BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Fact A: journalists have been excoriated for appearing to be insufficiently supportive of the president in time of national crisis! Fact B: a consortium of the country's largest news organizations was prepared to release its analysis of the disputed presidential race in Florida but has postponed that release in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
It sounds suspicious, but are there sound journalistic reasons for putting a story of such import to American democracy on hold? Here to discuss the matter is Dan Keating, a data base editor at the Washington Post; one of the consortium members.
Dan, welcome to OTM!
DAN KEATING: Glad to be here!
BOB GARFIELD: Let's begin by why don't you just tell me what the consortium is and how it was going about its business.
DAN KEATING:It's a group of news organizations that got together right when the Supreme Court made its decision and the recount ended. Essentially all of the news organizations were interested in saying what is on those ballots and just answering the question for, for history -- and that group is the Associated Press, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Tribune Company, The Palm Beach Post and the St. Pete Times.
So we got together. We hired The National Opinion Research Center which is the nation's foremost field survey research organization and we hired them to go out and view all the ballots.
And then we also have worked as a group collectively on devising the schemes for reviewing those ballots and determining whether there might be voter intent that could be drawn from those.
BOB GARFIELD:The consortium was poised before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to announce its findings. And lo and behold, you know, I happened to notice it in a story by Richard Berke in the Week in Review section of the New York Times he just mentions almost in passing that the publication of the results and the analysis was delayed, and in fact, to use his words, "on hold indefinitely." What happened?
DAN KEATING: We had a group of people that were going to be working on this as each other news organization did, and those people are doing other things right now that pertain mostly to the September 11th attack, and until those people are freed up and the space that we would dedicate in the newspaper is freed up, we obviously can't do it.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. Is it a news hole issue -- a physical space in the paper that you can't devote to take out this substantial? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAN KEATING:Well, I'm - I think we could probably get space in the back of a section [LAUGHS] somewhere, but having put as much time and effort into this because we think it was important, we want to publish it in a way that conveys that importance, and right now it's not going to muscle its way into a prominent place.
And the other thing is -- I mean right now simply the nation's attention is focused on, on certain issues. It'd be kind of like publishing your big annual baseball wrapup on Super Bowl Weekend!
BOB GARFIELD:But is that it alone? Is it just a question of the nation's interest or is one of the considerations the nation's mood? If the results of this consortium's work for example were to suggest that President Bush won his job under dubious circumstances, is there concern at the Washington Post or anywhere else in the consortium that this would re--be regarded as disrespectful or disloyal?
DAN KEATING: I don't really think that's a relevant issue, although we were close to publishing. We actually had not had delivered to us the data from National Opinion Research Center. We do not know, and National Opinion Center does not either cause they did not do anything that would be like a tabulation. All they did was a description. They have no software to convert those descriptions into potential recount votes or not.
So they have the data, but they have no way of counting them. We have the counters written as software programs, but we do not have the data. So-- [LAUGHS] because the two have never been joined, nobody -- nobody on earth -- knows what that data shows.
You know the, the amusing thing to me is that for a long time we were having to answer the question why are you doing this, and now we're having to answer the question why aren't you doing [LAUGHS] it. But-- [LAUGHTER] and nobody wants to see this published more than the people who've spent literally months and months and months of time working on it.
BOB GARFIELD:And now I understand you're the data base editor, you're not the managing editor, but what other stories have been pushed aside in the aftermath of the attacks and the preparations for war?
DAN KEATING: Journalists don't usually like to talk about stories that are in production, but it's safe to assume that the entire political, investigative, foreign, business, staff, resources that are now being applied to the aftermath of the attacks were all busily employed on September 10th, so a lot of things that were being done are now being done right now, and in fact there were some major projects that were like published right before it that kind of did not reverberate with the effect they usually would have simply because people's attention was drawn away.
BOB GARFIELD:In fact, I seem to remember an installment one in a series about how the District of Columbia's government's child protective services--
DAN KEATING: That was a 4-part series. It was a year long investigation into why all these children died who were under the care of the government due to negligence and errors and other things. It started on Sunday and it ran on the front page Sunday and Monday and then it ran on the front page as well Tuesday -- and then on Wednesday it ran in the Metro Section, and-- given what a brilliant investigation it was, and what important things it revealed, it would normally have caused repercussions, and while there has been some reaction to it, it's not anywhere near the magnitude you would normally get simply because people's attention's focused elsewhere.
BOB GARFIELD: Because news usurps news.
DAN KEATING:Exactly! And the news business is not sympathetic to things, you know? The news business doesn't say well, you know this isn't an important story but we're going to pay attention to it anyway because we should. This is - same as like campaign finance reform in Congress right now! It's, it's not that it's ceased to be an issue. It's just that right now there are more pressing issues.
And we don't want to publish our big project at a time when people aren't going to pay attention to it and it's just going to fade away!
BOB GARFIELD: Very well. Dan Keating, thank you very much!
DAN KEATING: Oh! Glad to do it!
BOB GARFIELD: Dan Keating is a data base editor at The Washington Post. [MUSIC TAG]