High Stakes

On Nov. 4, the Lincoln Journal Star ran a story about Nebraska Democrats calling for a ballot recount in Lancaster County. Voting machines there had broken down on election night, prompting the county election commissioner to stop counting until technicians from Election Systems & Software (ES&S), the Omaha-based company that provided the machines, could be brought in to fix them.

The election commissioner and deputy secretary of state determined that, despite the problems, an accurate tally had been recorded. But Democrats were skeptical. The Journal Star ran the story on the front of its local section, and followed up with another a few days later.

The Journal Star isn’t the biggest paper in Nebraska. That distinction belongs to the Omaha World-Herald, which has a daily circulation of roughly 200,000, nearly three times that of the Journal Star. While the World-Herald made a passing mention of the problems in Lancaster County as part of an election roundup, it didn’t run a stand-alone story. “There are always conflicts and controversies over elections,” says Larry King, editor of the World-Herald. “A two-hour delay with voting machines is a pretty minor story.”

What isn’t minor, however, is the fact that the World-Herald owns part of ES&S, an arrangement that thrusts the objectivity of all its voting machine coverage into the spotlight.

The World-Herald has a mixed record in reporting on ES&S. On Election Day 2002 (and the day after), the paper ran in-depth articles about how well the company’s equipment performed. In those articles, the newspaper noted its financial interest in the company, whose machines were used by nearly 60 million voters this year.

That same essential piece of information about ownership was missing in a story a few days after the 2002 vote, however — a story that detailed equipment problems.

The World-Herald, it should be noted, has written about ES&S’ problems more than once. In 2000, the paper ran a piece detailing an “election night headache” for the company that arose from votes being improperly tabulated. Following the 2004 election, the newspaper ran several pieces on an ES&S glitch that skewed the vote count in Sarpy County, which includes some Omaha suburbs.

Sometimes the business relationship with ES&S is mentioned in the coverage; sometimes it is not. In the Nov. 6 article on the recount in Sarpy County, the newspaper disclosed that it owned “a minority stake in ES&S.” But in a related article the day before, that disclosure was not made.

When asked about the newspaper’s disclosure policy, King told CJR Daily: “We owe the readers the information [about the relationship] whenever we write about ES&S, whether it’s a positive or negative story.” He says no one from the newspaper’s corporate office has discussed ES&S coverage with the newsroom, and says that the paper has been diligent about making sure it discloses its financial ties. The clips, however, show those disclosures have been inconsistent.

For the Journal Star, the voting problems in Lancaster County were a must-do story that was also local — Lincoln, the state capitol, is in Lancaster County. “The peg was that [Democrats] were calling for a recount — and I don’t know how you don’t write a story about that,” says Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Journal Star.

According to World-Herald reporter Henry Cordes, when reporters from his paper saw the Journal Star story, they called the Lancaster County Democratic Party. By then, he says, Democrats had backed off their demand for a recount, so they decided not to pursue the topic any further.

World-Herald editor King acknowledges that the voting machines have problems. But he doesn’t buy into what he calls “a nationwide conspiracy theory” that voting machines are being manipulated in a significant way.

While there are legitimate concerns about the reliability of the equipment, there should not be concerns about the legitimacy of the coverage. People have become increasingly uneasy about the news media’s objectivity and impartiality, in large part because of financial conflicts that tempt outlets to color news coverage. The World-Herald has a vested interest in the success or failure of its partner ES&S. It must disclose that interest in each story it publishes. And it must cover the company as if it had no stake.

Those are the sorts of conflicts of interest that newspapers once railed against.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.