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GOP lawmaker charges bias in networks' presidential calls

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A House lawmaker launching an investigation into the news networks' erroneous declaration that Al Gore won Florida on Election Night said Thursday he believed the coverage was biased -- knowingly or not -- toward the Democratic nominee.

Rep. Billy Tauzin  

"I think there is now a presumption of bias in the reporting, and that the networks will have a duty when they do come before us in our hearing to overcome that presumption," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana, who chairs the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications.

A CNN official said Tauzin's claim of bias was unfounded. Reaction from the other broadcast networks was not immediately available.

Between 7:49 p.m. and 8 p.m. EST on November 7, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, ABC and The Associated Press all called Florida -- with its decisive 25 electoral votes -- for Gore. Polls were still open until 8 p.m. in the western part of the state.

Tauzin has asked media executives to describe the way their organization made state-by-state projections, and said Thursday that he will likely hold hearings on the matter when the 107th Congress convenes in January. He said he will also meet with workers at Voter News Service, the consortium of the networks and the Associated Press that uses exit poll results and actual results to make electoral projections.

Watch all up-to-the-minute video of Election 2000

"Using this VNS information, all of the networks, cable and broadcasting, effectively gave America the impression that the George W. Bush states were too close to call while the Al Gore states were falling in line for Al Gore," Tauzin argued.

Based on CNN Election Night declarations, Tauzin said the network hesitated to declare Bush the winner in nine states the GOP nominee won by at least six percent of the popular vote. He said those states were placed in the "too-close-too-call" column. The Louisiana congressman said there was no such delay for any state that Gore won by six percent or above.

"In short, the evidence is mounting that there was some kind of bias in this system. Now, was it intentional bias or was it accidental bias?" he asked.

Tauzin argued that the early calls could have cost Bush as many as 10,000 votes from Florida's northwest panhandle region. The state remains embroiled in a legal controversy over whether to proceed with hand recounts to determine its presidential choice. Bush leads Gore by a razor-thin margin of less than 300 votes out of more than 6 million cast throughout the state.

Tauzin said that 10,000-vote figure was based on "statistical modeling." Asked if it was possible for so many citizens to be dissuaded from voting roughly 10 minutes before the polls closed, he said, "We are told that people waiting in line to vote actually turned around and went home when they heard that George Bush had not carried Florida."

"We have evidence, and we're documenting that evidence as we speak," he continued. "Can we identify 10,000 voters? No, I doubt that we will be able to do that."

Rep. Chris Cox  

Under a 1985 agreement, the networks usually hold off using voter exit polls to call elections until most polls are closed in a given state, as was the case with Florida on Election Night. Tauzin said the investigation may determine that "a new agreement" on use of this data is necessary, but he said there would be no effort to restrict its use with federal legislation.

Rep. Chris Cox, R-California, argued that the erroneous Florida call suppressed popular vote support for Bush in the Golden State and also had a negative impact on down-ballot House races Republicans narrowly lost.

"The fact that voter depression follows from knowledge that the race is over is what motivates our concern about early calls," he said.

"I hope that we can all learn something from this. The hearings that our committee is going to hold will be opened long after this immediate problem is solved, long after the presidential race is decided.

In letters sent to Tauzin on Thursday, CNN Chairman and CEO Tom Johnson rejected the charge and promised to investigate. "I state categorically there was no intentional bias in the election night reporting," he wrote.

But Johnson agreed with Tauzin "that we at CNN need to determine exactly what went wrong in our election-night coverage and to take appropriate corrective action. We will."

Johnson said he would appoint an independent advisory committee "to guarantee the integrity of our review."

"The accusation that there was bias in CBS News' reporting of election night results is completely without foundation," said Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, in a statement.

Other networks have indicated they plan similar reviews.


Thursday, November 16, 2000



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