- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Broadcasters have not forgotten Florida. Television networks are vowing that their election night coverage will be reliable and accurate, untainted by premature analysis or the siren call of exit polls.

Getting it right rather than first is the collective mantra for Nov. 5.

"We'll be exceptionally careful about reporting results. Exit polls are interesting, but it's the accurate vote count we're interested in," Fox News executive political programming producer Marty Ryan said yesterday.

On history's longest election night two years ago, broadcasters rushed willy-nilly to pronounce Al Gore president, based on inaccurate information from Voter News Service, incomplete results and their own overblown deductions. The viewing public has been wary ever since.

Fox will use its own independently conducted telephone polls in 10 key states.

"And we'll use VNS if we're confident they're accurate," he added. "This is important. Given the situation in the House and Senate, people will be watching this more closely than a typical off-year election."

CNN also is eager to put its best foot forward.

"We are going to great lengths to have a system that relies on real vote counts and not just exit polls, so that our viewers can get as much reliable information as possible," said CNN chairman Walter Issacson.

The news channel will forgo flirtations with exit polls in projections for close races, and won't project any winners until all precincts are closed. CNN plans to offer "Real Vote," a back-up system of data tabulated from precinct votes from at least 10 states.

They too will "verify VNS data," with those precious final projections emanating from "the Decision Desk."

CBS hopes to temper coverage with its own independent polling data to stay out of frenzy mode.

"The competitive drive to get it first, which is always there, is going to be subordinated to making sure we're correct," CBS executive producer Al Ortiz told the St. Petersburg Times last week.

ABC says it will "insulate" its analysts from spurious poll data. MSNBC and NBC are still formulating their election coverage, according to a spokeswoman yesterday.

"Chris Matthews will anchor it for us on election night, and he'll do it 'Hardball' style," MSNBC spokeswoman Cheryl Daly said.

Voter News Service, in the meantime, is quietly repairing its image. Last week, VNS officials tested new exit polling and vote-counting systems and pronounced that they were "cautiously optimistic."

The consortium of five TV networks and the Associated Press was formed in 1993 to help minimize election polling costs. On election night 2000, VNS issued questionable data based on the presidential vote count in Florida, underestimating absentee support for George W. Bush by 24 percent.

Unchecked and later magnified on the airwaves, the faulty data forced broadcasters to make multiple retractions and pronouncements until dawn, ultimately creating an election impasse which plodded on for weeks.

The American Antitrust Institute urged the Justice Deptartment to split up VNS, saying it had monopolized election-night polling.

"When the principal news organizations move in lock-step, based on the same methodology and the same polling of the same samples, no single organization takes the risk of being wrong," the institute wrote at the time. "The VNS fiasco makes us wonder whether things have gotten to the point where a mistake or bias will not be corrected by the normal give and take of competition among media firms."

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