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Media to clean up election coverage without lawmakers

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From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.

From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.

Three months after the nation twice watched television networks call a winner in the presidential election, only to later recant the decisions, a House of Representatives committee chairman scolded networks’ executives in front of a congressional committee.

Rep. W. J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), now head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, had been promising a congressional hearing about the networks’ election night coverage since mid-November.

“This is not a witch hunt,” Tauzin wrote in a letter to the networks in December. “We are not out to prove a point or to make a political statement. We simply want to learn how such a biased result was obtained and so, once again, we urge your full cooperation into this inquiry. Rest assured, we will — in all respects — continue to be mindful of your First Amendment rights.”

Executives from CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, The Associated Press and Voter News Service made the trek to Washington, D.C., on Feb. 14 to discuss a myriad of accusations against the media over election coverage.

Tension between Republicans, Democrats and the networks was obvious from the beginning of the hearing. The networks’ First Amendment rights became the first subject of debate as network executives said Congress was attempting to meddle in their business.

Louis Boccardi, president and chief executive of The Associated Press, acknowledged the networks’ mistakes, but said fixing them is a job for the nation’s editors and not its legislators.

“What we report and when we report it are matters between us and the audience we try to serve, not matters between us and our congressman,” Boccardi said during his opening statements. “To put it more plainly, we believe that such an official government inquiry into essentially editorial matters is inconsistent with the First Amendment values that are fundamental to our society.”

Tauzin reiterated his promise that there was no intention to infringe upon the networks’ rights but stood by his opinion that serious problems plague the nation’s news coverage.

“I will fight to the death to protect your right to do it wrong if you want to continue to do it wrong,” he said.

Some of the executives also complained that the swearing-in process at the hearing was merely a photo-op to make the networks look bad. The news chiefs were not the only objectors to the swearing-in process. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said swearing in the news executives gave an aura of unlawfulness and a “criminalization” of the newsgathering process. He cautioned that the committee should not elevate the hearing to the level of the tobacco or Firestone hearings.

Some Democrats, such as Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), criticized the hearing because, as he claimed, it would deflect attention from a more significant problem — an election system that disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters.

“When will Congress ask the right questions to get the right answers?” he said. “When will we have a congressional investigation, a congressional hearing, on the issue of those who were denied the right to vote?”

Fox News Executive Roger Ailes defended his network’s hiring of John Ellis, a first cousin to then-candidate George W. Bush, as a part of its four-person decision desk. Fox News was the first to project Bush the winner in Florida, a move quickly followed by all the networks but not by The Associated Press. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) suggested the networks adopt a policy against hiring candidates’ relatives, a proposition that was denounced by some witnesses called to testify.

Ben Wattenberg, one of three co-authors of an internal election night report for CNN, called Sherrod’s idea “preposterous,” and said employees should be hired on their merit and qualifications, and not disqualified because of family ties.

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) said in a press release issued the day of the hearing that he intends to introduce legislation requiring news organizations to publicly disclose if they have hired relatives of the candidates. The bill has not yet been introduced.

The idea of playing favorites re-emerged with the subject of the networks’ alleged political bias. The week before the hearing, Tauzin retracted an earlier accusation that the networks showed a political bias on election night and instead placed the blame on “flawed data models” and “biased statistical results.”

Paul Biemer, a statistician who testified on behalf of Research Triangle Institute, a non-profit contract research organization in North Carolina, agreed that exit polls produced by Voter News Service, a consortium created in 1993 by the six news organizations to provide exit polling data and actual voting results, tends to skew the results in favor of Democrats because he said Democrats are more likely to stop and talk to interviewers.

Fox’s Ailes said, “When Republicans get approached when they come out of the polls, they tend to tell you, ‘It’s none of your business,’ but Democrats want to share their feelings.”

There was very little new information introduced by the news executives during the nearly eight-hour hearing, due to extensive internal investigations that the news organizations already had conducted.

Reiterating reports they had given the committee, the network executives and the AP vowed not to call a state for a candidate until all the polls in that state had closed, eliminating the possibility of again making an early call in a state such as Florida, where a part of the panhandle is on Central Time while the rest of the state is on Eastern Time. Tauzin offered up his own solution to the time problem by introducing a bill that would institute a nationwide uniform poll closing time of 9 p.m. EST. All the news executives said they supported this proposal. (H.R. 50)

All the networks agreed to refrain from using exit polls in close races. Some independent studies of the networks, as well as some politicians, suggested dropping exit polling altogether, but the networks dismissed the idea because exit polls have played an important roll in election coverage.

The future of VNS remains in limbo after the release of the networks’ reports and the hearing. Every network said it would not renew its contract with VNS unless it made significant changes to “ensure the accuracy and integrity of its data,” as the NBC report said. The networks promised to help finance a second competing source of election data to avoid the problem of relying on only one source.

The networks cited the immense pressure of competition as one cause for the hastily made calls.

Joan Konner, co-author of the CNN report, said “hyper-competition among the networks led to a breakdown in the core mission of journalism — to serve the public.”

*

FCC dismisses election complaint

The Federal Communications Commission also fielded complaints about the television coverage.

Smithwick & Belendiuk, a District of Columbia law firm which represents communications companies before the FCC, raised similar concerns in a complaint filed with the FCC on its own behalf and not for a specific client, shortly after the election. The complaint urged the commission to make a formal investigation into whether the networks knowingly or recklessly made erroneous calls on election night.

The FCC dismissed the complaint on April 3, saying “the mere fact that the networks incorrectly projected that Al Gore would receive Florida’s electoral votes is not a sufficient basis to initiate such an investigation.”

Arthur Belendiuk, a partner in the firm, said they filed the complaint out of specific concern about what happened this time, whereas he said the congressional hearing centered around what the networks would do differently in the future.

“I’m not sure you want to leave the networks unregulated in this area,” he said. “Are they free to do the same thing again? Do you think they should be? These are rhetorical questions every voter has to ask.” — EH