Congressional Hearing on Television Networks’ Election Night
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REP. FRED UPTON (R-Mich.): America wants fairness and it wants accuracy, and sadly, we didn’t see a lot of it on November 7.
TERENCE SMITH: The heads of five major networks and the Associated Press were summoned by a Congressional committee to explain how and why they miscalled the Presidential election results last November. Republican Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said his staff had found serious flaws in the work of the networks’ collectively-owned vote tabulation consortium, the Voter News Service.
REP. W. J. “BILLY” TAUZIN (R-La.): The good news is that we discovered no evidence of intentional bias – no evidence of intentional slanting of this information. What we discovered to our dismay was that while we’d been told that exit polling is getting better in the country, what we’ve learned is that exit polling is getting worse. It’s less scientific today than it was before, and the VNS models, in fact, produce some very bad information. And as one of the networks told me, “garbage in, garbage out.”
TERENCE SMITH: The executives got some free advice from Democrat Eliot Engel of New York.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-N.Y.): In order to begin winning back that trust, the news media must take action. And in the spirit of my friend Tim Russert, here are my suggestions: One, slow down. The American people don’t need to know that President George W. Bush sneezed 30 seconds after he did it. Two, check facts. Check your facts. Too often I see news stories that are just plain wrong. In the case of the election, pay greater attention to state law. The election was so close that a mandatory recount was required, thus making the outcome murky, not in the bag. And three, balance. Strive much harder for balance. When you interview someone on a controversial issue, get an opposing point of view. That may make the news story longer, but it will also make them better. This is the formula for winning back the people’s trust.
TERENCE SMITH: David Westin of ABC News — like all the executives — pledged to reform the way his network reports elections.
DAVID WESTIN, President, ABC News: We will no longer project the winner of a race in a state until all the polls – every one of them — have closed in a state, which is, as you indicated earlier, Mr. Chairman, a change from what we talked about in 1985. We also, in that early stage, said it was critically important as we go forward that we are much clearer and more emphatic about what a projection is and what it isn’t. It is it is not reporting the ultimate certified result of a race. It is a statistical estimate which always has a margin of error in it. And we need to do a better job of explaining that to all of our viewers.
TERENCE SMITH: Andrew Lack of NBC News conceded that his network had made mistakes election night, but he said there were even bigger issues at stake.
ANDREW LACK, President, NBC News: Where was our reporting before November 7th — about the potential impact of, say, ineffective voting machines or confusing ballots or inadequately staffed polling sites? What was the potential impact of a system that might in fact be protecting felons who vote? We knew this was going to be a close election. We know now that if you are registered to vote, it doesn’t always mean that you will be permitted to. We know that I you are in the military and you mail in an absentee ballot, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be counted. We know if you are poor in this country, it will likely be that you will have a little more difficulty voting than you if you are rich — and it occurs to me that a good question for us would have been, say, for the price of a new federal highway could we have gotten this whole system fixed?
TERENCE SMITH: It’s a rare event for network and news executives to appear before congress and several of people raised concerns about possible infringement of their First Amendment rights. Louis Boccardi heads the Associated Press.
LOUIS BOCCARDI, President, The Associated PressI: I first want to place on the record a deep concern about the nature and scope of the committee’s inquiry into decisions made by journalists in the course of gathering and reporting the news. AP has serious doubts that the committee and its staff no matter how sensitive they may be can avoid crossing the line between appropriate government concern with the electoral process itself, and on the other hand, inappropriate government involvement with the reporting on that process by a free press.
TERENCE SMITH: Roger Ailes is chairman and CEO of the Fox News Network.
ROGER AILES, Chairman, Fox News Network: Mr. Chairman, I’m deeply disappointed this is being handled as an investigation and not a legislative fact finding matter. I’m further disappointed that had this Committee views its role as adversarial, requiring us to take an oath as if we have something to hide. We do not. With or without the swearing-in photo-op, we’ll hide nothing
TERENCE SMITH: Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts asked whether the networks would hold off projections if Congress enacted a uniform poll closing time nationwide.
LOUIS BOCCARDI: Unequivocally.
DAVID WESTIN: Yes, as I said earlier, yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: Republican Congressman James Greenwood of Pennsylvania made it clear this the committee was not attempting to prevent the networks from using exit polls to project election outcomes.
REP. JAMES GREENWOOD (R-Pa.): Nobody in this Committee or this Congress has any intentions of legislating with regard to your ability to project elections. You can project the election the day before the election if you want and it’s none of our business, frankly, whether you do or you don’t but we do in the Congress have a decision to make as to whether to try to respond to what you do.
TERENCE SMITH: As the hearing concluded, the Committee indicated it is considering a bill that would establish a uniform poll closing time across the country.