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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

ABC News Acts to Avoid Election Gaffes

November 23, 2000|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Based on a preliminary review of its election night miscalls, ABC News blamed competitive pressures and bad exit poll information for the errors and released guidelines Wednesday for future elections that the network said would correct some of the problems.

One change ABC plans is not letting the employees making projections see a television set, so they won't know what their rivals are doing.

Like other networks, ABC twice incorrectly projected the outcome of the presidential vote in Florida, ultimately declaring Texas Gov. George W. Bush the president-elect before backtracking and deciding the state was too close to call. Fox News Channel was the first to declare Bush the winner, while ABC was the last of the major TV news outlets to do so. The bad projections are expected to be the subject of congressional hearings early next year.

The projections were based partly on exit poll information from Voter News Service, a network and Associated Press consortium. "Based on what we've seen so far, we think that the errors made on election night were some result of a combination of errors in the data provided by the Voter News Service and the inappropriate reaction to competitive pressures," said ABC News President David Westin.

Westin said that, although the ABC News decision desk is separate from the control room and newsroom, employees have been able to "see who's calling what, when. It's understandable why they're curious," but ABC needs to have its projections "uncontaminated by competitive pressures."

Westin said no personnel will be reprimanded for the election night problems, noting, "These were honest mistakes . . . and they were humbling to all of us."

Other changes ABC announced include not projecting the winner of any state until all of the state's polls are closed. In the past, ABC News, like competing networks, has pledged only to refrain from projecting a state's winner until the vast majority of the state's polls have closed.

Such a practice doesn't address calling Eastern states before polls close in the West. ABC said it continues to support a uniform national poll closing time.

ABC will also make clearer on air that it is only making projections. Over the years, Westin said, "We've fallen into the trap of using short-form in describing our projections. In fact, a projection is not the calling of a race."

Finally, ABC will support the appointment of an outside expert to review VNS. "Clearly, there were data problems," Westin said, adding that he believes ABC News is better off devoting resources to making VNS "the best it can be" than funding a competing polling operation, as some have suggested.

Other networks are conducting their own reviews. NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin said NBC "has for many years supported uniform poll closing" and also supports appointing outside experts to review VNS operations. CBS declined to comment, noting its review is still underway.

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