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U.S.: Competition Drove Errors On U.S. Election Reporting

American journalism has a proud tradition of accuracy, fairness, and balance. But the urge to be first is also part of the mix, and that can have a serious effect on accuracy. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports on how this apparently affected how U.S. television networks reported -- at times erroneously -- on Tuesday's presidential election.

Washington, 10 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Few political analysts are expressing sympathy for American television networks for twice misreporting a winner in the state of Florida in Tuesday's presidential election.

Early that evening, the five major television networks projected that the vote in the state of Florida had been won by Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee for president.

About an hour later, the networks withdrew the declaration. And after midnight on the east coast in the U.S., they said the Republican nominee, George W. Bush, had won the state. Therefore, they said, he had won the presidency, because the Florida victory had given him 271 electoral votes, one more than necessary for victory.

But eventually, that declaration also was withdrawn. As more and more votes were being counted in Florida, Bush's lead was gradually dwindling -- at one point to about 350 out of nearly 6 million ballots cast in the state.

Analysts told RFE/RL that a drive to be first led the networks to abandon caution.

The five primary television networks and the Associated Press -- or AP -- make their projections of election results based on data generated by the Voter News Service, or VNS, which they jointly own. This service conducts what are known as "exit polls" of citizens who have just voted. The data from these polls are combined with election results, then are analyzed by members of "decisions desks" at each network.

This analysis ordinarily gives the networks an accurate look at the election results. But on Tuesday, the system failed.

Carolyn Smith, the director of polling at the ABC network, told The Washington Post that the data the VNS gave to the networks was faulty, leading to the inaccurate declarations of victory.

But an analyst on the ABC "decision desk" told The New York Times that the problem was made worse by competitive concerns at the network. He said that he and his fellow analysts were reluctant to declare Gore the winner in Florida. But other networks were making that call, and there was "tremendous pressure" -- as he put it -- that ABC do the same.

Later, Smith told The Post, all other networks but hers had declared Bush the winner in Florida -- and the president-elect. She said she felt foolish that her network was the lone holdout, and she decided to declare Bush the winner, too. She added -- quoting -- "I could have said no, and obviously I should have said no."

Larry Sabato -- a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia -- says the American public tends to find such declarations more credible if more than one network makes them. He told RFE/RL that some networks abandoned caution when another network declared a victor in a state.

"They want to be first, as though anybody cares. Nobody out in the country cares who's first [among the networks] or whether it's called at eight or nine o'clock, or 10 o'clock. Look, the country wanted it done right, and they failed miserably. The networks failed and the Voter News Service failed. Period."

Florida is a difficult state to analyze politically. There are many different kinds of voters in the state, ranging from pensioners from other parts of the U.S. to Cuban refugees to farmers to the very wealthy. And because of its tropical weather, Florida constantly attracts new residents. Therefore its political profile tends to change appreciably between elections.

But political observers interviewed by RFE/RL say there is no excuse for the mistakes. One is Leo Ribuffo, a professor of political science at George Washington University in Washington. He told RFE/RL that Florida's political makeup is no more diverse or complex than that of New York or California. In fact, he says, the American public can do without the networks' projections of how each state voted.

"I think there's no question they should err on the side of prudence, and I think we could live entirely without them calling the election at all, state-by-state."

Sabato agrees. He says Florida was one of three states that were pivotal for determining the outcome of the election. Therefore, he says, there was no excuse for the Voter News Service and the networks not to handle the data from these states very carefully.

"Everyone knew that Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were the keys to this election. And on account of that, the Voter News Service should have been extremely cautious -- as should the networks have been -- in calling [declaring victors in] those states."

This is not the first time the networks have come under criticism for the way they report on elections. In 1980, some networks declared early that Ronald Reagan had defeated President Jimmy Carter. This report was made in the early evening on America's East Coast -- long before voting was complete on the West Coast, were it was still mid-afternoon -- before many voters there had cast ballots.

These polls were accurate, but many Americans deplored the early declarations of victory. Polling units for the networks were brought before committees in the U.S. Congress to explain. It is doubtful whether Congress could have passed laws forbidding such early election declarations, because of explicit protection of press independence in the U.S. Constitution. But the networks pledged to end the practice.