Column: Networks not taking their share of the blame

One of the overlooked factors in the Florida electoral mess that we've been suffering was how and when national television networks chose to interpret their own exit polls.

But instead of taking responsibility for their rush to judgment, the networks quickly blamed Voter News Service, the networks' own exit polling consortium.

VNS was established by the networks in 1990 to conduct election exit polls and, apparently, to serve as a scapegoat for bad decisions by network news executives.

In a recent article, Washington Post polling director Richard Morin explained how the networks got it so wrong on Election Eve. According to Morin, Fox News used VNS exit poll data at 2:16 a.m. EST Nov. 8 to declare that the Republican candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, had won Florida. Ironically, Bush was anointed by John Ellis, who headed the Fox "call desk" and just happens to be Bush's first cousin. Other networks quickly followed suit but less than an hour later, they reversed course and put Florida back in the undecided column.

Earlier in the evening, however, the networks had called Florida for Democratic Vice President Al Gore, thereby affecting final results in Florida and several other close states. In their unseemly haste to be first, they made the call for Gore even before polls had closed in the western Florida "panhandle," which includes the capital, Tallahassee. And that was three hours before polls closed in Nevada and the West. So who's to blame for this electoral debacle?

The Post's Morin puts the blame squarely on the networks. The Florida mess, Morin wrote, "was an inevitable consequence of a decision by ABC in 1994 to go out on its own to make election calls. Prior to that time, VNS had been responsible for all calls on Election Night, which were reported by the networks.... By 1996, each network had in place a decision desk staffed with statisticians, political scientists and consultants in service to a single dubious end: be the first to call the winners of state and national races."

And that's what the networks did on Nov. 7-8, throwing Florida and the rest of the nation into electoral turmoil.

Morin's solution to this problem is for the networks "to dump their decision desks and make VNS solely responsible for making all state and national Election Night calls." No one would be permitted to make early calls under the threat of losing their access to VNS data. And if this makes VNS reluctant to call elections before the last vote is counted, so be it.

And finally, Morin says news anchor Peter Jennings should "admit on behalf of ABC that the network was wrong six years ago to start this rush to judgment that culminated with the humiliating Bush call. Order him to apologize effusively for any damage done to the political process.... Now that would be must-see TV." Would it ever! But it's never going to happen because the networks are hyper-competitive and they would hide behind their First Amendment freedom to report the news.

After the erroneous election night calls, veteran newsman Tom Rosenstiel of the Los Angeles Times questioned the relationships between journalists and the politicians they cover. Although he used Bush cousin John Ellis as an example of this conflict-of-interest problem, he might have used others such as former Clinton confidantes Dick Morris and George Stephanopoulous, now working for Fox and ABC, respectively. Or former Bush administration Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, who is at NBC. How can these people be objective in their political coverage and commentary?

"Journalism is becoming a subsidiary to larger corporate interests such as ABC inside Disney, or Time Inc. magazines inside AOL," wrote Rosenstiel. "The biggest threat of the information revolution is that we could lose journalism as an honest referee of the public square on behalf of citizens."

Rosenstiel said journalistic credibility depends on "the idea that a journalist puts citizens first - ahead of party affiliation, shareholder equity, advertiser preference or the boss' whim." That's what I learned at the University of Washington Journalism School 40 years ago, but I fear that ethical standards have slipped since then.

As far as the mess in Florida is concerned, it's high time to wrap it up and declare a winner. It's not our fault, nor the fault of state election laws, if the confused voters of Palm Beach County couldn't follow the arrows. Stupidity is no excuse. They had their chance and they blew it; better luck next time. In the two local precincts I worked on Election Day, we had only four spoiled ballots among 400 voters. We put the cancelled ballots into an envelope and issued new ones to solve the problem. Easy.

Al Gore's proposed "compromise" was no compromise at all because it would have permitted Democratic election officials to hand count votes in three heavily Democratic counties until they achieve the desired result - a Gore victory.

Wisely, Gov. Bush rejected the Gore plan outright. After this weekend's final count, Gore should concede graciously and gear-up for his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. I can hardly wait.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, lives and votes in Carson City.



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