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The US House Committee on Energy and Commerce holds a hearing on the news networks’ election night decision to project George W. Bush the winner of the Florida election, and thereby the winner of the US presidential election (see November 7-8, 2000). One of the matters at hand is Fox News’s choice to have its election night coverage anchored by John Prescott Ellis, President Bush’s cousin and an intensely partisan Bush supporter (see October-November 2000). The chairman of the committee is W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-LA).
Opening Statements - In his opening statement, Tauzin tells the assemblage that the hearing is to “give us a real sense of what went wrong in terms of the election night coverage of the presidential election of November 2000.” He notes that news coverage issues have been raised in every election since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election. Early calls—the practice of news outlets to “call,” or project, winners in states before elections in other states have closed—have long been acknowledged as having a “deletorious” effect on voting, and the use of “exit polling”—polls of voters taken outside polling booths—have proven both “valuable” and “dangerous.” Voter News Service (VNS), the independent consortium that provided polling and other data to the networks and press agencies for their use during their election coverage, uses exit polling to help those news outlets “project” winners in races. Tauzin spends much of his opening statement attacking VNS and the use of exit polling as the “source” of the election night dissension, and says that on the whole, VNS data “produces statistical biases in favor of Democrats in this case today and against Republicans, that the statistical flaws tend to overstate the Democratic vote in the exit poll and understate the Republican vote.” Tauzin says that investigations have “discovered no evidence of intentional bias, no evidence of intentional slanting of this information,” and instead says the entire problem rests with VNS and its use of exit polling data. In their opening statements, many Republicans echo Tauzin’s remarks. Ranking minority member John Dingell (D-MI) calls the election night coverage “a monumental screw-up which I think has embarrassed an awful lot of people.” Dingell repeats Tauzin’s claim that no evidence of intentional bias has been found—calling such allegations “inflammatory”—and says that the focus of future hearings should be on the issue of voter disenfranchisement. Having said all that, he goes on to say that the networks’ decision to call Florida for Bush in the early hours of November 8, 2000 was premature, and lent itself to later allegations that attempts by Democratic challenger Al Gore were baseless and troublesome. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) accuses the networks of trying to influence Florida voters in the Panhandle, a traditionally Republican stronghold, by prematurely calling the state for Gore eight minutes before polls closed in that region. In questioning, Sherrod Brown (D-OH) notes the almost-immediate appearance of the “Sore Loserman” campaign (derived from the names of the Democratic candidates, Gore and Joe Lieberman), which attempted, successfully, to paint attempts by the Gore campaign to force vote recounts as attempts to “steal” the election.
Focus on Fox - Henry Waxman (D-CA) is the first to mention Fox News. He reads from a Los Angeles Times editorial, quoting: “Suppose that a first cousin of Al Gore had been running one of the network news teams issuing election night projections. Suppose that having previously recused himself from a columnist job saying his objectivity would suffer from family loyalty, this cousin had chatted with Gore six times on Election Day. Suppose the same cousin had been the first to declare Gore as the winner in Florida on election night, helping coax the rival networks to follow suit, leading George W. Bush to call up Gore in order to concede, thereby helping to create that Gore was the duly elected president of the United States long before all the votes had been counted. Can anybody reasonably doubt that the pundits would be working themselves into a nonstop lather charging the liberal media as accessories to grand larceny? Can we imagine, say, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox news channel right-leaning heads dropping the subject?” Waxman says this was absolutely the case, but with Fox News and John Ellis, not Gore and an imaginary Gore cousin at another network. “[O]f everything that happened on election night this was the most important in impact. It created a presumption that George Bush won the election. It set in motion a chain of events that were devastating to Al Gore’s chances and it immeasurably helped George Bush maintain the idea in people’s minds than he was the man who won the election.” Several other Democrats echo Waxman’s statements.
