Some in Congress felt obligated to bring the heads of ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, and The Associated Press to Capitol Hill this week to explain in greater detail what went wrong the night of Nov. 7, and what they're proposing to do to prevent the blunders of that evening from happening again.
Each of the networks stepped up to the plate, albeit reluctantly, to admit their mistakes in prematurely predicting a presidential winner, and each had lists of positive adjustments that will be made.
Their testimony revealed, among other embarrassments, a violation of a fundamental journalistic principle: support the facts with at least two credible sources.
Unfortunately, the rush to be first collided with reliance on a single source, the Voter News Service (VNS), a consortium owned and operated by these networks. Other sources were available, noted an independent report commissioned by CNN - the AP's own election data, and official returns.
But the rush to get the news out prevailed. The networks' collective calling of Florida votes first for Gore, then for Bush, and then "too close to call" was the result of the kind of intense competition that can lead to inaccuracy and confusion, and possibly influence voters who haven't yet gone to the polls. The networks created the Voter News Service to save time and money. What they, and the American people, got for this cost-cutting measure is now a part of history.
Exclusive use of VNS resulted in a harrowing breadth-for-depth compromise, proving VNS's inadequacy in close races. Now the networks have agreed to put more money into repairing outmoded VNS prediction models and outdated VNS equipment. CNN has committed to also using an additional similar service; other networks should do the same.
Moreover, the networks made commitments not to project winners until all the polls are closed in a state. CNN went further - "or when balloting shows less than a 1 percent margin between candidates," and to use exit polls "ONLY to project a winner in races with a large margin, along with a second source for the data used to make projections on election night." That's a level of specificity other networks should be willing to produce.
For its part, Congress should not pass legislation that would violate constitutional rights - either of states, to conduct elections, or the media.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society