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Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2000 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Philip Terzian

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Breaking news: They don't know -- WITH ANY LUCK, by the time you read this, you may know the identity of the president-elect.

But maybe not.

It is unusual, to say the least, not to know who the next president will be two days after the election, as this is being written. But patience, as Philip Massinger once wrote, is the beggar's virtue, and few in the news business regard themselves as supplicants. The desire to find things out, and transmit them as quickly as possible, is ingrained in the trade -- and sometimes, as we learned on Tuesday night, with disastrous results.

Early in the evening a trend in favor of George W. Bush was detected among the news readers and talking heads. But as the polls closed in the Northeast, Al Gore's heartland, this was soon translated into another dialect: The election was going Gore's way. In the middle of the evening, that was confirmed. While voters in the western half of Florida were still standing in line at the polls -- Florida, like some other Southern states, resides in two time zones -- the networks unanimously awarded the state to Gore.

That appeared to seal the election: Al Gore had won Florida's 25 electoral votes, and together with strategic Michigan, appeared unstoppable. But of course, it was not to be. The polls finally closed in western Florida, the votes were being counted, and suddenly the Gore victory evaporated. Florida was removed from Al Gore's column, and lay in limbo until the middle of the night when, prematurely, it was awarded to George W. Bush. By that time, enough Southern and Midwestern states were reporting that the addition of Florida seemed to deliver the electoral college, and the presidency, to Governor Bush. But in the end, of course, even that was deemed uncertain: The Bush lead conracted, and Florida ended in a photo finish, advantage Bush.

All of this was quite exciting, or nerve-wracking, depending on your disposition, or stake in the matter. But was it necessary? The television networks appeared to be in two desperate races: To predict the outcome of the election, with authority, and to beat their competitors in awarding states to candidates. But as we now know, the election was historically close, they were wrong in many instances -- and disastrously wrong in Florida, upon which the fate of the election rested uncertainly. Yanking Florida in one direction, and another, then another, and back again, served only to confuse an astonishing result.

Which brings us to the basic question: What, exactly, are the networks trying to accomplish? If their purpose is to divine the results of the election in record time -- and my use of the word "divine" is deliberate -- they have marshaled truckloads of impressive gadgetry and stage effects. And if their purpose is to beat the other networks to the punch, they congratulate themselves on "calling" certain states 11.8 seconds before their competition. This is all very impressive, when it works; but is it really what citizens need, or want, to know?

The fact is that competition has dangerously distorted the work of the television networks in this instance, and seems to have become an end in itself. In furiously switching among the cable channels to get basic information, I was struck by the extent to which the acumen of viewers is deliberately neglected. Instead of allowing us to see the actual number of votes being tabulated in, say, Florida or Missouri, we were treated, instead, to the pretty faces and mindless banter of the agonizing news readers. Dan Rather of CBS kept telling us that Georgia was as tight as the buckle in his grandmother's corset (or any one of hundreds of homely phrases) but he couldn't be bothered to show us why he said that. Instead of allowing viewers to see how many votes Bush had in Colorado, with 65percent of the precincts reporting, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Jonathan Alter, George Stephanopoulos, etc. preferred to remain in front of the camera, explaining how difficult (or easy) it was for them to predict the outcome.

Memo to Brian Williams and company: I don't want to know whether you have awarded Georgia to Al Gore, George W. Bush, or the Prohibition Party candidate. All I wish to know are the numbers, not your predictions. We have exercised the franchise; now grant us the courtesy of exercising judgment.

Will this year's debacle make a difference? Not likely. It is widely assumed that Jimmy Carter's premature concession to Ronald Reagan in 1980 (based on TV projections) influenced crucial votes in the West -- and may even have cost one powerful congressman his seat. For years the parties have complained about the practice of calling states on the basis of exit polls; but the competitive instincts, and hazardous impatience, of the TV networks are supreme.

We don't need a McCain-Feingold bill to put election-night reporting in the hands of the federal government, but a Joe Friday Rule would surely be welcome: Keep the yak to a minimum, and just give us the facts.

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


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
10/05/00: Good show, bad sports
10/02/00: It's a wonderful life?
09/28/00: Driving on America's Main Street
09/22/00: Preparing for a new administration
09/20/00: They've got a secret
09/18/00: Today, Dr. Laura. Tomorrow ...
09/12/00: What passes for knowledge
09/05/00: The catcher gets caught
08/31/00: A Golden Age that never was
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

© 2000, Philip Terzian