WASHINGTON — Americans have become so absorbed in this tight presidential race they seem to have forgotten how the TV networks messed things up on election night.
By mistakenly projecting an early Gore victory in Florida, the networks may have brought about this long post-election nightmare. Had this call not been made, the Bush vote may have swelled considerably by voters in the heavily Republican panhandle of Florida, where the polls hadn't yet closed. And if Bush had then been ahead by a few thousand votes, instead of a relative handful, there might not have been a Gore challenge. Maybe, maybe. I've covered enough elections to know that voters quickly decide not to go out and vote when they hear their candidate has already lost.
The TV network vote projectors were just as painfully unfair to the vice president. Later that evening the anchors were giving the presidency to George W. Bush, leading Al Gore to call Mr. Bush with a concession. Indeed, Mr. Gore was only minutes away from making a public concession on TV when his campaign manager, Bill Daley, saved the day for him with the information that he was catching up with Bush in Florida.
I'm outraged that we let television intrude on our election process in this way. Television obviously brought about a couple of distortions which could, or perhaps did, change the outcome.
But I'm also outraged that the public seems to have so quickly turned the page.
In the early aftermath of the election I wrote the TV anchors who made these calls were not sufficiently repentant. I had noted that they were stunned and embarrassed, but they were putting the main finger of blame on the organization that did the exit polling and made the projections for them. They tried to explain how the glitch was made. And they pointed out, repeatedly, how accurate these projections had been in past elections.
But, I wrote a week after the election, "These anchors owed an apology to the American people for messing up their election. And I never heard it."
Since then I heard one of these anchors make an apology to the public. But it wasn't enough for me. It was an apology for a mistake and not the kind of apology these TV networks owe us all: They should apologize for intruding on us voters with early calls that even when they are correct (and I concede that they usually are) should have no place in our elections.
I've made a point of bringing this subject up with a number of people since the election. The response has gone like this in every instance: "Yes, wasn't that awful? I hope something is done about that."
But when I ask what they think should be done, the answers are along this line: that the mechanism and process for making these election calls should be improved. No one suggested that TV should keep its nose out of the process.
Some I talked to were fellow journalists who quickly reminded me that the First Amendment was involved.
Well, of course. And I'm not suggesting that there should be legislative curbs on the networks. What I think is called for is for the TV networks to police themselves and apply restraints that will make it impossible for such destructive glitches to occur in the future. I think there is only one answer. There should be no "calls" on the outcome of elections until every poll has closed.
I only wish there was more public outrage on this matter.
Oh, yes, there are congressional hearings scheduled for a probe into TV's errors on election night - and for a report on how they could be corrected. Maybe something good will come out of this.
But I think it will just be blah, blah, blah and soon forgotten (until we get some more dreadful election calls four years from now) unless the public somehow gets stirred up about it and insists on changes. But again, I don't see that needed public outrage.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society