Stupid journalist tricks

Sam Smith

One of the ways that journalists and their employers dismiss or trivialize a problem they don’t want to deal with is to call it a conspiracy theory. Journalists didn’t always act that way. There was a time when broad skepticism was one of the hallmarks of a good reporter. But that changed as American democracy, global reputation and culture began to disintegrate even as journalists gained status in a failing establishment responsible for these declines.

With a major vested interest in elite decisions, those who criticized or doubted them were increasingly assigned the role of conspiracy theorists, whether out of journalistic bias, ignorance or indolence.

Despite the ubiquity of the canard, Lizzie Widdicombe of the New Yorker deserves notice for taking it all to a higher level. The New Yorker, which too often serves as an intellectual Leisure World for smug liberals, ran a trivial piece by Widdicombe about electronic voting that began: “Nothing excites an electoral conspiracy theorist like electronic voting machines. There’s the latest foul-up in Florida (eighteen thousand votes lost in the Thirteenth District in November), or the Princeton professor-you can watch him on YouTube – who in less than a minute hacks into a voting machine and plants software redirecting votes from candidate – George Washington” to “Benedict Arnold.”

In 2002, the federal government mandated that states upgrade their voting systems. New York is among the last in the country to do so-the slowness, depending on whom you ask, derives either from caution or from incompetence. In the meantime, the city’s Board of Elections has called in an unlikely authority: the voting public.

“A couple of weeks ago, a notice appeared in local papers announcing that all voting-machine venders being considered for a state contract would give a demonstration of their wares in Staten Island. The event was part of an “American Idol”-like series of shows around the city, to culminate in a hearing at which voters will voice their opinions about the machines. . . ”

A serious journalist might at least wonder why New York is treating such an important matter as a popularity contest rather than as an objective examination of one of the most important issues of our democracy.

But even more significant in this case is an article by Ronnie Dugger that appeared in 1988, one of the first to point out the dangers in electronic voting. If media and politicians had paid attention to Dugger (and similar work three years earlier by David Burnham in the NY Times) we might have saved ourselves a lot of misery. As Dugger’s article noted two decades ago: “As of the most recent tests this year, errors in the basic counting instructions in the computer programs had been found in almost a fifth of the examinations. These ‘tabulation-program errors’ probably would not have been caught in the local jurisdictions. ‘I don’t understand why nobody cares,’ Michael L. Harty, who was until recently the director of voting systems and standards for Illinois, told me last December in Springfield. ‘At one point, we had tabulation errors in twenty-eight per cent of the systems tested, and nobody cared.’ “

This piece of rank conspiracy theory appeared in the New Yorker. The moral is: be careful whom you call a conspiracy theorist. It may just take 20 years for the truth to begin to seep out.

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