- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Television coverage of election night as we have known it crashed last night. Viewers got what they've been saying they wanted.
Voter News Service the consortium of newspapers, television networks and the Associated Press that supplies the stuff of voter analysis announced at 5 p.m. that it could not guarantee the accuracy of its data and would not distribute results of state and national exit polls.
"We may be projecting winners, but it won't be off exit polls," said CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield. "We'll use sample precincts and real votes."
Aaron Brown, the moderator from across the table, said: "This is what people have wanted for a long time."
Perhaps. But election night was changed. Many Americans went to sleep last night not knowing who won some races even when offered 44 hours of coverage on six networks. For once, TV was not the be-all and end-all of election night, though the talking heads repeated, and repeated and repeated, what they did know while waiting for the actual returns.
The talking heads on all the networks were more cautious than usual.
"These numbers don't tell you a bloody thing. But we will project a few wins here," observed Fox News' Brit Hume while reporting on the New Mexico races around 9 p.m.
CBS' Anthony Mason said an hour later, "Caution is the motto of the night."
It was a return to a previous era when reporters and citizens alike stood by to wait for each ballot to be counted by hand. There were no media pontiffs pronouncing winners prematurely and the bombast was not based on anecdotal VNS data, which typically includes voter opinion polls and group voting patterns, but based on whatever the pundits could retrieve from memory and data banks.
And a little creative interpretation, perhaps.
Gesticulating with a pencil, CBS' Dan Rather described two races as "tight as a tick" and "tight as the pages in a book."
Later, he wondered aloud whether the election returns represented "the Bushification of America."
Fellow anchor Bob Schieffer, meanwhile, categorized yesterday's resignation of Securities and Exchange Commission head Harvey Pitt as "the first shake-up of the Bush presidency."
In past years, the extra information has provided a kind of cushion for broadcasters with lots of airtime to fill. Last night, they used the dramatic last-minute disclaimer to get gutsy as the evening wore on.
"We're in it for the long haul, all night if we must," Fox News told viewers.
But it was also a chance to plug newfound honesty and polling prowess. In the last week, the networks publicly swore off exit polls and vowed they would call no winners before polls closed. Election night would be a showcase for "old-fashioned reporting" and "getting it right not first." MSNBC editor in chief Jerry Nachman called it "a race to be second." Some networks forewarned viewers they might not have all the results by night's end and touted their own polling apparatuses, which primarily tracked close races across 10 to 12 states.
Rick Davis, CNN's vice president for news standards and practices, issued a severely worded memo warning his staff to be careful. If races were uncomfortably close, CNN correspondents were instructed to say, "We don't have enough information to know how the race is going."
"CNN editorial policy strictly prohibits reporting winners or characterizing the outcome of a contest in any state before all the polls are scheduled to close in every precinct in that state," Mr. Davis decreed.
Projections could be made in races when the polls closed, but only if winner and loser were separated by at least eight percentage points. "For extremely close races, CNN will rely on actual votes collected at the county level," he said. "There are races CNN will not project on election night. CNN will not make a projection if it looks like the final winning margin is less than one percentage point."
Still, things got a little unusual at CNN toward midnight. Left-leaning pundit James Carville appeared with a trash can on his head, which remained there for the duration of his appearance.
"And when, oh, when can he take it off?" fretted Judy Woodruff, who later added, "We're sitting here with our mouths open," when news came that Sonny Perdue had been elected governor of Georgia.
Last night's humbling announcement from VNS was the latest and maybe the final chapter of a morality play that began election night 2000. Faulty data from VNS, incomplete election results, partisan underpinnings and stubborn competitiveness led networks to false and hasty conclusions two years ago. News readers rushed to announce Al Gore had won the presidency, only to retract it and begin an election impasse that dragged on for weeks.
VNS was accused in the Florida aftermath of monopolizing election night. The debacle forged a new reality for election coverage, with VNS catching most of the blame. Over the past two weeks, the service reconfigured their computers but to no avail. Flaws became apparent, causing VNS to bow out of the picture by sunset yesterday.
Some election habits are hard to break, however. Broadcasters spun their wheels, waxed nostalgic, shouted, repackaged old material and trotted out experts, including historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who appeared on MSNBC last night. The network was touting its programming as "fiercely independent coverage."
Miss Kearns, once a regular contributor to the PBS and other cable channels, had been keeping a low profile after she conceded that she had plagiarized material for her book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys."

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