When unemployed veteran Alvin Greene won the Democratic nomination for United States Senate in South Carolina with 59 percent of the vote, despite pending criminal charges and a total lack of any apparent campaign effort, media speculation went into overdrive. Could Greene’s win over Vic Rawl have been caused simply by his being placed first on the ballot? Could African-Americans have concluded from the names of the candidates that Greene was also African-American? Could uninformed voters have believed they were casting a ballot for singer Al Green? Or could the result have had a more nefarious cause, such as vote fraud?
What all these “explanations” shared was an assumption of voter ignorance. For example, Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, concluded from his firm’s survey results that “it was pretty much completely random who was going to win given that no voters had heard of either of the candidates.” “If there are lots of offices on the ballot,” explained University of South Carolina political science professor Mark Tompkins, “voters don’t necessarily know who they are voting for.”
Few people, however, are asking the most important question: Why were the voters so uninformed? In a major party primary for an office as important as United States senator, the media have a responsibility to cover the election in a way that provides enough information for voters to cast intelligent ballots. How well did South Carolina’s media meet that responsibility?
To answer that question, I went to the Web sites of the major television stations and newspapers in the state. Although all had extensive coverage of the controversy after the vote, few paid any attention to candidates Greene and Rawl when voters most needed to learn about them.
Numerous studies have indicated that an overwhelming majority of the public obtains its information about elections largely from television. Nevertheless, the Web sites for the ABC affiliates in Charleston and Florence, CBS in Columbia and Spartanburg, NBC in Columbia and Greenville, and Fox in Columbia and Greenville do not seem to have run a single story about the Democratic primary candidates. Only WCSC in Charleston had any coverage, and it was merely two sentences in an Associated Press roundup story about the primary. It would not have helped voters very much, stating in its entirety, “Former legislator and judge Vic Rawl of Charleston has raised $185,000 since announcing in March. Unemployed military veteran Alvin Greene of Manning has raised nothing.”
South Carolina newspapers didn’t do much better. Either no articles at all or simply a pre-primary roundup like that presented by WCSC was all that primary voters could find in The State (Columbia), the Charleston Post and Courier, the Fort Mill Times, the Myrtle Beach Sun News, the Orangeburg Times and Democrat, and the Union Daily Times. The Thursday prior to the election, the Florence Morning News asked Professor Neal Thigpen to predict the outcomes of each contest. Without elaboration, he responded for the Democratic senate primary, “Rawl.”
Three newspapers each provided a single piece with useful information. Although the Rock Hill Herald had no news articles on the subject, it endorsed Rawl in a detailed editorial that termed Greene “not a serious candidate” whose interview with the editorial board “demonstrated little grasp of the issues.” In contrast, they described Rawl’s long experience in the military and politics, then discussed his general political philosophy, which they believed was “motivated less by ideology than by practicality.” Even though this was one of the few sources of helpful information, the only specific issues it mentioned were Rawl’s support for climate change legislation and his positive views on the health care reform bill.