Under pressure and under oath

Feb 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Facing congressional scrutiny, network news division chiefs testified last week that they are prepared to abandon the beleaguered Voter News Service, which fed them inaccurate data on election night, if it can’t correct its problems and get back on track.
CNN News Group Chairman Tom Johnson reaffirmed network plans to develop a second source of information for election results in states with tight races so it does not have to rely solely on VNS.
ABC News President David Westin said his network is considering adding a backup source as well. News division heads for CBS, NBC and Fox said they’ll pursue alternatives if VNS isn’t revamped.
VNS is a consortium of the Big 4 network news divisions, CNN and The Associated Press.
The promises were among the many concessions the executives made at an all-day Feb. 14 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on election-night reporting errors that may have affected voting in some states.
“We will remain with VNS if, and only if, significant changes are made,” Mr. Johnson said.
“We will fund a backup system in states expected to have close races.”
The officials also agreed to no longer report election returns in a state unless all polls in that state have closed.
And they expressed unanimous support for legislation, offered by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that mandates a nationwide poll closing time to eliminate the possibility of network projections affecting ongoing voting, particularly in the West.
They further pledged to provide more context and clarity to viewers about whether their reporting is based on solid returns or inconclusive projections derived from exit polls.
The Markey bill, co-sponsored by panel Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., received endorsements from several members of the committee.
Meanwhile, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., pressed NBC News President Andrew Lack about allegations that Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of parent company GE, instructed Peacock Network officials to declare George W. Bush the winner of the election.
Last Friday the lawmaker asked the network to provide a copy of a tape allegedly made by employees in NBC’s advertising and promotions department of Mr. Welch telling the network to declare Mr. Bush the victor.
“I can state categorically that it’s just a dopey rumor,” Mr. Lack testified. “I was aware that Mr. Welch was there. He was in the building. I think it’s unfortunate that some rumors got started because he observed our election process that night.”
Rep. Waxman’s Chief of Staff Phil Schiliro said: “We’ve been trying to figure out whether this was an urban myth or a blatant example of inappropriate interference. We hope it’s urban myth.”
He said the public has a right to know if a network is using the airwaves, which are licensed by the government, to broadcast election returns that were influenced by the head of its parent company. The committee could decide to subpoena a tape if one exists.
The TV news executives hinted at discomfort with Congress meddling in the affairs of journalists but were careful to avoid strong words or confrontations because many of them have, or may someday have, business interests pending before lawmakers.
“We come here today voluntarily,” CBS News President Andrew Heyward said. “The Constitution does protect us from unwarranted interference by the government, but we-like you-are accountable to the most important constituency in America: the citizens of this great nation.”
But Associated Press President and CEO Louis Boccardi, whose news agency is less likely to need Congress anytime soon, was more blunt.
“Fixing [these problems] is a job for the nation’s editors and news directors, not its legislators,” said the executive, who refused to cooperate with congressional investigators preparing for the hearing.
Rep. Tauzin said his goal is to assist the news media with its voluntary efforts to correct its problems and not to infringe on the constitutional rights of journalists.
“We would defend your right to do it wrong if you really wanted to,” he said, eliciting a chuckle from the crowd.
Some witnesses and Democrats chafed at the investigatory style of the proceeding, which required executives to testify under oath.
Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was “deeply disappointed” that the witnesses were forced to take an oath “as if we have something to hide.”
Said Rep. Markey: “There’s kind of a criminalization of the news media here. We should avoid confusing this with the tobacco hearings or the Firestone hearings.” Congressman Tauzin said the oath was necessary because the panel was in a “fact-finding mode.”
The Louisiana lawmaker urged the network witnesses to reduce their reliance on exit polls, suggesting research shows they’re not reliable.
“As one of the networks told me, `Garbage in, garbage out.”’
Nevertheless, all the networks plan to continue using exit polls, but Fox, CNN and ABC will scale back their use of such data.
