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Keith Olbermann's Dan Rather moment

| Sunday, Nov. 14, 2004

So, America, what's sloppier•

Our shaky elections system or the jayvee journalism practiced on Keith Olbermann's fake MSNBC news show "Countdown With keith Olbermann"?

I cast all of my votes for Olbermann.

The recovering sportscaster is openly liberal and his irreverent, run-and-quip offense is easy to detest. But I kind of like him and his fast-paced infotainment show, which has the fatal misfortune to occupy the 8 p.m. time slot opposite Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor."

Olbermann, however, really made a Dan Rather of himself last week.

He never directly charged that Republicans stole the election or demanded that Karl Rove should be picked up for questioning by the U.N. But for 15 minutes on Monday, Olbermann pointed to a "small but blood-curdling group of reports of voting irregularities and possible fraud" from across the country, topped it with some vague partisan innuendo from Democrat Congressman John Conyers, and acted like he deserved a Peabody Award for Civic Journalism.

On Tuesday I checked out some of Olbermann's claims. Using a high-tech personal communication device professional journalists refer to as a "telephone," I called an elections bureau person in Cuyahoga County, Ohio (greater Cleveland), where, as Olbermann pointed out, 93,000 extra votes had been inexplicably cast Nov. 2.

It turns out the votes were "a computer anomaly" that didn't affect or reflect the official vote count. And those 18,472 votes Olbermann said were counted in Fairview Park, a Cleveland suburb that had only 13,342 registered voters• Absentee ballots from many precincts had been grouped together by the computer and credited to Fairview Park, where 8,421 voted.

But what about Florida, the Vote-Fraud State•

Olbermann had made a big sinister deal about 29 counties whose registered voters were predominantly Democrat "suddenly" voting "overwhelmingly for Mr. Bush." He slyly left the impression that massive vote-stealing could have been perpetrated by ballot tabulating companies like Diebold, whose bosses were known Bush allies.

I called Baker County, Fla., Olbermann's first example. Yes, twanged the cheery election lady, 69 percent of voters in her rural county on the Georgia border are registered Democrat. Yes, "Mr. Boosh" got 78 percent of the vote and trounced Kerry, 7,738 to 2,180.

This was nothing new or untoward, she said. Folks in Florida's Panhandle are conservative, especially on social and moral issues. They mostly register as Democrats and vote that way on local issues, but in national and state elections, they go Republican. Been doing so for years.

I heard the same explanation from election ladies in the tiny and large counties of Calhoun, Lafayette, Escambia, Highland and Liberty, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by as much as 9 to 1. Yet Bush beat Kerry in every one.

If they had cared, Olbermann and the producers of "Countdown" could have discovered these facts before they began flogging their sloppy Internet-spawned conspiracy Monday and Tueday nights. Non-Republican journalists on Salon.com and Slate.com. had no trouble explaining/debunking it. Nor did bloggers.

By Wednesday, Olbermann's fever had cooled. But he had abandoned the Florida conspiracy angle, explained Cleveland's oddities and mostly was yukking it up about a Unilect computer that ate 4,000 votes in North Carolina.

Still, he and his guest enabler from the grownup world of journalism, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, were concerned about the wussiness of the news media. Why had no major print or electronic outlet pursued this shameful story•

I don't know, boys. Maybe it's because before they start making wild charges of "vote fraud," real journalists pick up a telephone.

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