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Congress Begins Hearings on Network News Election Night Coverage

Aired February 14, 2001 - 1:32 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And there are no shortage of those hearings today. On the House side, the Energy and Commerce Committee is looking into what went wrong in November when the major networks incorrectly reported the outcome of the election.

CNN's Kate Snow is up there following along as the House Energy Committee, chaired by representative Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, gets under way with this business.

What's it all about, Kate?

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, you are exactly right. They are looking into what the networks did. They say they want to investigate how it can be done better the next time around. Let me tell you what has happened so far this morning. They started at about 11:00 a.m. And I can tell you, they have taken a lot longer than anyone thought they would to get through their opening statements.

There are more than 50 members on the House Commerce Committee. And they decided to let every one of those members to have a voice. So they are just now wrapping up their opening statements. They are just now getting to their first witnesses. Those first witnesses include three outside experts who have had done an investigative report for CNN. They were commissioned by CNN. But they are outside of CNN. And they were asked to do this study.

They found that they had major problems with what CNN had done on election night. They made recommendations. They were among five reports that were done by all of the various networks on this subject trying to figure out what can be done better the next time around.

We are going to take a listen now.


JOAN KONNER, CNN ELECTION REPORT CO-AUTHOR: ... New York and president of an independent television production company. I was asked by CNN, along with Jim Risser and Ben Wattenberg, to look into what went wrong in its television coverage of the presidential election 2000.

Our report, "Television's Performance on Election Night 2000," our report to CNN, has been submitted in full to the committee. And I have been told that it will appear as part of the record of these hearings.


REP. BILLY TAUZIN (R-LA), ENERGY & COMMERCE CHMN.: She reminds me that I need to do that. And at this point, the chair would ask that the report of all of the networks, of RTI and VNS, be made an official part of the record of this proceeding. Do you have any objection? Without objection, it is so ordered.

I thank the lady to proceed.

KONNER: The CNN report and all the other reports that have been issued about election-night reporting recognize that something went terribly wrong, just as everyone, including the public, recognizes that many things went wrong with the election process itself.

CNN executives, correspondents and producers themselves described election-night coverage as a debacle, a disaster, and a fiasco. And in our report, we agree. I would like to address these remarks to two main points. The first is to the context of our report and the second to some of its substance.

First about the context: It's important to note at the outset that this is a report on journalism. We, as journalists and academics, were asked by CNN to undertake an independent review and to answer the questions: What happened on election night 2000? Why did it happen? And what might be done to prevent such mistakes from happening again?

Our inquiry, judgments and recommendations were based on the ideals, the principles and the best practices of journalism. The report should be taken as an independent peer review of the quality of the journalism, not as a political or legal opinion or a statement of public policy. We believe that CNN should be commended for being the only network to invite a wholly independent outside evaluation of the events of its Election Day coverage in order to help improve its performance in the future.

Our panel's criticism of CNN's performance that night was based on journalistic principles stated in the report that the central purpose of a free press in a democratic society is to provide the public with information upon which the people can inform intelligent decisions -- can form intelligent decisions concerning important public matters on which they have the power to act, and that public- affairs journalism is the pursuit of truth in the public interest. And its major values are accuracy, fairness, balance, responsibility, accountability, independence, integrity and timeliness.

Those are the standards that informed our judgments. And they are the standards that define professionalism according to the written codes of most mainstream organizations and the journalists that work for them. We believe that all the journalists involved in the election coverage at CNN subscribed to those principles. Nevertheless, we concluded that, because of several key factors, CNN, along with the other television networks, failed in their core mission to inform the public accurately about the outcome of the election. Specifically, CNN and the other networks failed in reporting election results in Florida, which turned out to hold the key to the outcome of the election. We found and reported that the faulty journalism resulted from excessive speed and hyper-competition, combined with overconfidence in experts and a reliance on increasingly dubious polls.

We stated that the desire to be first, or at least not to be consistently behind the others, led the networks to make calls unwisely, based on sketchy and sometimes mistaken information. We reported an impulse-to-speed over accuracy. And we attributed that impulse to the business imperatives of television news to win the highest ratings, which is not a journalistic standard, but a commercial standard.

