Networks on the defensive

It may not seem like it, but the presidential election will be over soon, or at least by Jan. 20. Attacks on TV's coverage on election night, however, will probably go on for much longer.

Even ignoring the mistaken calls of first a Gore, then a Bush victory in Florida, media-conspiracy theorists were popping up all over last week.

One side complained that the networks skewed coverage to help Gore. Others blasted FOX News Channel for tapping a George W. Bush cousin to run its election-night "decision desk." While networks started creating the inevitable task forces to study how they blew the Florida call, none were forthcoming with additional detail about just what went wrong so badly.

Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) led the harshest attacks, accusing the broadcast networks of using their correct election night "calls" of state-by-state results to bias the election toward Gore. While polls in Western states were still open, the networks quickly announced that battleground states had fallen to Gore, the congressmen charged, but they held off on telling potential voters about Bush victories in Ohio, Georgia and West Virginia.

"The evidence is mounting that there is some kind of bias in this system," said Tauzin, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee. "Is the bias accidental or intentional?"

"The impression left on voters still going to the polls was that the election was going badly for George W. Bush," Tauzin said. He plans to hold hearings on the matter next year, when he hopes to be newly installed in the more powerful TV-oversight post as chairman of the House Commerce Committee.

Tauzin and fellow Commerce Committee Republicans aren't the only ones accusing the networks of skewing the results. The Committee for Honest Politics said it would support voter lawsuits against the networks in eight Florida Panhandle counties. The gripe is that, by calling Florida for Gore before all the polls in the state closed, the broadcast networks unfairly influenced the election, said Executive Director Dan Perrin.

"The point is that the networks materially affected the election, violated the civil rights of thousands of voters" by calling Florida before some polls closed, said Perrin. No official comment from the networks, although privately they dismiss his concerns given the short time between the calls and the poll closings (10 to 20 minutes depending on whom you talk to).

But the group asked a Florida court to dismiss a lawsuit it helped file against the networks last week, because of all the legal confusion surrounding the vote recounts there.

In response to Republicans' accusations that the broadcast networks' early calls may have biased results, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) last Thursday promised to introduce legislation that would require all 50 states to close their polls at the same time.

While Republicans were bashing the Big Three, Democrats were piling on FOX News after details emerged from
New Yorker

magazine that the network's election desk manager, John Ellis, was keeping Bush apprised of results as they were coming in throughout election night. One small detail: Ellis happens to be Bush's cousin.

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, whose conservative stances are well-known, defended Ellis last week after accusations emerged that he may have urged the network to call states for Bush more on ideological grounds than on what the vote tabulations were revealing. "If you look at the record of when FOX News cleared various states it was equal to or a minute behind the other networks," Murdoch said. "We were very, very careful."

As for Ellis' being in touch with his cousin all night, Murdoch replied, "I would say that every journalist was desperately trying to get in touch with candidates and their staffs. They were swapping information and finding out everything they could. That's their job."

But some FOX News staffers were furious about how Ellis' phone calls may have damaged the network's image. "He put all our credibility at risk," a network insider said.

In hiring political columnist and veteran analyst Ellis, FOX News was tapping a conservative commentator and author to work for a network that fights accusations of a right-wing tilt. "There will inevitably come a time when the Bush campaign does something that I think is wrong. I won't write about it, because I am never going to write a column about my cousin that is not sympathetic," Ellis wrote in the
Boston Globe

last year.

FOX host Bill O'Reilly blasted coverage of the dispute by other media on his
O'Reilly Factor

last week, saying that he felt the network was under attack "because we're so successful." However, he also admitted he was uncomfortable with Ellis' election-night contacts with the GOP contender: "He should not have been talking to anybody on election night. The fact that he did it put me in a bad position, because all I have to sell is trust."

Ah, trust.

The idea of uniform poll closing has come up before: In 1980, early network calls gave the presidency to Ronald Reagan long before many voters in California had even gone to the polls. But states rejected that idea, saying it overrode their authority to govern themselves.

While announcing his proposed legislation, Markey suggested that Republicans were being paranoid about the networks' election coverage. "I believe the only real bias the media demonstrates is not toward one candidate or another but rather toward being first," said Markey, the ranking member on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.

Network officials said privately they think Tauzin and company's accusations were ridiculous. One network executive called them "completely unfounded and outrageous." For the record, each of the big three issued statements insisting their coverage was fair and unbiased, while also admitting it was also flawed by the big snafu in Florida.

Even before the Tauzin blast, CBS News last week tapped Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, to join the panel conducting the internal review of the network's election-night coverage.

It's a growth business: All the networks and the Voter News Service have separate investigations ongoing; CNN Chairman Tom Johnson wrote two letters to Tauzin informing him of an independent advisory committee that would study the network's election-night mistakes. But he went on to deny "categorically" any "intentional bias." (Tauzin, on a spate of TV talk shows, seemed to find the "intentional" qualifier mighty significant.)

But conspiracies are hard to organize, and, if for no other reason than that, Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, seemed to be saying, Tauzin's accusations are baseless. "Certainly, none of what he's saying is done with any intention of slanting the reporting," Cochran said. "If he'd ever been in a newsroom on election night, he would know how chaotic and unplanned it seems. To orchestrate something like that over four or five networks would be pretty impossible."