Readers unlikely to cool off after the voting

October 31, 2004|By Paul Moore

WORDS LIKE "dizzying," "whirlwind" and "frenetic" have been used to describe the final full week of the close-fought 2004 presidential campaign. The reactions of newspaper readers have been passionate as they struggle to digest a flood of coverage.

Two recent articles in The Sun - with the headlines "After the election, the lawyers" and "Some fear Ohio will be Florida of 2004" - offered an ominous warning that the shouting may not be over soon, regardless of the outcome of this angry race.

Americans could wake up Wednesday to discover that attorneys are again battling to determine who becomes the next president. As an Ohio lawyer told The Sun's Gail Gibson: "People on both sides are incredibly emotional about this election. Nobody trusts the other side."

No matter who wins or how, the campaign's sharp divisions are unlikely to disappear quickly. The current strident responses to The Sun's coverage of politics, government and social issues also are likely to continue.

If the new president does not win a clear majority of the votes cast or if there are credible charges of voting irregularities in close-fought states, the decibel level can be expected to rise.

Irene Nelson of Annapolis, who lived and voted in Dade County, Fla., while serving in the military, remembers how she felt in 2000 after being told her vote had been disqualified: "It was as if someone had stripped me naked and I couldn't put my clothes back on. I pray that nobody in Florida or anywhere else feels that way this year."

Some readers worry that The Sun's coverage may be contributing to voter paranoia.

Sam Davis of Towson, for one, is disturbed by the number of stories documenting polling-place monitors and planned legal challenges. "It implies that the people don't trust the election process," he said. "The endless stories feed this distrust, but perhaps it is important to the process."

These stories are important, especially in light of what happened in 2000.

Ohio, a key battleground, is the eye of the storm this year. With polls showing President Bush and Sen. John Kerry virtually even in their pursuit of the state's 20 electoral votes, articles detailing charges of registration fraud and inadequate staffing to handle expected heavy turnout give readers a sense of deja vu.

Many worry that a second legally contested election could do irreparable harm to the nation. With that in mind, The Sun plans to dedicate one national correspondent on Election Day to reporting and writing solely about legal challenges and will "flood the zone" with reporters if any of those challenges affects the outcome of the election.

Almost everyone agrees that interest in this election is higher than in decades. Voter registration has soared nationally and locally. The question remains how this surge will translate at the polls. Traditionally, the number who actually cast votes is significantly lower than the number who signed up.

Readers say the registration boom is a positive aspect of the contentious campaign. One called it "the one heartening development in this long process. I hope that more Americans will start to believe that they have a real stake in the process."

The intense public interest in this year's race has been generated in part by one of the most profound political conflicts over foreign policy since the height of the Vietnam War. There is passionate disagreement over how to fight the war on terrorism and the related conflict in Iraq.

The candidates' service during the Vietnam era has been a high-profile issue throughout the campaign. From the controversial 60 Minutes report on President Bush's Air National Guard service to the brouhaha over Sinclair Broadcasting's report on Kerry's anti-war activism, Vietnam has been omnipresent.

In the final week of the campaign, readers have been even more vigilant in looking for examples of perceived bias in stories. One went so far as to measure the number of lines in a Sun front-page story, "Kerry, Bush bringing out their big guns," devoted to former president Bill Clinton's appearance at a Kerry rally compared to the number devoted to ex-New York mayor Rudy Guiliani's appearance at a Bush rally.

Reader Paul Philip said that because he found more space was given to the Democrats, "this is not an even-handed reporting of campaign news but merely a parroting of the Kerry/Clinton stump speeches." Sun National Editor Mike Leary answered that "Clinton appearing on the trail for the first time was a bigger deal than Guiliani, who got a big splash at the Republican convention and has been a regular at Bush campaign stops."

Other readers complain that such daily "horserace" stories overshadow more important coverage of issues such as tax policy and the national debt, funding for Social Security and Medicare, the role of government in stem-cell research, same-sex marriages and abortion, and the balance between environmental and business interests.

The Sun will report on the outcome of Tuesday's election and beyond with as much energy, passion and intelligence as possible. So fasten your seat belts.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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