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CBS News Chief Takes Blame for Bad Calls


WASHINGTON — The head of CBS News has accepted blame for erroneously predicting victory in Florida for Vice President Al Gore on election night and then calling the entire contest for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, explaining that the decisions were based on bad information from exit polls and a computer malfunction in one county.

"We were as good as the information we were getting from sources we trusted," CBS News President Andrew Heyward said in a letter to Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications panel.

"In this case, that information was not good, and neither were we."

That letter, as well as letters from five other news outlets, was released Tuesday by Tauzin's office. The congressman wrote to the organizations after the election, saying he was "greatly dismayed" by their misleading calls and requesting detailed responses. Heyward's letter was by far the most explicit in suggesting causes. The networks are conducting their own investigations into the fiasco, although none has been completed. On election night, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox and Associated Press all projected that Gore had won Florida around 5 p.m. PST. Later, all six news outlets took back the projection.

In the wee hours of the morning, the television outlets--but not Associated Press--called the election for Bush and later retracted the projection, saying the race was still too close to call.

The news organizations relied on information from Voter News Service, a consortium of the organizations. The VNS data came from interviews with voters as they left the polls and actual vote counts from precincts.

VNS uses statistical models to project outcomes in the presidential and Senate races, and the data are fed to the six news outlets.

Heyward wrote that CBS reversed its call for Gore after it "discovered that exit poll precincts in the Tampa area had overstated Mr. Gore's lead in Hillsborough County and that, furthermore, the tabulated vote in Duval County was most likely wrong."

Later, he said, what "appears to be a very significant computer error made by the Volusia County Elections Department" led to the network's decision to call the election for Bush. Heyward declined to discuss the situation Tuesday evening.

"I'm going to let the letter speak for itself," Heyward said, stressing that CBS News had not released it.

ABC also sent Tauzin a detailed response, disputing his assertion that the early projections in Florida could have deterred voters elsewhere from going to the polls.

"This year in particular, the outcome of the presidential election remained entirely uncertain during the approximately two hours that ABC projected that Vice President Gore would prevail in Florida," said an attachment to a letter from ABC News President David Westin.

NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin explained why her network's response had not been more extensive.

"We are committed to understanding what went wrong and to fixing it," she said. "We'd like to make a thorough review before we comment further on preliminary findings."

VNS spokesman Lee C. Shapiro declined to respond pending the conclusion of an extensive investigation.

While accepting responsibility, the news organizations defended themselves against Tauzin's suggestions that their mistakes may have reflected bias.

"I state categorically there was no intentional bias in the election night reporting," CNN Chairman Tom Johnson said in his letter to Tauzin.

Tauzin plans hearings in January to explore the cause of the news agencies' mistakes and whether they reflected bias.

"Did the networks simply make an honest mistake, or was the rush to be first more important in their minds than the responsibility to be right?" asked Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.

He said Tauzin's panel will consider pressing the networks not to call a state until all polls and precincts are closed.

"We do not intend to pursue legislation that would infringe on the media's 1st Amendment rights," Johnson said. "This is not a witch hunt."


Times staff writer Elizabeth Jensen in New York contributed to this story.

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