TV news has egg on its face but still resists real change

The television networks always knew what they were doing with their exit polls and voter projections. They had heard for years that they were engaged in a reprehensible rush to claim to know voting results even before ballots were counted.

For their own reasons, they went ahead. Their self-confidence, never exactly limited, continued to grow. They disdainfully rejected criticism. They dismissed out of hand the pleas from states — particularly Washington and California — for self-restraint.

What a fall the networks took on election night. From arrogance to abysmal error. In attempting to mind read rather than report the choices of Florida voters, the networks made the mind-boggling journey from wrongly proclaiming the state had chosen Al Gore to uncertainty to wrongly proclaiming the state had chosen George W. Bush to days of uncertainty.

There were apologies and expressions of humility. Yeah, right. The networks have no intention of doing what they should. They ought to allow the whole country to finish voting before they make any election projections.

And then they ought to act in a journalistically responsible fashion to report results as results. If they wish, they should use analyses of the voting patterns to make assessments of the likely outcomes. But analysis ought to be delivered as analysis, not as a report of a voting result.

That is first-year journalism material. It’s about living up to the most basic ethical concepts of reporting. Anybody understands that, either in journalism or the public.

Heck, Dan Rather even spelled out the obligation on the air early Tuesday evening. As the Miami Herald noted, he delivered a bit of frank talk: "Let’s get one thing straight from the get-go. We would rather be last in reporting returns than be wrong. If we say somebody’s carried the state, you can take that to the bank."

And then Rather and everybody else went off and did just the opposite of what they had promised. Delivery on promises of accuracy will have to wait until the next major election. Obviously, though, if there is a will, there is a way to be more accurate.

Unfortunately, however, the networks have no intention of committing themselves to withhold their election projections until after the national voting is complete. Over the years, they have consistently turned a deaf ear to the West Coast’s pleas.

The networks insist that there is no evidence that projections reduce voting. As the West Coast experienced in 1980, however, voting dropped dramatically after President Jimmy Carter conceded defeat based on network projections. And common sense argues beyond doubt that an authoritative-sounding prediction will discourage some people from voting.

For two decades, the West has been unable to bring the national political parties to seriously support us against the networks. Perhaps the massive national confusion that the networks caused on Election Night — the puzzlement extended right up to George W. Bush and Al Gore — is a sign that the West might have a real audience this time. A congressional subcommittee could hold hearings on the issue as early as this week.

The networks have voluntarily agreed not to make projections about a single state’s election outcome while that state is still voting. They are so arrogant that they even violated that pledge in Florida by projecting results before the state’s upper panhandle had finished voting. The TV megamonsters could just as well refrain while a single nation — theirs, isn’t it? — is still voting. Why should the Midwest and the West have to listen to the TV anchors’ phony awards of victory in East Coast states?

The networks don’t want to restrain themselves. But after their infamous rush to judgment last week, they ought to be told to treat the whole nation with more respect.

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