The public has a right to know. It's a simple statement really, but one from which nearly every ethical norm of journalism springs. That's why the names of most criminal defendants are made public upon being charged. It's why investigative reporters spend their lives looking for various improprieties. It's why reporters tell themselves that they cannot be responsible if something they publish has negative to consequences -- such a worry is far outweighed by the public's right to know. There are exceptions of course -- matters of national security, for one. The private foibles of private citizens, for another. But it's an important journalistic tenet, one that is not always popular, yet always important. So it is with the media recounts now going on in Florida. The first major results of that endeavor were released this weekend, the first of what will in the coming months no doubt be a deluge. An analysis by The Washington Post found there were likely thousands more voters who intended to vote for Gore than for Bush in the pool of "overvotes" -- ballots that registered more than one choice for president. The Chicago Tribune studied about 16,000 discarded ballots in 15 predominantly Republican counties, and found that 10 percent of them were clearly discernible votes. Gore would have netted 366 more votes had those ballots in Bush strongholds been counted. And The Palm Beach Post found that had the "dimpled" chads been counted, Gore would have picked up 682 votes in that county alone -- more than enough to swing the election. These stories are just the beginning. A consortium of news organizations are about to begin a full recount of more than 180,000 discarded ballots, which could potentially (however unlikely) prove that Al Gore is the rightful winner of Florida and the presidency. But, of course, the media has been attacked for this endeavor, in the name of patriotism and national reconciliation. "What's the purpose of counting the votes again?" critics argue. "There will never be a satisfactory answer and all it will do is open up wounds that are beginning to heal. It will make foreign leaders question the legitimacy of the U.S. government." Even if the media recount is able to really show conclusively -- which no one expects -- that Gore won Florida, it won't change anything. The former vice president will remain a presidential loser teaching classes at Columbia and UCLA while George W. Bush leads the free world. But the thing is, that's all someone else's concern, and it's not something for which the media can be blamed. Journalism is one of the very few professions where it is dangerous to judge its practitioners on the consequences of their actions. It may sound like a cop-out -- a way to rationalize one's behavior -- but the members of the media conducting this recount insist quite rightfully that they cannot be concerned with any of that. It's not their responsibility to instill faith in the government -- it's their job to release information in the proper context and leave it to others to decide what to do with it. The public is almost always served by having more information available to them, not less. As Arthur Hays Sulzberger, a former publisher of The New York Times, once remarked, "We tell the public which way the cat is jumping. The public will take care of the cat." If reporters start worrying about the short-term unpopular consequences of their stories, they lose the courage to print controversial reports that effect positive change on society. They stop covering the big stories about government scandal and the smaller stories about racism on local police forces. That's dangerous for a society that values not just a free press, but a vigorous one. So the media recount will go on, and yes, it could very well lead to the delegitimization of a duly inaugurated U.S. president. But in the end, we can't afford to have it any other way.Comments powered by Disqus
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