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Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2001 / 28 Shevat 5761

Philip Terzian

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"Something must be done" -- WHEN the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, was touring a Welsh colliery during the Depression, he was so impressed by the squalid lives of the unemployed miners that he made a pronouncement: "Something must be done," he said. Of course, royal personages were not supposed to offer public opinions, and certainly not on touchy subjects, so the Prince's unguarded comment caused a commotion. And in its way, started a trend. Nowadays, when the public senses things are not quite as they should be, the phrase is not far from everybody's lips: "Something must be done."

I was reminded of this the other day on Capitol Hill, where the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, was holding hearings on television coverage of election night. Everybody in the room agreed that election night reporting last November was, shall we say, less than perfect. The networks first reported that Al Gore had carried Florida, which is supposed to have discouraged Republican voters in the western panhandle of the state (which is divided between Eastern and Central time) from casting their ballots. Then, as we know, one of the networks changed its mind, and the others followed suit, awarding Florida to George W. Bush -- and by the narrowest of margins. The rest, of course, is history.

As I said, everybody agreed that election night coverage left much to be desired, and the sense in the room was that "something must be done." But what?

One member of the committee placed all the blame squarely on the news service that supplies the networks with exit polls, from which the anchormen made their erroneous predictions. But you have to ask yourself: Was calling Florida for Al Gore such an irrational act, since helost the state by a few hundred votes out of four million cast? Another member took the opportunity to repeat the allegation (proven nowhere in Florida) that thousands of black Democratic voters were prevented from casting ballots -- presumably in black precincts run by black Democrats.

Still another member pointed out that, while potential Bush voters might well have been discouraged once they heard Gore had carried the state, it is equally possible that potential Gore voters stayed home for the same reason.

Cable News Network took the trouble to commission a panel of inquiry, and their conclusions, presented to the Tauzin committee, made one sensible observation: The problem is not statistics, or even media bias, but competitiveness. The networks were in a mad rush to beat one another in "calling" states for either candidate, and in so doing, made a number of embarrassing mistakes. The obvious solution to this problem is for the networks to be less competitive, and more informative; but that will never happen. Competition is what drives the news business, especially on television, and furnishing viewers with numbers on a screen, and allowing them to draw their own conclusions, would leave anchormen and pundits with very little to do.

But "something must be done," and every suggestion was worse than the last: Uniform poll closing times across the country, bans on "calling" states before polls have been closed, limits on the information networks can broadcast -- all either wildly impractical, unfair, or clear violations of the First Amendment. With time, let us hope, Congress will calm down, and the instinct to do "something," to do anything, will pass.

For the sad truth is that, while individual states can make changes here and there to raise efficiency, there is no such thing as a perfect election, and there never will be. The fact that people may be discouraged from voting because of exit polls or network projections is their problem, not ours. Millions of ballots are thrown out n every election in every state, and for innumerable reasons: Voters are incapable or unwilling to follow directions, the machinery breaks down, humans make mistakes or behave like humans.

One network executive, Andrew Lack of NBC, told the committee that those millions of disqualified ballots are the "real story." But it could also be argued that the election day story no one wants to touch is voter fraud which, by coincidence, seems largely to benefit Democrats. In the past few decades the process of registration and voting has become so casual -- motor-voter laws and the like -- that basic standards for voters are widely endangered.

Convicted felons now vote by the tens of thousands in America, and dead people are casting ballots in ever-increasing numbers. In Missouri there are credible allegations of widespread, organized fraud in very close contests (including the defeat of Sen. John Ashcroft by a dead man) and in many states poll lists are padded by deceptive means. It's easy, fun and satisfying to gripe at the networks, but corruption is worse than faulty projections.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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02/12/01: Pickett's second charge
02/08/01: The wrong man
02/05/01: Their brother's keeper
01/25/01: The quantity of mercy
01/22/01: Run, Jesse, run
01/18/01: Clinton knows history's verdict
01/16/01: Take this job and ...
01/09/01: Washed in the blood
01/04/01: Up for the count
12/26/00: Remembering Comet Lindsay
12/20/00: Cooling down
12/18/00: Presidential legacies are not so obvious to contemporaries
12/13/00: Cops and soccer moms
12/11/00: The 'Net horrifies Stephen King
12/04/00: Downey behind bars
11/29/00: By any means necessary
11/16/00: Government sanctioned historical revisionism?
11/10/00: Breaking news: They don't know
11/09/00: Steve Allen: Smart TV
11/07/00: The November surprise
11/01/00: Take the Lieberman test
10/30/00: P.S. Don't tell Congress!
10/25/00: The election is close, but ...
10/23/00: King or jester?
10/19/00: The Million T-Shirt March
10/16/00: I like (fill in the blank)
10/12/00: Now comes the hard part
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09/18/00: Today, Dr. Laura. Tomorrow ...
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08/28/00: Blame communism, not Russia
08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2001, The Providence Journal