Issues with Florida Election Practices - Peter Deutsch (D-FL) cites issues of rampant voter disenfranchisement of African-Americans, a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, with over 100,000 ballots, mostly from African-American voters, apparently not counted. Deutsch says flatly that “there is no question, it is no longer debatable that if the vote in Florida were counted, Al Gore would be president of the United States.” Bobby Rush (D-IL) cites a large number of incidents where minority group voters were “harassed by police departments” in Florida and in other states besides. In many instances these voters were stopped from voting entirely; in others, their votes were not counted. Other Democrats, such as Eliot Engel (D-NY), echo Deutsch’s and Rush’s concerns; Engel says: “Al Gore was not the only one who lost that night. The American people lost that night, and the news media also lost that night.”
Testimony regarding Independent Review of Election Night Coverage - The first witness is Joan Konner, a professor of journalism at Columbia. Konner led a panel commissioned by CNN “to look at what went wrong in [CNN’s] television coverage of the presidential election 2000.” Her panel submitted a report on the election night coverage to CNN, and CNN provided that report to the committee. “[S]omething went terribly wrong,” she says. “CNN executives, correspondents, and producers themselves describe election night coverage as a debacle, a disaster, and a fiasco; and in our report we agree.” She blames the problems with CNN’s coverage on “excessive speed and hypercompetition, combined with overconfidence in experts and a reliance on increasingly dubious polls. We have 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.” The choice to create, fund, and use VNS by all the networks was primarily a cost-cutting decision, she says, but that choice was a mistake: “Relying on a single source eliminates the checks and balances built into a competitive vote-gathering and vote system. It eliminates the possibility of a second source for validating key and possible conflicting information.” Another member of the panel, James Risser of Stanford University, notes that the report’s findings apply equally to other networks along with CNN.
Media Panel - After much questioning of the CNN panel, a second panel is sworn in. This panel includes: Fox News chairman Roger Ailes; CBS president Andrew Heyward; CNN chairman Tom Johnson; NBC president Andrew Lack; ABC president David Westin; VNS director Ted Savaglio; VNS editorial director Murray Edelman; and the Associated Press’s president, Louis Boccardi. In an opening statement, Savaglio admits that VNS made “errors” in vote tabulation and predictives based on “flaws” in the statistical analyses. Two major errors were made on election night, Savaglio says, the first leading to the incorrect awarding of Florida to Gore early in the evening, and the second provision of data that indicated Bush had a statistically insurmountable lead in Florida that did not include an accurate tabulation of votes cast in Volusia County as well as errors in other county tabulations and estimates. Boccardi says that the Associated Press used VNS-provided data in the erroneous Gore projection, but “takes full responsibility” for the error. The Associated Press did not join in with the second, Fox News-led projection of Bush’s victory. “[T]he race was too close to call” at that point, he says. “It would be right to surmise that the pressure on AP at that moment [to join the networks in calling the election for Bush] was enormous.” Heyward testifies that CBS, like CNN, hired an independent panel to assess its election coverage, and has a number of improvements to be made for future coverage. “Our method of projecting winners, one that, as you have heard, has produced only six bad calls in over 2,000 races since the 1960s, failed us this time; and as a well-known candidate would say, failed us big time in the very state that held the key to this election,” he says. He also notes that charges by Republican committee members that there is an inherent bias in the statistical models against Republicans “has been rejected by every single outside expert who examined each of the networks, even those experts, and you heard from them today, who are the most highly critical of us.” Lack asks why there was not more media coverage and examination of other voting-related problems, from “ineffective voting machines” and “confusing ballots” to allowing felons to vote.
