- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

A House committee yesterday reprimanded news media executives for their Election Night coverage, but said investigations showed there was no intentional bias in calling Florida early for Vice President Al Gore.

A congressional inquiry and self-examination by the major television networks, the Associated Press and the Voter News Service (VNS) shows fault rests with a "flawed and biased" model used to project winners, said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Mr. Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, said the model developed by VNS to conduct exit polls and project election outcomes "overstated Democratic [support] and understated Republicans."

"The good news is we discovered no intentional slanting of this information," Mr. Tauzin said.

The news service is owned jointly by ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC as a cost-saving measure to collect and disseminate vote returns.

The erroneous call was a result of "the convergence of a number of anomalies," including faulty exit polling and underestimating the number of absentee ballots cast, said Ted C. Savaglio, VNS director.

Rather than basing the model for a statistical comparison on the 1996 presidential race, VNS used the 1998 Florida gubernatorial election which was a mistake, Mr. Savaglio said.

Executives testifying for each organization conceded embarrassing mistakes were made on Election Night and that the mistakes threatened networks' credibility.

The hearing began with a 10-minute video of the Nov. 7 Election Night coverage and miscalls by the major networks, beginning with CBS news anchor Dan Rather.

"Let's get one thing straight right from the get-go: We'd rather be last in reporting returns than to be wrong," Mr. Rather said as laughter erupted in the packed hearing room.

"What the network giveth, the network taketh away," NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said after retracting the network's call for Mr. Gore.

"Good grief. We don't just have egg on our face, but omelet all over our suits," Mr. Brokaw said.

Executives from each organization told the committee they had hired outside media consultants to review their performance and recommended guidelines for future Election Night coverage.

Mr. Savaglio said VNS is pursuing numerous improvements, including a larger sample size of exit polls and polling of absentee voters, rewriting the projection model and referring to AP's tabulated vote as a second source of information.

The media and several committee members agreed a uniform poll-closing time should be established to remove concerns that early election calls in the East influence how votes are cast in the West when polls are still open.

However, media executives cautioned House members against crossing the line of government oversight and intruding on the media's First Amendment rights.

"We agree that there were serious shortcomings call them terrible mistakes in the election reporting from Florida of Nov. 7 and 8 and that these mistakes cannot be allowed to happen again," said Louis D. Boccardi, AP president.

"But fixing them is a job for the nation's editors, not for its legislators. What we report and when we report it are matters between us and the audience we try to serve. They are not matters between us and our congressman," Mr. Boccardi said.

Meanwhile, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri announced that Democrats were breaking a pledge with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, to form a bipartisan committee to examine voting irregularities during the 2000 election and instead had formed a special Democratic Caucus committee on the issue.

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