Reporters examine endless postelection

The nation may have waited 36 days in the fall for results of the presidential election, but the crowd eager to hear two New York Times reporters reflect on postelection coverage waited not at all for the event, which began promptly at 4 p.m. Feb. 28 in Houston Hall.

Times Metro Reporter Somini Sengupta told about life as low woman on the totem pole for the Times team in Florida, speaking to the 250 people packed into Bodek Lounge for the event sponsored by the Times and the Provost’s Spotlight Series.

Afraid of making a mistake, overlooking a critical fact or getting scooped by a competitor, she spent days reading every single public record to make sure she “didn’t wake up in the morning and look like a fool,” she said. She spoke of a sleepless night after seeing a competitor dining with a Gore spokeswoman and taking notes.

Veteran New York Times National Correspondent B. Drummond Ayres Jr. wasn’t sent to Florida, but he brought perspective and experience.

“There hadn’t been a story like this in the 40 years I covered politics,” said Ayres, who writes the Political Briefing column for the Times.

Ayres, who witnessed conspiracies to prevent blacks from voting under Jim Crow, said he doubted a similar widespread conspiracy in Florida.

“We chased that story,” Sengupta said, but didn’t find an orchestrated effort to disenfranchise any group. The key, she said, was disparity in the voting machines between wealthy and poor precincts.

The two criticized the “demonization” of Florida Attorney General Katherine Harris in a Washington Post Style section story that mocked her clothes and makeup.

Annenberg School Dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who moderated, ran the question-and-answer session with an iron hand, cutting short speeches posing as questions and squashing an off-topic question.

First she asked some questions of her own. Did the press create the presumption that George Bush was president on election night and that Al Gore was the spoiler?

“It will surprise you at how hard we work in the inside to keep bias out,” Ayres answered.

Jamieson ended the question-and-answer session at 5:15 p.m. on the nose.


Originally published on March 22, 2001