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Networks answer to Congress on election night coverage

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting         Feb 15, 2001    

Networks answer to Congress on election night coverage

  • During a congressional hearing, the networks walked a line between apologizing for their mistakes and expressing anger about government interference in the news business.

Following months of national criticism for mistakes during election night coverage, network news executives relived the experience during a congressional hearing Feb. 14.

Executives from CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, the Associated Press and the Voter News Service were called to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to answer questions about exactly what happened on the evening of Nov. 7, 2000, when networks announced presidential winners in a number of states, and declared George W. Bush the next president early the next morning, only to later recant their projection because of faulty data. The hearing began with a video compilation from the networks’ election night coverage assembled by the staff of the committee chairman, Rep. W. J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.).

Two of the news executives questioned the appropriateness of the hearing and said it overstepped First Amendment bounds.

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.

Tauzin said there was no intention to infringe upon the networks’ First Amendment rights.

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

Roger Ailes, Fox News network chairman and CEO, said he was “deeply disappointed” that Congress was handling the issue as an investigative matter and not as a fact-finding matter.

“I am further disappointed that this committee views its role as adversarial, requiring us to take an oath as if we have something to hide,” Ailes said about requiring the news executives to swear to tell the truth. “With or without a swearing-in photo op, we will hide nothing.”

The news chiefs were not the only ones to express disgust over the swearing-in process and the hearing in general.

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.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) urged Congress to focus on the problems of the election process in general and not just the problems with the media’s coverage of the election. “When will Congress ask the right questions to get the right answers?” Rush asked.

Much of the testimony focused on the networks’ reliance on exit polls and the flaws in the VNS system of conducting the polls.

“I believe the queen of spades should sit in front of VNS,” Markey said. “The news anchors don’t have PhDs in statistics. VNS failed them.”

All the network executives said they would no longer use exit polls to call close races and would discontinue using VNS, a consortium created in 1993 by the six news organizations to provide exit polling data and actual voting results, unless changes were made to reduce the problems experienced in the past election. They also said they would finance a second source of exit polls to confirm VNS data.

While Tauzin recently retracted his earlier accusations that the media intentionally showed a liberal bias in first calling the election for former Vice President Al Gore, he said during the hearing that he thought VNS models produce a statistical bias in favor of the Democrats.

The idea of playing favorites emerged later in the hearing when the members explored the hiring by Fox News of John Ellis, first cousin of 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. As a remedy, Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) suggested the networks adopt a policy against hiring candidates’ relatives.

Ben Wattenberg, one of the three co-authors of an internal 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.

Ailes said Ellis, who spoke several times election night to both candidate Bush and his brother Gov. Jeb Bush, acted as “a good journalist talking to his very high-level sources.”

Some legislators expressed concern that early calls discouraged people from voting in the western panhandle of Florida or other parts of the country.

A few news executives rebutted by citing the lack of hard evidence that their early calls affected voting.

Tauzin introduced legislation to create a uniform poll closing time across the country and asked the networks to voluntarily resist projecting winners until 9 p.m. EST. In a concession, all the networks said they will refrain from calling a state until all the polls in the particular state have closed.

The hearing came after each network had conducted an internal investigation into the procedures followed on election night and released a report of the findings and plans for improvement. Along with depending on only one source of data and relying on flawed exit polls, the networks cited the immense pressure of competition as cause for the hastily made calls.

“Television news organizations staged a collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy, recklessly endangering the electoral process, the political life of the country and their own credibility,” according to the CNN report.

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.

EH


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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