Ailes's Statement - Ailes blames VNS for Fox’s “mistakes” in its reporting, saying: “As everyone knows, Voter News Service, a consortium with a good track record, gave out bad numbers that night. In the closest race in history the wheels apparently came off a rattle trap computer system which we relied on and paid millions for.” He claims, “Through our self-examination and investigation we have determined that there was no intentional political favoritism in play on election night on the part of Fox News.” Ailes does not mention his choice to use Ellis as Fox’s election night anchor in his verbal statement, but in a written statement he submits to the committee, he says that Ellis was not the person who made the final decision to declare Florida for Bush. The news division’s vice president, John Moody, made the final call. As for hiring Ellis, he praises Ellis’s professionalism and experience, and writes: “We at Fox News do not discriminate against people because of their family connections. I am more than happy to give you examples of offspring of famous politicians who are employed at Fox News.” He also says that he was aware that Ellis was speaking to both George W. and Jeb Bush throughout the night, and writes: “Obviously, through his family connections, Mr. Ellis has very good sources. I do not see this as a fault or shortcoming of Mr. Ellis. Quite the contrary, I see this as a good journalist talking to his very high level sources on election night.” Though Ellis has freely admitted to sharing VNS data with both Bushes, Ailes writes, “Our investigation of election night 2000 found not one shred of evidence that Mr. Ellis revealed information to either or both of the Bush brothers which he should not have, or that he acted improperly or broke any rules or policies of either Fox News or VNS.” He concludes: “[I]n my heart I do believe that democracy was harmed by my network and others on November 7, 2000. I do believe that the great profession of journalism took many steps backward.”
Questioning the Media Representatives - Almost immediately, Ailes raises the question of skewed exit polling that appears to favor Democrats, though experts have refuted these claims in just-given testimony, and Savaglio has just said that exit polls exhibit no such bias. Ailes tells the panel: “I do know that when Republicans come out of polls and you ask them a question they tend to think it’s none of your business and Democrats want to share their feelings. So you may get some bias there that is inadvertent, just because it’s a cultural thing and unless you send the Republicans to sensitivity training you’re not going to get them to do that.” Tauzin says that a study of VNS results tends to bear out Ailes’s claim. Westin says if there is bias in exit polling, it cuts both ways, an observation with which Tauzin also agrees. Savaglio admits that after midnight, VNS provided substantially inaccurate information to the networks that led them to conclude Bush had a slight but insurmountable lead in Florida. Lack denies the rumor that Jack Welch, the CEO of NBC’s parent company General Electric, made the decision for NBC News to follow Fox’s lead in declaring Bush the presumptive winner in Florida. Waxman accepts Lack’s denial, but notes that he has been told Welch’s command to declare Bush the winner is preserved on videotape, “filmed by NBC’s advertising and promotions department.” Lack says if the tape exists, he will provide it to the committee. Bart Stupak (D-MI) asks the representatives directly if they believe any bias towards one party or another exists in their networks’ coverage, and all answer strongly in the negative. Heyward says that rumors of networks such as his trying to “slant” their coverage to give the idea of an “inevitable” Gore victory are entirely negative, and says: “[C]ertainly we displayed the popular vote graphic 15 times between 7 and 11. President Bush was ahead every single time; on the electoral count, 75 out of 100 times.… The video [shown by the commission at the beginning of the hearing] that gave the impression that the networks were saying Gore’s got it in the bag I believe was misleading, yes.” Westin agrees with Heyward, and says the networks generally gave the impression of “a much more balanced, much closer race throughout the night.” Under questioning by Gene Green (D-TX), Ailes contradicts previously presented evidence and says no one at the election desk, Ellis or anyone else, was in contact with “Austin” (meaning the Bush campaign and George W. Bush personally) at all that night. (House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce 2/14/2001)
