Magazine article Insight on the News

Election Reform: Is It All for Show?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Election Reform: Is It All for Show?

Article excerpt

Tune in the "just-folks" wagon master of network news, Dan Rather, nattering on Capitol Hill about the awful election performance by CBS: "Let's get one thing straight right from the get-go: We'd rather be last in reporting returns than to be wrong." At which, the Washington Times reported, "laughter erupted in the packed hearing room."

As everyone in the known world is aware, it wasn't only CBS that ran the train off the tracks by twice getting it wrong in calling results of the presidential election in Florida. And Congress being Congress, there had to be a dog and pony show in the recent hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A fervid cast of pols emoted before the cameras in advance of testimony by executives from the various TV networks and remarks by Rather and that other star-class presenter, NBC's Tom Brokaw ("Good grief," Brokaw said boyishly. "We don't just have egg on our face, but omelette all over our suits").

Perhaps the most pungent expression of the debacle by the TV news lads and lasses is in an after-action report commissioned by CNN: "On Election Day, 2000, television news organizations staged a collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy, recklessly endangering the electoral process, the political life of the country and their own credibility, all for reasons that may be conceptually flawed and commercially questionable."

The report hired for CNN was done by Ben Wattenberg, syndicated columnist and savvy chronicler of American hijinks; Joan Konner, former dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism; and James Risser, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was unsparing.

CNN deserves tepid applause for its response. The network said it would junk exit-poll projections in close races, but close races only. Exit polls have become the equivalent of medieval alchemists sweating to turn base metals into gold. CNN also said among other things that it would not project state winners in races with less than a 1 percent margin. The other networks have (sort of) pledged remedial measures.

The problem will endure, however, because competition is the Holy Grail of network news, which translates into ratings that translate into big bucks. As sure as a pup piddles, the hydra-headed TV-news industry is likely under the salvo of the next battle to go for the gold.

The stumbles and fumbles of the presidential election -- not just by the newsbiz and not just in Florida -- reflect a clear need for procedural stability in the vital exercise of an open society. …

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