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Citing ‘bias,’ lawmaker vows to hold networks accountable for erroneous election-night calls

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8.

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8.

By Rebecca Daugherty

Television networks must account for their early and erroneous projections in the presidential election, Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), then-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on telecommunications, trade and consumer protection, ordered in mid-November, promising a hearing in December or January on network “bias.”

Those dates passed. Florida’s votes were awarded to Tauzin’s candidate, George W. Bush. And, in the new 107th Congress, Tauzin is chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee. However, Ken Johnson, Tauzin’s spokesman, said in late January that the congressman plans to hold the hearings before the committee. They were set for Feb. 14.

Johnson said that oversight staff from the committee had interviewed the Voters News Service in New York but had not issued its report. VNS is a consortium used by the networks, the Associated Press and 100 other organizations to actually conduct exit polls.

Tauzin said research by a Yale researcher may show that as many as 10,000 voters were discouraged from filing their votes by the early projections.

The congressman pointed out that network executives in 1985 agreed, in a promise to Congress, not to broadcast exit poll numbers from any state until most polls in that state had closed. He also noted that subscribers to Voters News Service had agreed contractually to the same restriction.

In an editorial, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Jay Bookman criticized Tauzin for “talking about hauling journalists before a congressional committee and forcing them to justify the content of their reporting.”

The television networks for a brief time also faced a lawsuit to enjoin them from making early projections in future races, but the parties dropped the lawsuit.

Tauzin said he wanted the hearings to examine “bias” in news coverage of Nov. 7. He said early projections for Gore came much sooner than projections for candidate Bush, that the early projections discouraged voting in places where the polls were still open, and that the networks need to explain whether their “bias” was “intentional or unintentional.”

Tauzin claimed, for instance, that in nine states there were delays in predicting electoral votes for Bush where Bush won by at least 6 percentage points, but that there were no delays in any state that Vice President Al Gore carried by 6 percentage points.

He wrote to each of the networks and to VNS. He asked them detailed questions about how they made and announced their projections on election night.

Before 8 p.m. on Nov. 7, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, ABC and the Associated Press called Florida for Gore but began to retreat from those projections two hours later. In the early morning hours of Nov. 8, the networks — but not AP — called the race for Bush but retreated from that projection later in the morning.

In letters promising a full examination of the issues, the networks were uniformly most concerned that they had erroneously called Florida for Gore, that they were forced by the error to later renege on that call, and that finally, in the early morning of Nov. 8, they called Florida for Bush, a call that was to prove premature. All networks promised Tauzin internal investigations.

By late January, CBS had completed its report on what went on the air.

CBS said that although there is intense competitive pressure among news organizations to call states for a candidate, there is little evidence of a “domino effect” of calling a state automatically for a candidate after other networks have made that announcement. CBS ascribed mistakes not to competitive pressure, but to a “complicated set of circumstances that convinced the analysts they were on solid ground.”

It attributed the Gore call to factors including vote tabulation errors in the precincts, underestimation of the absentee vote, some sampling error, and distortions of the time of reporting. It concluded that the CBS news desk could not have known about these problems. However, it also concluded that its second call, the premature call for Bush could have been avoided because it was based on a combination of faulty tabulations entered into the total Florida vote. The network also explained faulty estimates and assumptions that led it to call and then retract a projection for New Mexico for Gore (ultimately the correct call) and another in Washington state for senatorial challenger Maria Cantwell (ultimately the winner).

CBS said it, not VNS, is ultimately responsible for making the calls it made, that it analyzed the data and made the calls.

But it delineated “lessons learned” in “this extraordinary election.”

Many factors affected its ability to make a correct call, according to the internal report. Votes were improperly entered into a computer; precinct workers incorrectly copied or misread ballot tallies. Butterfly ballots caused mistakes. Ballots were lost. There were voting machine errors and other mechanical problems.

VNS either could not or did not correct for these factors, CBS reported. It relied upon models and methods that had been very dependable in the past but that “came up short” this time.

CBS strongly denied Tauzin’s charge of bias. It charted its calls and showed that of 29 states where the final margin was 10 points or more, CBS News called 15 at poll closing for Bush and 11 for Gore. In three states, races showed closer at closing time than they did later and the network did not call them immediately for Bush. It also noted that Bush actually won all the states in which races differed by 6 to 9 points, states in which it did not immediately project a winner

CBS asked Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, to also examine its election coverage and comment in its report.

She said the mistaken call of Florida did not lead Dan Rather to suggest the election was over. He only assumed that the win by Gore in Florida made him viable and the race close. Faced with this information, Republicans and Democrats in the West presumably would be motivated; they would believe that their votes would count and that they would be more inclined to go to the polls.

A lawsuit to enjoin the announcement of exit polling results in future elections was quickly withdrawn.

The Committee for Honest Politics, an Indianapolis-based group with strong ties to the Republican Party, sued the networks and Voter News Service, which conducted many of the exit polls for the networks, on Nov. 14 in Okaloosa County, Fla., in the state’s panhandle, asking that they be enjoined from predicting future elections until polls close.

In the 10 minutes before polls closed in the Central Time Zone in Florida the networks had projected that the state had gone for Gore based on exit polls in the Eastern Time Zone where most of the state’s population resides.

The Committee sued on behalf of a voter who actually cast his vote but believed that because of the projections it was ineffective. It withdrew the lawsuit two days later. (Simmons v. Hallorn)