In a cavernous warehouse on SW Second Avenue in downtown Fort Lauderdale, the newest media farce began Monday. About 20 reporters and, of course, their accountants began perusing Broward County's uncounted presidential ballots. The count, which will eventually spread like a swarm of badly dressed locusts to every county in Florida, will take months.

The bad news: The result is sure to confuse everyone involved.

The good news: The process is likely to be as delightfully partisan, crammed with conflicts of interest, and downright ugly as the Supreme Court's censoring of the recount, which decided the election in favor of Shrub Jr.

Representatives of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and most of the nation's other major media sat down with Broward's ballots Monday and Tuesday. Not New Times, though. At the county's rate of $300 per hour, this party was too rich for our taste. Besides, it's easier to sit around and gripe. So on the first day, we watched as just 424 of the 6600 undercounted ballots were inspected. At that rate the process will take 16 days in Broward alone. Consider that this procedure will be repeated in all of Florida's 67 counties, and you have an idea of the magnitude of the undertaking. Then there's the fact that, after work ended Tuesday, Brow officials suspended the count two weeks for Christmas.

Can you say, "Forever"?

Undercurrents' favorite nasty comments came from Clay Lambert of the Palm Beach Post, who, looking at the other reporters in the room (who included a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners), commented, "They're not the first string, you don't see the first-string names here. They're probably not even the second string." He didn't stop there, though. He had to attack the competition, assumedly Sun-Sentinel staffer Jeremy Milarsky: "The Sun-Sentinel reporter isn't here. He sort of wandered in sheepishly and asked if the pool was going to publish numbers. They'll probably run a story about how irrelevant this is."

Indeed Tuesday's news stories on the count were full of chest-beating and self-aggrandizing details (though Milarsky's story was just fine, thank you). Consider this: Dexter Filkins, a former Miami Herald employee now reporting for The New York Times, phoned Martin Baron, a former Times editor who is now top dog at The Herald, for a comment. If Tuesday's stories in the Times and The Herald were any indication, Baron lied to his, um, competitor. Though Filkins' Herald source apparently told him the paper "was negotiating with an accounting firm to assist it in tabulating ballots," an unusual letter from Baron to readers on The Herald's news pages that day described a complicated deal involving his paper; its parent firm, Knight Ridder; and BDO Seidman LLP, "one of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the country."

"I was surprised to see [the Times story] myself," Baron commented Tuesday. "I talked to Dexter in the afternoon, and we put the finishing touches on the contract at 7 p.m. (Even if Baron is telling the truth now, there's an appearance of deceit.)

Perhaps more interesting was the soapbox Baron chose for explaining The Herald's attempt to give an unbiased account of the count: a signed letter from the editor. The newspaper has used the strategy before, during hurricanes and redesigns, but rarely to explain the way it was covering a news event. "There's been controversy," Baron explained. "We wanted to go to some length to describe exactly what we were doing and how, so there would be no confusion."

It didn't work. On Tuesday afternoon Mark Wallace, an attorney representing the Republican Party of Florida, was apparently mystified. At a press conference outside the warehouse, he accused The Herald and its accountant of "misrepresenting the inspection as a recount." Then, as a flock of squawking monk parrots flew overhead, Herald reporter and columnist Beth Reinhard responded, "If you look at our score sheet, nowhere does it say a dimple equals Gore. We don't use the word recount."

And if those election controversies aren't enough for you, try the one that erupted this week in Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine, over a story by Sun-Sentinel reporter Steve Freiss. Freiss wrote a November 8 Sentinel story about the flawed Palm Beach County ballot, then left the newspaper four days later to work as a copy editor for the China Daily. On December 12 he authored a story for E&P about his exploit. "I knew my byline was gracing one of the stories of the year," he wrote. Ten Sun-Sentinel reporters responded by letter to E&P, terming Freiss' piece "self-serving" and "selective memory­ driven." Others broke the story at the same time, they argued. "Perhaps the next time you're confronted with an obviously self-congratulatory account, you might consider making a phone call or some other attempt to verify its accuracy," the SS-ers wrote.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse