YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


In Networks' Race, the Public Is the Loser

Media: Again calling an election before it's over, they put their own interest ahead of nation's.

November 10, 1996|FRED SMOLLER | Fred Smoller is an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, where he teaches courses on the media

The rules that govern broadcasting in this country say that the television networks, in exchange for their use of publicly owned airwaves, are supposed to "serve the public interest." Despite this, the networks called the winner of the presidential race several hours before the polls closed on the West Coast.

The last time this happened was the 1980 Carter-Reagan race. The result was that large numbers of Democrats stayed home, especially after President Jimmy Carter conceded, altering outcomes of races further down the ballot, it has been argued. This time it is the Republicans, such as Gov. Pete Wilson, who are calling for Congress to prohibit the networks from predicting the winner of the next presidential election until all the polls are closed.

But we all should be outraged by the networks' decision to put their self-interest (that is, their need for high ratings and their commitment to horse-race coverage) ahead of the public interest by interrupting the democratic process.

No medium loves the presidency as much as television. None devotes as many resources to chronicling the rise and fall of presidents. Unfortunately, most people weren't very interested in the campaign this year. About 20% fewer viewers tuned in to the first presidential debate than watched in 1992, the ratings for the conventions were a disaster, and voter turnout fell to 49%, a 62-year low. Tuesday was the last chance to pep up a lackluster presidential campaign by being first to announce the winner. The thinking here is that the network that is first is best, and therefore will attract and capture the largest viewing audience.

The networks also have a lot invested in reporting the campaign results before they happen. The survey research centers, replete with computers, statisticians, analysts and exit pollsters, have been practicing for months. In a tight race, the networks would have been able to call the winner sometime after all polls closed and before the midnight hour, thus allowing us all to get a good night's sleep. The problem was that President Clinton won big and fast, so the networks were faced with a dilemma: Should they keep quiet and risk being beaten by the competition or should they announce the results of their exit polls as soon as possible, despite the impact on turnout. Their decision to announce confirms that their primary allegiance is to profit, not citizenship.

The curious thing about this is that the networks, especially following the 1988 campaign, have received a steady drumbeat of criticism by voters, media analysts and from members of their own profession for doing more harm than good to presidential campaigns. Some improvement was noted in coverage of the 1992 election with a decline in the horse race aspect and with greater emphasis on issues. The decision to call the presidential race before the polls close, along with the little fit thrown by Ted Koppel this summer because the Republican convention was too well organized for his liking, suggests that the networks still don't get it.

Los Angeles Times Articles