Ratings -- that is the size of the audience -- drive the price of commercials. And the commercials determine the bottom-line profits of the corporations that own the networks. Our report found several flaws in the system set up to cover the election. We questioned the overall concept of the Voter News Service, which was the single source of information and data on which all of the networks relied.

Voter New Service was set up as a partnership among competing news organizations. This unusual collaboration among competitors was conceived principally as a cost-cutting measure, although pulling resources enabled the networks to greatly expand their polling reach. We believe that relying on a single source of information contradicts well-known, deeply entrenched, best journalistic practices.

Relying on a single source eliminates the checks and balances built into a competitive vote-gathering and polling system. It eliminates the possibility of a second source for validating key and possibly conflicting information. The concept of VNS also effectively eliminates competition in the market for the establishment of a second system. And it might also stifle journalistic enterprise.

We further question the purpose of then eliminating the element of competition through independent decision desks at each of the networks, all of whom rely on the same data and information received at exactly the same time. What results is a speed trap in which all the networks are doing their complicated calculations under maximum competitive pressure in minimum time, usually making their so-called competitive projections minutes apart.

The compulsion to be first led CNN and others to project results without checking other possible sources of information. At the time, the call for Bush was made, there were, in fact, two other sources available: the Associated Press, which does its own vote count; and the official returns of the state.

We question what purpose this hyper-competition serves, either journalistic or commercial. It did not serve the public, the core mission of journalism.

Our inquiry also indicated serious flaws in the polling methods used by VNS, including exit polling, outdated polling models and outdated technology. We note, as others have, that polls inadequately take into account the growing number of absentee ballots and early mailed ballots or the variations caused by a wide variety of factors from nonresponses to the quality of the questionnaire.

We note that polls in general are statistical calculations, not factual realities. And as such, they are an imperfect measure of voter intent and actual voting especially in close elections.

Our recommendations included the following: that exit polling no longer be used to project our call winners of states, and that exit polling be used for analysis only; that returns from sample or key precincts no longer be used for projecting or calling winners. We believe that model precincts are subject to too many errors and can lead to faulty calls.

We recommend that all calls be based on actual vote counts and that no calls be made in states where polls are still open.

We recommend that no call be made until all available sources of information are checked.

We recommend that the Voter News Service be reexamined, repaired or reinvented, and that a second service be commissioned to conduct parallel national polling.

We note that many of these recommendations would probably slow down the process of reporting, and we believe that's a good outcome. We believe that slowing down would improve network performance and would visibly demonstrate that accuracy was more important than speed in reporting on elections.

Our report expresses the view that the mistakes in the reporting of the presidential election, especially in Florida, were damaging to journalism and to the country. The erroneous early call for Gore and the later call for Bush, declaring him prematurely the next president based on faulty numbers, undermined the credibility of the news organizations and distorted the real result of the election at that point.

Some have charged that the networks -- some have charged the networks with bias in their reporting, that is deliberately or unwillingly calling or withholding the results of a race to benefit one candidate over another. We found no evidence to support that view. We also found no convincing evidence that calls made before polls are closed within a state or in another state have an impact on voter turnout.

All of CNN's election coverage was made with the best journalistic intentions. But mistakes were made, and they, along with other networks, contributed to the public atmosphere of rancor during the postelection events.

We thank CNN for being willing to undergo this somewhat painful process of external peer review, a familiar and accepted path to course correction in many other professions. CNN has already announced policy changes that will help prevent such a lapse in the future. It demonstrates a serious commitment to more stringent standards in covering elections and self-restraint, an example we hope other networks will follow.

TAUZIN: Thank you very much, Ms. Konner.

And now Mr. Risser, if you will stand with me, sir. You are aware that the committee is holding an investigative hearing, that when doing so it's been the practice of taking testimony under oath. Do you have any objection to testifying under oath?


TAUZIN: When the chair advises you that, under the rules of the House and the rules of this committee, you have the right to be advised by counsel, do you desire to be advised by counsel during this testimony today?

RISSER: No, I don't.

TAUZIN: In that case, would you please raise your right hand as I swear you in.