Rep. Tauzin said media outlets, by relying on VNS data, underestimated Bush’s vote tally in 32 states but only underestimated Gore’s success in 15 states.
Meanwhile, they overestimated Gore’s vote tally in 34 states but only overestimated Bush’s lead in 15 states.
Joan Konner, a professor and dean emerita at the Columbia School of Journalism and co-author of a CNN-commissioned report evaluating the network’s election coverage, said the media shouldn’t rely on exit polls to project elections. Exit polls should only be used to evaluate poll results after an election has occurred, she said.
Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said exit polls are almost worthless because they fail to adequately account for absentee ballots and other factors.
Defending the approach was Paul Biemer of the nonprofit Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, which was recently contracted by VNS to review the service’s procedures.
“I think the exit poll component can be valuable to call states with a wide margin,” he said. “We shouldn’t be throwing out the exit poll because we’re not getting some other component-the absentee ballot-right.”
Ms. Konner disagreed with the Republicans’ claim that the networks’ projection of a Gore victory in Florida dissuaded GOP voters from casting ballots in Western states.
“There is no evidence to show that any early projections [ever] impacted the outcome of an election,” she said.
The news division chiefs expressed regret for the embarrassing election-night blunders and vowed to put more money into VNS to correct what lawmakers say is a “statistical bias” in its election models favoring Democratic candidates.
Echoing the views of the other executives, ABC’s Mr. Westin said the network “failed twice,” first with botched declarations about Florida and then with the call for the election.
“Make no mistake about it, we were embarrassed by these errors,” NBC’s Mr. Lack said. All of the networks will continue to use VNS, however, as long as it can be improved.
“Our Florida flip-flops were deeply embarrassing to us,” added CBS’s Mr. Heyward.
Republicans tried to position the hearing as a nonpartisan examination of TV coverage irregularities that can-and have had-devastating consequences for Democratic and GOP lawmakers alike.
“This was a problem of the ’70s. This was a problem of the Kennedy-Nixon election,” Rep. Tauzin said.
In the ’80s, he noted, the TV networks were quick to predict presidential victories for Ronald Reagan, dissuading some Democrats in Western states from casting ballots. That hurt not only the Democratic presidential candidates but members of their party seeking local and statewide offices.
But Democrats last week, while expressing concern about the TV coverage, complained the hearing was motivated by politics and ignored more critical election problems, such as confusion over some ballot designs and reports in African American communities of voter intimidation.
Mr. Lack jumped on the bandwagon, imploring the committee to extend its
inquiry into the many voter-related problems that occurred on Election Day.
One reason for Democratic suspicions: The GOP side expressed no concern about the role played by Fox News consultant John Ellis, a first cousin to George W. Bush, on election night. Mr. Ellis advised the network on its projections and made the decision that Fox should declare Mr. Bush the overall winner.
Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown of Ohio urged the first panel of witnesses, made up of academics and researchers, to agree that relatives of candidates should not be employed by the networks as election-night consultants.
The witnesses disagreed, saying individuals should be hired on their merits and not barred from such positions because of familial relationships.
VNS Executive Director Ted Savaglio emphasized that the service is usually accurate and that its errors, while regrettable, have come under scrutiny because the election was so close. Noting that VNS has analyzed nearly 900 elections since 1990, he said, “The methods that we use to project winners in those races have only been wrong once before. In other words, we have been right 99.8 percent of the time.”
The networks were forced to confront their own words during a 10-minute video montage, prepared by the committee, of news anchors on election night promising viewers accurate reporting.
CBS News anchor Dan Rather said his network would prefer to be last instead of getting something wrong.
“If we say someone has carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank,” he said.
Rep. Tauzin reiterated that his panel has discovered no evidence of intentional bias by the networks to favor the Democrats on election night.
The executives took umbrage, nonetheless, that such a concern had even been raised and they categorically denied there is bias of any kind in their news gathering and reporting.