originally set up the commission in the belief that it would discover that Al Gore was the winner of the Florida count.
Their hope for a Gore victory appears to have been sacrificed on the altar of patriotism and a perception that America needs to be led into war by a strong president.
"Our belief is that the priorities of the country have changed, and our priorities have changed," said Steven Goldstein, the vice-president of corporate communications at Dow Jones and Co, the owners of the Wall Street Journal.
Catherine Mathis, a spokesman for the New York Times, said: "The consortium agreed that because of the war, because of our lack of resources, we were postponing the vote-count investigation. But this is not final. The intention is to go forward."
However David Podvin, an investigative journalist who runs an independent web page, Make Them Accountable, said he had been tipped off that the consortium was covering up the results.
He refused to disclose his source other than to describe him as a former media executive whom he knew "as an accurate conduit of information" and who claimed that the consortium "is deliberately hiding the results of its recount because Gore was the indisputable winner".
He also claims that a New York Times journalist who was involved in the recount project had told "a former companion" that the Gore victory margin was big enough to create "major trouble for the Bush presidency if this ever gets out".
He believes that the inspection, carried out over months by a team from NORC, proves that Mr Gore won Florida and, therefore, the election.
That theory, however, is countered by the NORC staff who say that they designed the inspection programme so that no one has yet counted the votes and no outcome could be known.
Dr John Mason, a professor of political science at William Paterson University, in New Jersey said: "The goosiness, the sensitivity, that the press which organised this analysis is showing to publishing the results and the persistence of questions about the Florida ballots raise questions. There is a sensitivity over the legitimacy of this president."
Staff at NORC have been puzzled by the idea that the media would lack the resources because, according to them, they have computer programs already designed and fitted for the final count.
Julie Antelman of NORC said: "They are all ready to go, and could have the count and the result within a working week."
She added: "We very carefully kept our distance from the political implications of whatever the result may be. We do not know the outcome, and do not want to.
"Our job was to prepare the raw data which goes into the counting programs: we are simply waiting for the order to deliver this data to the consortium, which we expected within the first two weeks of September."
NORC analysts studied each of the 170,000 votes which were discarded because they were considered spoiled or simply unreadable. Each ballot paper has now been analysed and recorded to the ballot box and constituency where it was cast.
French and Canadian newspapers suggest that the black-out can only raise suspicions, and the issue is being increasingly aired on the internet.
Dr Mason said: "It would be responsible to complete this study and produce the result, whatever it may be."
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