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Hearing Puts Network Chiefs on Defensive

February 15, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The heads of the nation's largest television news networks, called to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to account for errors in their reporting of presidential election results, were forced to watch a videotape of the night's most embarrassing moments and listen to hours of testimony detailing their mistakes.

The network chiefs, joined by the president of Associated Press, waited in hard-backed chairs for more than five hours before they could explain themselves and bring a charge of their own--that the five-week battle over Florida's votes would have happened even if they had gotten it right.

"Millions of votes are thrown out in election after election. Now there's a story, there's a screw-up," said Andrew Lack, president of NBC News. "I just ask respectfully that you extend your focus beyond not just the problems the media had on election night, but the problems voters had on election day."

After taking their places at the witness table in the hearing room of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the men who run ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox News and AP bristled when they were sworn in before testifying.

The president of Voter News Service, the polling organization whose faulty data led the news organizations to make two premature calls of victory in Florida, also took the oath.

A visibly uncomfortable Louis Boccardi, head of AP, said he didn't feel it was necessary to be sworn in. He also protested being called to Washington, saying fixing the mistakes was "a job for the nation's editors and news directors, not legislators."

Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, said that "with or without a swearing-in photo-op we will hide nothing."

Despite the nearly eight-hour hearing, there was little new to add to the results of internal investigations the organizations have already released about the night's errors.

As they did in their reports, the news executives expressed embarrassment and pledged changes to improve coverage. In the future, they said, they will not declare victors in states where polls are still open--as they did in Florida. The state has two time zones.

But under harsh questioning about the accuracy of exit polls, the executives all said they planned to continue using them in projecting races.

"To manage for zero risk," said ABC News president David Westin, "is not to be a journalist, it's to be a historian."

Westin, Ailes, Lack and Boccardi as well as CNN's Tom Johnson and CBS' Andrew Heyward all said they were reevaluating their shared ownership of VNS, but believed that with adjustments it would continue to be an important tool in covering elections. They also expressed support for a universal poll closing, which would eliminate the problem of races being called on the East Coast while polls in the West are still open.

In earlier testimony Wednesday, Ben Wattenberg, a former journalist and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the networks' support of the universal poll closing was "in the mode of 'Stop me before I kill again.' "

The hearing proved less explosive than seemed likely when it was first called by Rep. W.J. (Billy) Tauzin (R-La.) in the middle of the Florida recount. Tauzin, the committee chairman, last week said he was taking allegations of political bias on the part of the networks "off the table."

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