Waxman still seeks NBC election video

Aug 6, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Election coverage issues were back on the front burner last week.
Turning up the most insistent heat was Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who ratcheted up a 6-month-old campaign to get internal videotape from NBC that might prove rumors that Jack Welch, the chairman of NBC parent General Electric Co., might have “interfered with NBC’s 2000 election results.”
Rep. Waxman first raised the subject in February during House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings on election-night coverage snafus, particularly those that led to multiple miscalls and missteps by the networks on the outcome of the presidential contest.
At the time, Andy Lack, then president of NBC News, said under oath, “I don’t know if there is a tape for you to look at.” But Mr. Lack also told Mr. Waxman, “You’re certainly welcome to the tape.”
Mr. Lack has since maintained that Mr. Welch did not exert any undue influence, thus no such tape exists and it would be inappropriate to share internal videotape with the government.
“As far as we are concerned, this matter has now been brought to a close,” Mr. Lack wrote in a July 31 letter to Rep. Waxman.
The congressman fired off a four-page response Aug. 2 in which he declared that if his request is not met by Sept. 4, “I will be required to seek other means of compelling” NBC to turn over videotape.
To issue a subpoena, Rep. Waxman would need the backing of Rep. Billy Tauzin, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who has said he does not intend to issue a subpoena.
Meanwhile, network news organizations responded in very measured terms to a new proposal to dictate when national election results can be reported.
A bipartisan National Commission on Federal Election Reform, headed by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, issued a sheaf of wide-ranging recommendations, including one that would restrict the reporting of national election results until 11 p.m. (ET), which would mean no national races would be called or projected until polls in all 48 contiguous states had closed.
While NBC News characterized the commission’s report as “thoughtful and detailed” and deserving of study, other TV news organizations largely referred back to pledges they made after the 2000 presidential election not to call races in any state until its polls have closed.
“I think we’re very comfortable sticking with the changes that were announced” last winter, said a spokeswoman for CBS News. “They’re intelligent changes. They’re logical changes. We believe they will go a long way to preventing problems.”
On the record, network news organizations also pointed out that they have supported and will continue to argue for a uniform poll closing time (a prospect that “seems such a Draconian step,” the commission wrote).
“If so adopted, CNN will not make any projections until all the polls are closed nationwide,” the 24-hour news network said in a statement.
Only off the record would the networks even allude to dicier issues raised by any move by a branch of government to impose restrictions on election reporting, which “would seem to be a violation of the First Amendment,” said one network news executive.
No one was ready to raise the constitutional flag yet, though the subject of the commission’s report is certain to come up at the next (as yet unscheduled) meeting of the news executives who direct the Voter News Service, the consortium that had come under such fire during the election 2000 controversies.