Two takes on Florida election mess of 2000: cool and hot, carried and not

Originally published in Current, Nov. 18, 2002
By Steve Behrens

Two independent producers this fall shared the same topic of huge importanceóthe Florida election disaster of two years agoóbut treated it very differently.

  • Fred Silverman, who made "Who Counts? Election Reform in America," gave it a light touch and hired a Saturday Night Live comedian in hopes of luring a young audience.
  • Danny Schechter, who did "Counting on Democracy," brought in narrators associated with the civil rights movement, who hammered the events as a national disgrace.
Related commentary: Schechter says the rejection by PBS is the latest of many that leaves him weary.

Both got similar, middling ratings in the cities where Nielsen operates audience metersó0.7 percent for Silverman and 0.8 percent for Schechter, according to the audience and carriage data firm PubTV Online.

But the breadth of their carriage in the month between Oct. 7 and Nov. 10 was vastly different. Silvermanís film, which had a spot on the PBS schedule, was carried by 251 stations covering a potential audience of 88 percent of TV households, PubTV Online estimated. Schechterís, distributed by the Independent Television Service, was carried by just 27 stations (including some big ones) covering 28 percent of households.

When ITVS proposed Schechterís film to PBS, the network turned it down, saying they already had a Florida debacle documentary. Silverman had started planning it even before the presidential inauguration in 2001.

PBS programmers didnít want to talk about the choice between the films. Network spokesman Harry Forbes said they regarded a second Florida doc as redundant. "The other thing, quite frankly, is that [Schechterís film] did not meet PBSís journalism and programming standards," Forbes added. "Thatís all that anyone wants to say on the subject."

The two filmmakers had different plans for their Florida films, though they ended up with many similarities.

Silverman set out to use the Florida events to illustrate an elections system "gone crazy" and discuss possible reforms, instead of trying to retell the whole Florida saga. And Schechter came at the story from the viewpoint of black Floridians, who had pushed hardest for voter turnout and suffered the highest proportion of uncounted ballots.

But the core of both films was the endless spectacle of quarrels over chads, roller-coaster punditry and warring armies of lawyers. Both featured footage of the party rowdies that got Miami-Dade election officials to call off a recount, and both recounted the series of court rulings that led to the Supreme Courtís timeís-up decision.

Both disclaim conspiracy theories and blame the Florida mess on an accretion of minor decisions, though Schechter places the election in the context of racism in the running of past Florida elections.

They diverged most sharply in the realm of emotion. Silvermanís film was emotionally cool and Schechterís very hot.

"I didnít want to do a show that would preach to the converted, that would get wonderful reviews and nice awards and nobody would ever watch it," says Silverman.

"Oftentimes we do these programs that are a bit dry, a little dense."

A former CBS producer, Silverman had made such sober programs before, following the model of the old CBS Reports. His "Healthcare Crisis: Whoís at Risk?" on PBS in 2000 won 15 awards. "I wanted to do something radically different in terms of concept," he says.

This time Silverman went after the young viewers who have great apathy and disdain toward U.S. democracy and get their dose of public affairs from Comedy Central or Saturday Night Live. He sweetens his film with clips from those shows and numerous gags taped for the film by SNL impressionist Darrell Hammond, doing Gore, Clinton and Cheney.

With an eye to younger viewers, Silverman also backed his film with jaunty music and chunked the material into digestible segments on "provisional balloting" and other reform ideas.

"We didnít want to get into a scolding thing," Silverman says. Programs that speak with moral outrage speak mainly to the converted he said. They turn off more viewers than they inspire.

Schechter chose the opposite toneóa far more moving approach to the converted, or to anyone susceptible to stirring documentary condemnations in the tradition of Edward R. Murrow or Bill Moyers.

Though he hadnít watched Silvermanís competing program, Schechter derided the network for choosing it. "PBS decided to treat the issue as a joke, with a satirical show," Schechter wrote in the Boston Phoenix.

Schechter raised the emotional firepower by hiring actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis as narrators. When Dee reports on the final U.S. Supreme Court decision, she says it was made "under cover of darkness."

Though some Democrats say in the film that Republicans stole the White House, Schechter says that was not his topic. "Our point was not a partisan pointónot that Gore was robbed. American was robbed when peopleís votes donít count," he says. He brought in black Republican activist Faye M. Anderson as writer/producer to take the lead on the project.

Schechter says he and Anderson wanted to speak for disenfranchised Florida blacksóa different objective from Silvermanís reform curriculum. "If you look at the world from the top down, itís problems that can be managed," says Schechter. "If you look at it from the bottom up, itís people who feel victimized."

Still, both films gravitated toward similar summaries of the post-election maneuvering.

The Bush and Gore campaigns thought they knew which recounts would be good for them and which would be bad, but both guessed wrong, said Washington Post reporter Dan Keating in the Silverman film. Neither side pushed for a full recount. As it turns out, judging from a recount by newspapers, Gore could have won only by getting a complete recount.

"What we didnít say, and perhaps should have said, is that each party wanted what was good for itself and not what was good for democracy," Silverman says.

Ruby Dee makes the same point in Schechterís film: "Both sides were playing to win."

Hammond delivers a Gore grimace.

Silverman brought in impressionist Darrell Hammond (above, as Al Gore) to sweeten his Florida doc. Schechter's program aimed to promote outrage. (Photo below by Globalvision.)

Florida elections official ponders a punchcard.

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To Current's home page
Outside links: Silverman's "Who Counts?" website; Silverman's chat on Washingtonpost.com; Globalvision's "Counting on Democracy" website; ITVS's site for the same doc.

Web page posted Nov. 25, 2002
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