- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The Voter News Service has been put out of its misery.
The five networks and one news service that once relied on VNS to fuel their often dramatic predictions and final calls on election night announced yesterday they had disbanded the service.
In a statement, VNS board members said they "are collectively reviewing a number of strong options for how to provide the tabulation of the national vote count as well as state and national exit polls for the 2004 election. An announcement will be forthcoming."
Until the 2000 presidential election, most Americans had never heard of VNS, a polling and voter-analysis group founded a decade ago by the news organizations to save money and time by pooling resources.
But VNS failed that election night, supplying faulty numbers to ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and the Associated Press.
Its erroneous calls, especially when it declared Al Gore the winner in Florida before changing its call to George W. Bush and then to "too close to call," rattled the confidence of voters and placed press credibility into question.
During midterm elections last November, a newly overhauled computer system also failed, causing VNS to drop out of the picture entirely.
The failure changed the face of election night coverage.
Chastened networks were left to fend for themselves; all vowed they would be accurate with their election night coverage, rather than "first" with pivotal but possibly flawed results.
What could replace VNS?
"In an ideal world, we would have more than a single information source," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
"If one system goes down, they all don't go down. The more takes on public opinion, the better the story."
The demise of VNS is exceptional, Mr. Kohut said. "Exit polling organizations come and go they get better, they get worse. But this is significant. These major news organizations bet on the wrong horse."
Rumors are already afoot that three separate proposals are under consideration that either refine existing VNS methodology or rely on national and state exit polls. The six networks and the AP may also partner with an academic or nonprofit group.
One network has explored the expensive proposition of collecting exit poll and voter analysis data on its own.
But the clock is ticking.
"The 2004 election is right around the corner. We are running out of time," said one pollster. "The failures before were computer programming failures. Our solutions will use tried and true approaches, plus some innovations."
The situation is causing some angst among the VNS board members, who met earlier this month to talk over strategies now that their election night collective is missing.
"I wish I could say the announcement of a solution was just hours away," said one network executive. "Days away, maybe. But not hours."
Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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