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Election impacts media issues

Nov 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Voter News Service has to work in 2004.
There is consensus on that among the members of the consortium-the news divisions of ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and the Associated Press-that oversees and funds the complicated mechanism for vote counting and outcome projecting and exit polling on election days.
Ask VNS board members to look beyond the presidential election of 2004 and the future gets cloudier for the 9-year-old VNS, which had to be overhauled after it contributed to multiple media miscalls in 2000 and flunked a crucial mid-makeover road test Nov. 5.
The VNS board is scheduled to meet Thursday to hash over reports outlining exactly what went wrong on Election Day this year, when exit polling was declared unreliable and halted by mid-afternoon, and on election night, when vote tabulation bogged down after a new multimillion-dollar computer system froze up as data from precincts poured in.
“The biggest disappointment was that we fell short in our processing of the tabulated vote,” said Ted Savaglio, the former CBS News executive who has been executive director of VNS since 2001. “That’s not to say that was a complete failure.”
Vote tabulation “was the No. 1 priority, and if all else failed we wanted to be able to deliver the unofficial tabulated vote,” Mr. Savaglio said. “We tested those processes and the input extensively and were confident going into Election Day that we would be able to do that. As the polls closed and we started taking in the calls from our county reporters, all of that was working very well and we were very happy with it until we reached a point in the evening, close to 9 o’clock, when the load issue, the screen use and input of the data placed such a stress on the database that the input part of the system that was taking in the tabulated vote essentially froze.
“From that point on things went from one thing going wrong on to another. The ability to take in the input was impaired, and then it came back again, but you would have had people in the field who were trying to call in but they were getting busy signals, those kind of things. Those were basically load-related.”
If the lurches in the vote tabulation caught VNS members by surprise, the exit-polling component of the new system created by Battelle, a nonprofit technology company, had set off so many warning bells and whistles-“The nervousness about it was enormous,” said Cokie Roberts, the ABC and National Public Radio political analyst-that the networks had quickly assembled their own backup polling machinery at the last minute.
It was the high cost of doing such proprietary and duplicative fact finding that led to the creation of VNS in 1993.
Network executives last week seemed evenly divided if not ambivalent on whether the belt-and-suspender approach-backing up VNS efforts with their own polling-is too costly to become business as usual, keeping in mind that the VNS preparation for this national election already cost, according to unofficial estimates, $8 million to $12 million.
One news executive said bluntly that if the networks are “stupid enough to use VNS only, then we deserve to have problems.”
Weighing the payoff
Another fears that at some point “the bank is going to break on this as audiences fracture. It’s a huge effort and it’s time-consuming. It’s risky. I think we’re fine through 2004. We’ve already invested enough in it that you wouldn’t want to walk away. But after 2004, you really have to ask yourself: Do we really want to do this? Do we really want to pay this much money to be first, which seems to have relatively little value anymore. It used to be in the age of three networks that you could build your reputation in the political year or on an election night and the conventions. It’s really hard to do that now in a world that’s filled with outlets.”
Exit polls serve a number of purposes ranging from being a fix for political junkies to being a line of demarcation between the information haves and have-nots to being a treasure trove of textbook context and nuance. In between there is more immediate value to knowing how or why 25,000 citizens cast their votes, and thus, where to focus attention as the prime-time wrap-ups are planned.
“There is a news management issue,” said Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News.
“The culture within the network and within the political world was not prepared for all the practical and psychological effects of not having the exit polls,” he said. “The very small number of us who were following this all along and knew that there was a possibility that we wouldn’t have access to all the material we’ve had in the past were prepared. But the network at large and the people we cover at large, who of course find ways somehow to obtain these and react and plan off them during the day, that wider community was not prepared.
“So the journalist in me had to waste a lot of time during the day dealing with the implications of that internally and externally. The political junkie in me was fascinated by the sort of petri dish experiment of, What if they held an election and no one brought the exit polls? Because most people involved now have either never known anything else or [have] grown accustomed to it or addicted to it.”
Ms. Roberts, who as the daughter of the late Hale and Lindy Boggs was born into politics, conceded the appeal of “the juice” of the game but passionately defended the value of a VNS-size national exit poll in the short term-“It allows you to debunk so much baloney” from political spinmeisters on election night-and in the historical long term.
“I spend weeks and really years poring over the internals of those [exit surveys] because they’re by far the best polls we ever have,” Ms. Roberts said.
“Face the Nation” moderator Bob Schieffer, who concedes he enjoyed being able to fly on archival gut instinct Tuesday night, believes that an otherwise poll-wary and poll-hardened public tends to tell the poll truth on Election Day, and, “I think that is information that is really valuable that we missed.”
Maybe not.
The paper questionnaires filled out by the thousands of VNS pollsters are routinely mailed to VNS offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We are in the process of evaluating whether or not we can somehow process these questionnaires and release some of the data,” Mr. Savaglio said.
Explanation due
Explanations of what happened Nov. 5 are due early this week from Battelle, which did not respond to a request for comment, and VNS, whose executive director adamantly denies any suggestion that VNS members have resisted ponying up what it takes to fix VNS.
“I don’t think anybody could say it’s a question of money,” Mr. Savaglio said. “The board committed to what was needed to accomplish this goal, and it was a significant amount of money. We talked about that in the aftermath of 2000, and the fact is that the budgets have gone consistently up and the networks have been willing to fund what was necessary for VNS to provide its service.”
He gets an enthusiastic ditto from George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton aide who now moderates ABC’s “This Week.”
“I say let’s get it done and let’s get it right,” he said. “We need it. Not to be first with announcing who’s won when you don’t have the final results. I think it was in some ways more comfortable to report on Tuesday night without that. But we need it to understand what really went on on Election Day.”
NBC’s Tim Russert, whose “Meet the Press” leaves all other Sunday newsmaker shows in the ratings dust, said, “The biggest loss is for history” if paper-borne exit-poll data is unusable, although he noted that “Democracy lived for 150 years without” exit polls, and he confessed it was fun to dust off the eraseboard that became his signature tool in 2000. “Just write down the states that are critical and wait for the raw vote to come in” the way it was done in the old days, before computers digested running totals and coughed up projections before all the votes were in.
The go-slow environment created by the snafus of
2000, when it took more than a month to sort out the presidential outcome in Florida, contributed to some of Mr. Russert’s favorite moments Tuesday night, when tight races stretched election coverage well into Wednesday morning and beyond.
“You would be waiting for results to come in, and VNS would say it’s too close to call, and then you would look up and see a candidate conceding,” Mr. Russert said. “OK, it may be too close to call but she’s saying goodnight.”