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National Perspective | Update

TV's Election Night Errors Still Ignite Partisan Rancor

February 13, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY and ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — When a congressional committee grills the heads of the five largest television networks Wednesday about their error-plagued coverage of presidential election results, this much will not be in dispute: The networks screwed up.

Just about everything else about election night will be in dispute.

Although committee Republicans have billed their inquiry as bipartisan, emotions still run deep along party lines.

Whose candidate did the premature calls of victory in Florida--first for Democrat Al Gore and later for Republican George W. Bush--damage more?

Republicans argue that the networks' early call for Gore reflected a built-in statistical bias in the exit polls shared by the networks to project the winner. And making that call 10 minutes before polls closed in the Florida Panhandle, they maintain, discouraged Republicans from voting there and in other states where the polls were still open.

Democrats will focus on the networks' later, but still premature, decision to give the state to Bush. That put Gore on the brink of publicly conceding the election--he already had made a concession call to Bush--and contributed to a widespread perception that the subsequent recount was an effort to snatch the election from Bush.

More generally, Democrats have expressed dismay that the first and so far only congressional hearing into the controversial election is not on voting but on television coverage.

"I think it is absolutely weird that the first thing that the U.S. Congress is looking at regarding the closest election in any person's memory is not the fact that they didn't count votes," said Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Democrat from Pembroke Pines, Fla.

The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), called the hearing during the Florida recount to look for media bias. Last week, he softened his language, saying he believed that statistical rather than political bias favored Democrats.

The hearings' stated purpose is narrow: to ask top news officials and the director of Voter News Service, the organization that provided exit polling data and election projections to the networks, what went wrong.

Internal reports issued in the months since the election detail how the networks declared--and then retracted--victory in Florida for Gore and then Bush. The networks' consensus: They should not have called the election in Florida for Gore, nor should they have called the race in Florida for Bush early the next morning when a check of other news reports and the Florida secretary of state's Web site would have shown a race so tight that an automatic recount was likely.

In both instances, individual investigations into the coverage by ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox News, as well as VNS, have concluded that the decisions to call the race were based on data that proved wildly inaccurate as actual votes were tallied.

An outside analysis of VNS' numbers that night revealed that members of the media consortium that used the data believed the earliest projections meant Gore would win in Florida by about 6 percentage points when all the votes were counted. Later in the night, VNS projections gave Bush a 6-point lead, and all the networks called the state for him. Network analysts believed they could make that call with confidence because VNS numbers erroneously showed that too few votes were outstanding to make up the difference.

Neither projection proved close. In the end, Bush won Florida--and as a result the presidency--by an official margin of 537 votes out of 6 million cast.

Although the original call for Gore, which was based on exit polls and statistical models, has been widely viewed by Democrats as a true reflection of voter intent, network executives say that is not the case.

"It's an urban myth," said one senior network executive who asked not to be named. Even if all undervotes, overvotes and other disputed ballots were given to Gore, he would have won by no more than 30,000 votes out of 6 million cast, which the executive called "statistically not discernible in an exit poll."

Conversely, Democratic lawmakers say that, beyond anecdotal accounts, it is impossible for Republicans to prove the early call for Gore cost them votes in the Panhandle--a battle cry for Bush supporters during the 37-day recount.

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