- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2001

Politicians often read the Constitution the way W.C. Fields approached the Bible — looking for loopholes, not guidance. Apparently the last time Louisiana Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin read the First Amendment, he noticed it said only that Congress “shall make no law” abridging the freedom of the press. Nothing explicitly states that Congress can't bully, harass, coerce and abuse the press — so that's what Tauzin's Energy and Commerce Committee did last week.

The occasion was a hearing on how the news media handled the events on election night, when an extremely close race and imperfect projections combined to create terrible confusion. The networks first called Florida (the decisive state) for Gore, then for Bush, and then for neither. Some newspapers published editions proclaiming Bush the winner, a conclusion that was not exactly wrong, just five weeks premature.

No one looked more ridiculous than CBS News anchorman Dan Rather, who lifted his usual Martian weirdness to new heights with the pronouncement, “Sip it. Savor it. Cup it. Photostat it. Underline it in red. Press it in a book. Put it in an album. Hang it on a wall. George Bush is the next president of the United States.”

All this was mortifying to journalists, who carry the same burden as baseball umpires: They're supposed to be perfect their first day on the job, and then get better. It's safe to say that editors and reporters at every major news organization, particularly the TV networks, have spent a lot of time in the last few months trying to ensure that they never make this kind of mistake again.

But just in case they'd forgotten the unhappy episode, Tauzin and Co. dragooned several news executives to appear on Capitol Hill, forced them to sit through a video presentation of all the screwups, made them testify under oath, like common criminals, and lectured them on how to do their jobs. The five TV networks had to send prominent representatives, as did the Associated Press, to serve as targets of the inquisition.

Tauzin claimed he was doing this for the news organizations' own good: “We would defend your right to do it wrong if you really want to, but how can we help you get it right?” Fred Upton, R-Mich., was less generous. “America wants fairness and accuracy,” he announced, “and sadly, we didn't see a lot of it on Nov. 7.” History will not record if Steve Buyer, R-Ind., was actually wagging his finger when he informed the news people, “You invite this when such huge mistakes are made.”

Being instructed on fairness and accuracy by a member of Congress is a bit like being tutored in hygiene by a buzzard. Telling the truth, which is the cardinal rule of journalism, is something that politicians tend to do only when it's convenient.

The erroneous projections, in any case, were not lapses in “fairness” — even Tauzin admitted he saw “no evidence of intentional bias.” The mistake was anything but “huge”: According to the final count certified by Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the gap between Bush and Gore amounted to less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent. Voter News Service, which did the exit polls for the election night projections, says that since its creation in 1990, it has been correct 99.8 percent of the time. That's closer to perfect than House Republicans have been.

The real problem with this election was not that a system created by journalists failed to identify the winner within hours but that a system created by politicians couldn't do so for more than a month. It wasn't Dan Rather who installed voting machines that disenfranchised Floridians by the thousand. Tom Brokaw bears no responsibility for the butterfly ballot that somehow induced mentally competent Jews to vote for Pat Buchanan.

When news organizations mess up reporting an election, the American people are momentarily misinformed. When elected and appointed officials do a lousy job administering an election, the fate of the republic hangs in the balance for weeks on end.

Some members said quick projections from polls that had closed in the East discouraged people in later time zones from bothering to vote. In that case, there is a simple remedy: Establish the same closing time for polls everywhere. The Associated Press, I might note, can't do that. Congress can.

As private citizens, Tauzin and his colleagues have every right to complain about the performance of those who bring them the news. What they have no business doing is using the power of government to push journalists around. The news executives did object to the show trial. But none of them had the nerve to refuse to participate at all, or to tell the committee members the two things they really needed to hear: (1) Heal thyself, and (2) Get lost.


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