BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. After more than three days of counting and recounting, it was clear by midday Thursday that Felipe Calderon had won Mexico's presidential election. The conservative had apparently squeaked out his victory over left-leaning Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by little more than half a percentage point. But Lopez Obrador refused to concede defeat and promised to bring his charge of voting irregularities to a special electoral court. Meanwhile, north of the border, the media felt a distinct sense of deja vu.
MALE ANNOUNCER: In Mexico tonight, it is beginning to look a lot like Florida back in the year 2000. Four days now after the -
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: - say this is reminiscent of the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore six years ago.
MALE ANNOUNCER: - got Mexico's version of the 2000 Bush versus Gore election here.
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: And scenes reminiscent of the 2000 Florida recount--
BOB GARFIELD: Dan Grech has been covering the Mexican election for American Public Media's Marketplace, and he also experienced that "been there, done that" feeling.
DAN GRECH: I was working for the Miami Herald back in 2000, and I was part of its coverage of the election, and I was in the newsroom, like everybody else, glued to the television. And I remember that TV started broadcasting who had won Florida before the polls had even closed in the Panhandle, which is on Central Time. And I remember they announced Florida for Gore, then for Bush, and eventually [LAUGHS] nobody.
BOB GARFIELD: And, in fact, while the similarities in the tight race are obvious, there are differences between Florida 2000 and Mexico 2006, and that is substantially the way the media covered it. The Mexican media, I gather, were a lot more circumspect. Can you give us a blow-by-blow of how election night and the aftermath played out?
DAN GRECH: Well, one of the things that you need to know about the Mexican media is there was a media blackout from Wednesday at midnight to eight P.M. Sunday, which is the time when the last poll closed in Tijuana. I've even been told that the law says that anyone who does propagate a poll during that blackout period is subject to up to three years in prison, so no one was really touching it. In fact, Fox News cut their local broadcast rather than risk defying this particular law. So 8 pm comes, and everyone's sort of on the edge of their seats because we're all waiting, finally, after [LAUGHS] days and days of not having any idea what's going to happen, to finally hear the results. And the entity that gets the first word in this is Mexico's Electoral Institute. It's called the IFE. So at 8 pm, they basically get on the air, and they say, this race is too close to call, check back with us in three hours.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that's a stunner for a number of reasons, not the least of which before the media blackout, according to all the polls, Obrador held a commanding lead, it seemed, over Calderon.
DAN GRECH: It was a huge surprise. And then what was an even bigger surprise, sort of from a journalistic standpoint, was that from 8 pm on, none of the other media outlets, none of the two major TV stations, none of the major newspapers elaborated on this. I know that they had all been doing their own exit polls, and none of them released these exit polls. And so for three hours, there was this silence. And it was so deafening that I ended up taking a nap during this time. I mean, it became clear to me at about 9 pm. that, a) I was in for a [LAUGHS] really long night, and, b) I wasn't going to learn anything new until about 11 pm., so I went and took a nap. At 11 pm that night, the Electoral Institute comes back on and they basically say that the race is still too close to call, we're not going to declare a winner tonight.
BOB GARFIELD: Did it arouse suspicion about whether, you know, something was being hushed up or whether something unsavory was going on?
DAN GRECH: Absolutely, it did. And in the days following this deafening silence, there have been accusations thrown back and forth that the decision to not release the exit poll data by these news organizations was actually a political decision and not a journalistic one. And you can agree or disagree with this, but it definitely is a reflection of the way that the media is looked at here in Mexico.
BOB GARFIELD: I gather with some substantial measure of distrust.
DAN GRECH: That's exactly right. The Mexican media, and particularly Televisa, the leading television broadcaster here, has a long history of ties with the local government and with the PRI, the party that ran Mexico for 71 years. And, in fact, there's a really famous, or infamous story, in Mexican journalism. Back in 1968, just a few days before the Summer Olympics were being held in Mexico City, there was a student demonstration, and 300 students were massacred. And when it came to the nightly news that night, Televisa makes a brief mention that 30 people had been killed in clashes, and then moves on to discussing the upcoming Olympic games. And that's an incident that still is in people's minds down here.
BOB GARFIELD: From your perspective, do you believe that there are any vestiges of, you know, big media being in the pocket of the ruling party that had been such an issue for so long in Mexico?
DAN GRECH: If you had asked me this question this morning, I would have said this was a journalistic decision to not air these exit polls. They decided that the polling data was too close, that ultimately the independent electoral body, the IFE, was the one that should be releasing the poll data first and that they would follow them, and that, therefore, if the IFE wasn't releasing its data, then they wouldn't either. But then I started having conversations with some independent journalists down here and asking them this question: was this a political decision? And all of them said yes. And they said that this was a decision which basically reflects a lack of courage in the local media down here. And I said, well, what do you mean? And they say, this is an example of the local media taking the government line, publishing only the government's polls, rather than their independent poll data.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that would be a more compelling argument if the vote, as declared by the Electoral Commission, some way didn't match the exit poll data gathered by the networks. But, in fact, they did match. It was a dead heat, with a few hundred thousand votes out of 43 million separating the winner from the loser.
DAN GRECH: In the end, I think, in the final analysis, I fall on the side of journalistic integrity. I think they knew that no matter what they did in this situation, their decision would be questioned by one side or another. And I think that they ultimately erred, so to speak, on the side of caution, precisely because they felt like this is a fragile and young democracy, and this is an independent electoral body that has been put together pretty scrupulously. Let them call this election.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Dan. Well, thank you very much.