Do you swear that the testimony you're about to give is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?


TAUZIN: And, sir, you are now under oath, and you may now proceed with the summary of your testimony.

RISSER: Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, my name is James V. Risser. I am the former director of Stanford University's John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists, which is a mid-career sabbatical program for professional print and broadcast journalists. I retired from that position and from the Stanford faculty in September.

Before going to Stanford in 1985, I worked for 20 years as a journalist, including 15 years here in Washington, where I was the bureau chief of the "Des Moines Register."

As you know, I'm one of the members of this committee. You've just heard from Joan Konner. My statement is not long, but I'll try to make it even a little shorter, since it might repeat some of what she said.

As you know, our report, released on February 2, concentrated on the most obvious problem of election night, the two calls and the two retraction made by CNN and others with regard to Florida. But we believe that our findings and recommendations, both directed specifically to CNN, go farther than just the Florida case in demonstrating more broadly what is wrong with the current system of reporting election returns. We also believe that they apply in general to the networks, not to CNN alone by any means.

I take CNN at its word that it prefers being accurate over being first in the reporting of state-by-state returns. That's the only proper stance for an all-news network that wants to keep its journalism at a high professional level and its integrity intact. The fact that CNN set up our committee shows that they do care about this.

But at the same time, competition, intense competition, does exist in the television news business. And the system created by CNN and the other networks for election night allowed speed to gain the upper hand.

The networks believed that they could be both fast and accurate. But on this election night at least, they were wrong. The reasons that they were wrong were -- and, again, to summarize some things that Ms. Konner also just hit on -- they relied on one source which they had jointly funded, Voter News Service. The figures and data they got from VNS were not always accurate. Exit polls certainly were not accurate enough and, were perhaps less accurate than in past elections due to nonresponses and due to the rise in absentee voting. At the same time, vote tabulation errors were made.

Third, the network decision teams who analyzed VNS data and decided when their network should call a state were unable to, or at least did not, adequately scrutinize that data; that the decision team shared by CNN and CBS, there was a failure at key points to consult other available sources.

This combination of factors, as we know, led the television networks to call Florida twice and retract twice. As a result, the network suffered a grievous blow to their reputation for delivering timely and accurate news. It turned out that voters could not, as CBS's Dan Rather had assured them, take the networks' election calls to the bank. Instead, the networks found themselves having to twice eat crow, as CNN's Jeff Greenfield said.

All of this for no real good reason, our committee concluded. We believe that Americans are much more interested in having the election returns reported accurately than they are in whether one network comes in a few minutes ahead of the other. Very few people know at the time which network is coming in first, and virtually none of them could remember today.

I am one who believes strongly in journalistic competition. And I'm also aware that if one network consistently came in far beyond the others, its audience share might suffer. But what we're talking about, at least with regard to this election, is a matter of a few minutes difference here and there in reporting the winner of a state, and viewers simply don't care about that.

Our committee concluded that there are serious doubts about the validity of using exit polls to project winners, and that the presidential election is a sacred enough right of American democracy that nothing less than accurate reporting is acceptable.

As we said in our report, exit polls, whether accurate or not, are self-generated news. Their use by television networks to project election results is an attempt to forecast what is not yet known, the actual vote count, but which will be known within a few hours when the votes are counted.

Thus we think the networks ought to slow down and get it right. And you have heard already our recommendations to CNN, and by implication to other networks, the stopping of the use of exit polls to project or call winners, instituting a system of calling winners done only from actual counted returns in which a state should not be said to have gone for a particular candidate until enough votes have been counted to make the outcome in that state a certainty.

No state should be called when the polls remain open there. Exit polling, if continued, ought to be studied to make it more accurate. It is a valuable tool for learning lots of things about the electorate besides just how they voted.

And Voter News Service should be fixed if its use is to be continued. Other competing sources should be drawn upon as well.

WATERS: Further elaboration of the CNN report on what went wrong on election night. James Risser, one of the authors of that report, as we continue to listen in to the hearing before Bernie -- Billy Tauzin's committee, House committee, looking into the networks' coverage of the election in November.

We'll get back to that in a moment. We'll take a break and we'll be right back.



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