The Big Mistake [News Coverage of Election 2000]

A 2001 article from the Columbia Journalism Review… blogging it because one of my journalism courses this fall will focus on election coverage.

What’s sure is that TV’s election night practices are in for
significant reupholstery well before the 2002 races. Several networks promise
they’ll project winners in the future only when all polls have closed in a
state, not just a majority of them. ABC intends to advise viewers that projections
are “informed, statistically based estimates” of the probable outcome of elections,
not definitive declarations. They’ll also remove television sets from the
proximity of their decision desks so that analysts feel less pressured to
make hasty calls.

Beyond that, legislators — mostly in the person of congressman
Billy Tauzin, Republican of Louisiana — have been scrutinizing TV’s election
night performance. Tauzin says he won’t sponsor any bill aimed at preventing
exit polls or limiting vote projections — legislation which, in any case,
would clearly affront the First Amendment. He and a Democratic congressman,
Ed Markey of Massachusetts, are introducing legislation to require the fifty
states to close their polls at the same moment — an often-proposed idea that
would force drastic changes in the way TV news handles projections.

Despite the mistakes, gaffes, and embarrassments, or perhaps
because of them, election night 2000 attracted the most households and viewers
to TV screens since Nielsen began keeping such records with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon
cliffhanger. The late-night host Conan O’Brien joked that the networks were
so thrilled with the ratings that they plan to call all elections incorrectly
from now on.

The public’s loss of trust in television news, however, was
no laughing matter. In a CNN poll 79 percent of Americans said the networks
did not act “responsibly” on election night. In future close elections, will
most viewers believe what the networks tell them? How long will it take to
regain their confidence? Why serve up quick-draw projections at all, since
the public isn’t clamoring for them? Is it really worth each network’s paltry
saving of $5-$10 million per election cycle to cede to a single entity so
much influence and discretion? Or, contrarily, should the networks dismantle
their individual decision desks and delegate a reconstituted, better funded
VNS to make all projections, but in a more cautious, unhurried, less frenzied,
and non-competitive mode?