No bombshells drop at House hearing

Feb 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The hearing into the press coverage of election night 2000 produced no big, blaring headlines or defining moments.
That was the consensus in network news circles, where the day after produced relief mixed with a swizzle of puzzlement that Feb. 14’s House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, which had been born of high-octane rhetoric after the botched coverage of the close election, had gone nowhere new.
Indeed, the most notable shift was in the apparent end of threats to walk away from Voter News Service, which is funded by the major network news organizations and The Associated Press, which all share the exit-polling data and vote tabulations the service produces.
Fox News, NBC News and CNN at various times since November seemed to have one foot out the door and to be primed to seek an alternative to VNS.
On Feb. 14, the news executives sounded less inclined to bolt and more inclined to spend what it takes to fix VNS.
A spokesman for Fox said the next day, “We’ve explored several options. Fixing VNS seemed the most cost-efficient.”
The news executives waited in the wings on Valentine’s Day for several hours of sometimes academic testimony from statisticians and ancillary experts who had been asked to identify the problems with the way VNS and the networks collected data and made their calls and to recommend ways to prevent similar problems in the future.
You had to be that rare recipient of C-SPAN 3 to see this portion of the hearing presided over by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., because the all-news channels were focused on the sexier House hearing into former President Clinton’s pardon of fugitive Marc Rich.
Finally, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC turned to the election hearing at nearly 4 p.m. (ET), when the panel of news CEOs took their seats at the hearing table next to Ted Savaglio, the former CBS News executive who’s now the director of VNS; and Dr. Murray Edelman, the executive director of VNS: Louis Boccardi of The Associated Press, David Westin of ABC News, Andrew Heyward of CBS News, Tom Johnson of CNN, Roger Ailes of Fox News and Andrew Lack of NBC News.
Each, in his own way and in turn, took issue with the “investigatory” nature of the inquiry into what they considered territory protected by the First Amendment, but each, having wrestled earlier with the question of whether to give testimony under oath, agreed to be sworn in.
“I think they all had come to terms with the fact that if they did [not take the oath], that would become the story,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
“They were eating crow. They were eating humble pie,” Ms. Cochran said.
Each of the networks had already gone public with explanations of what had gone wrong and what would be done to prevent a recurrence.
Mr. Westin, who displayed little need for notes, lived up to the advance buzz coming out of the committee that he was the most prepared. And there seemed to be little appetite for crow even on the committee’s side of the table, according to people who watched from inside the hearing room and on the all-news TV channels, which had bailed out well before Mr. Tauzin’s hearing concluded and gone back to their usual lineups.
Being forced to wait five hours to testify worked to the news executives’ advantage, said one alumnus of both Capitol Hill and Network Row.