- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

Media chiefs had to answer in front of Congress for the melee that was election coverage this year. As media heads well know, the conflicting reports regarding voting tallies created a confusing backdrop for what would become the most contested presidential race in American history. The Gore team was later able to leverage the media-born confusion to cast doubt on President George W. Bush's victory.

More importantly, however, the flawed coverage of the election appears to have significantly affected the actual outcome of the race. "Coverage of an election ought to be reporting the news, not making it," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Republican of Louisiana, at a House hearing on Feb. 14. Mr. Tauzin noted that early calls of a Gore victory in Florida (and most likely, therefore, the race), prompted many would-be Bush voters to stay home. According to Yale University Law School senior research scholar John R. Lott Jr., an analysis of the voter turnout from 1988 to 2000 shows the Republican vote rate was 4 percent lower than expected, which could have equaled roughly 10,000 votes in the area.

And just why were some voters so predisposed to throw in the towel? "Take it to the bank," said CBS' Dan Rather of the reported Gore win in Florida. Later, Mr. Rather put just as much certainty in the premature call for a Bush Florida victory. "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 the wall. George Bush is the next president of the United States."

Given these inauspicious beginnings, it is no wonder that the fight for the presidency became so acrimonious. Indeed, it was not just Mr. Rather, but every major network and cable news outlet that had to recant its election report not once, but twice.

The impact these errors in reporting caused the country, in undermining public trust and affecting voter turnout, is incalculable. Unfortunately, some media heads were uninclined to demonstrate the appropriate remorse. Louis D. Boccardi, president and chief executive of the Associated Press, could hardly bring himself to characterize the election fiasco a "mistake" and took a rather adversarial position with legislators. "We agree that there were serious shortcomings call them mistakes; I do in the election reporting of Nov. 7 and 8, and that these mistakes cannot be allowed to happen again," he said. "But fixing them is a job for the nation's editors, not its legislators."

Mr. Boccardi sounded rather like a culpable but defiant teenager, instructing his parents to get off his back. But Congress never said it would "fix" the media's glaring inaccuracies and Mr. Boccardi seemed to overlook the media's civic responsibilities. Given the media's serious errors in reporting the nature of the Dec. 13 Supreme Court decision, which invalidated any election-vote recount, Mr. Boccardi's pledge to be more careful in the future seemed unconvincing. CBS, for example, initially reported that the court's decision did not "deliver the presidency to George Bush" and suggested Al Gore's efforts to contest the election could continue.

It is hoped the public at large has learned a lesson. The electorate naturally needs the media to stay informed and engaged. But intrinsic biases are as unavoidable as human error. The American public must always question what it hears on the television and reads in newspapers. As the election coverage so aptly reminds us, no "news" can be regarded as definitive.

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