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page editor emeritus, Robert Bartley, acknowledges that Fox News’s slogan, “We report, you decide,” is a “pretense.” Bartley, a staunch conservative, writes: “Even more importantly, the amazing success of Roger Ailes at Fox News (see October 7, 1996) has provided a meaningful alternative to the Left-establishment slant of the major networks.… His news is no more tilted to the right than theirs has been on the left, and there’s no reason for him to drop his ‘we report, you decide’ pretense until they drop theirs” (see October 13, 2009). (Jamieson and Cappella 2008, pp. 49) In May 2003, ABC News president David Westin will say: “I like ‘We report. You decide.’ It’s a wonderful slogan. Too often, I don’t think that’s what’s going on at Fox. Too often, they step over the line and try and help people decide what is right and wrong.” Fox News pundit and host Bill O’Reilly will agree. Asked whether a more accurate tag line for Fox might be “We report. We decide,” he will reply, “Well, you’re probably right.” Todd Gitlin of the Columbia Journalism School will add: “I find it hard to believe many Fox viewers believe Bill O’Reilly is a ‘no-spin zone,’ or ‘We report. You decide.’ It’s a joke. In Washington it reinforces the impression of ‘we happy few who are members of the club.’ It emboldens the right wing to feel justified and confident they can promote their policies.” (Auletta 5/26/2003)
While CBS and NBC begin covering the US strikes against Iraqi targets almost from the outset (see March 19, 2003), ABC News delays its coverage for 11 minutes after its broadcast competitors, leading Washington Post media correspondent Lisa de Moraes to mockingly declare ABC to be the “first victim” of the war. In a March 21 analysis, de Moraes will note that ABC waits while its show The Bachelor: Where Are They Now? completes its broadcast. ABC news anchor Peter Jennings shows up to lead the network’s coverage almost a half hour later than his colleagues at NBC and CBS, leading de Moraes to ask if Jennings was not aware of the “scheduled” 8 p.m. deadline laid down by President Bush. “[W]asn’t anyone at ABC News watching that MSNBC countdown clock?” she asks. It is NBC that officially breaks the news of the military strike, with correspondent Peter Arnett informing NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw of the attack at 9:32 p.m. Jennings, whom de Moraes speculates “was at a dinner party,” finally takes to the air at 10:05 p.m, just a few minutes before, de Moraes writes, “President Bush went on the air to formally cut the ribbon on the war.” An ABC News spokesman later confesses that when the war broke, “our correspondent was out of position.” De Moraes is equally bemused that Jennings left the news desk at 11:01 p.m, surprising some local affiliates who plan to continue running ABC’s national news transmission instead of their own local programming. One affiliate’s news director later says, “There was a sense that the coverage was going to continue for some time, and when it ended so abruptly it caught all of us off guard.” The next day, ABC officials Alex Wallau and David Westin issue a joint statement: “We decided around 10:55 p.m. ET last night to end Special Report coverage.… We felt that we had covered this story in Iraq to that point and that we should allow for your late local news broadcasts. We were not aware that there had been Network Alert System communications sent to your stations saying that there would not be a local news opportunity last night.” (de Moraes 3/21/2003; Rich 3/30/2003; Rich 2006, pp. 73)
Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) asks five different television news networks for explanations of their roles in the Pentagon propaganda operation recently revealed by the New York Times (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond). DeLauro sends letters to Steve Capus, the president of NBC News; David Westin, president of ABC News; Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports; Roger Ailes, president of Fox News; and Jim Walton, president of CNN News Group. Her letters, which use fundamentally the same wording, conclude: “When the American people turn on their TV news, they expect coverage of the Iraq War and military issues to be using analysts without conflicts of interests. When you put analysts on the air without fully disclosing their business interests, as well as relationships with high-level officials within the government, the public trust is betrayed. Now that the full extent of the Department of Defense’s domestic propaganda program has been revealed, I strongly encourage you to make the necessary policy changes to ensure proper vetting of those you wish to put on the air so that the viewers can get the objective analyses they deserve.” (US House of Representatives 4/24/2008) As of mid-May, only two of those networks—CNN and ABC News—will respond to DeLauro (see May 2, 2008 and April 29, 2008).
ABC News president David Westin responds to a letter from Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) demanding an explanation of his network’s involvement in the recently revealed Pentagon propaganda operation (see April 24, 2008). Westin says that ABC employs two of the military analysts cited as being part of the Pentagon operation, retired Army General Jack Keane and retired Army Major General William Nash. Westin acknowledges that Keane was one of the architects of the Bush administration’s “surge” in Iraq (see January 2007), and says, “On several occasions when General Keane appeared in an ABC News program we specifically disclosed to our audience his position as an (unpaid) adviser on the subject.” Westin concludes, “From what I know of our reporting involving our military analysts, I am satisfied that ABC News has acted responsibly and has served its audience well.” (Westin 4/29/2008 )
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