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Coverage on the carpet

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, will conduct hearings next year to look into the networks' election-night coverage.

"I am very interested in learning how and when your organization determined that certain states would be projected to be in one presidential candidate's corner and not another and based on what data-particularly given the numerous errors and apparent irregularities in the networks' projections on election night," Tauzin wrote in a letter to all the network-news organizations, the corporations that own them and the Associated Press.

Tauzin is particularly concerned about Voter News Service, the consortium put together by the networks to gather exit-polling data, and about the networks' reporting results in states in which not all the polls have closed.

"This is disenfranchising Americans from their right to vote," Tauzin said.

ABC News and CNN both said they plan to conduct internal investigations of last Tuesday night's mishaps.

"We take very seriously what happened on election night. We are doing a top-to-bottom review of our election projections.," said Jeffrey Schneider, vice president of ABC News.

"Because of the problems in reporting results of the presidential race in Florida, CNN has initiated an immediate review of all procedures involved and has already begun consultation with the other news organizations," the news network said in a statement. The other networks refused to comment on the Tauzin letter directly, but all have admitted their errors.

"When the networks called Florida for Gore at 7:50 p.m., it was 4:50 p.m. in California, and people were still deciding whether to go to the polls," Tauzin said. "Did this erroneous information influence the outcome?"

The networks have an agreement with Congress, struck in 1985, that they will not call the results in any states until most of the polls in that state have closed. Typically, the exit-polling data, gathered by reporters talking to people outside of politically questionable precincts, is born out by final tallies. But in an election where the difference between candidates in some states is less than a thousand votes, far less than the statistical margin of error, exit polls can clearly be wrong.

Tauzin repeatedly called himself a "First Amendment guy" and said he had no intention of telling the networks how to report the news. "I don't want to run afoul of the First Amendment. There are few defenders of the First Amendment left around this town, and I happen to be one of them."