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Restoring lost credibility

Mike Royko would have loved the 2000 election. The late Chicago columnist used to advise voters to lie to pollsters to keep a little suspense in the electoral process—and make TV news folk squirm.

The squirming hasn't stopped. The coming midyear election will give the media and its polling consortium, Voter News Service (VNS), a chance to reverse or reinforce the lost credibility of two years ago as well as take a trial run for the 2004 presidential election with a revamped but untried system of computers and models.

The 2002 races will determine control of the House and Senate, noted ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin, "and there's the potential for several close races, simultaneous with a new set of systems and models at VNS. It's a complicated cocktail at a time when we will need the best information. But as high as the stakes are this year," he added, "the public interest and public importance in a presidential year is going to be higher. This election is a chance to educate ourselves."

That contentious 2000 election turned into a nightmare for the entire nation, but especially for network executives and polling services who found themselves flogged by Congress for election-night errors in which Al Gore and George W. Bush were each declared winner and loser at various points throughout the night.

After widespread public criticism, apologies, congressional hearings and unsuccessful attempts by some congressmen to regulate how the news media covers national elections, much rests on the network's performance this fall. But VNS's readiness has already been called into question by an Aug. 16 Washington Post
article suggesting that the revamped system is behind schedule and might not be ready.

"Clearly," a network executive told BROADCASTING & CABLE, "it's a possibility that there will be problems with the data." For all the millions spent in upgrading, the executive suggested, "it's not clear that, even if you spent a trillion dollars, that the problems [of 2000] would be solved."

Ted Savaglio, the former CBS news executive now running the embattled reporting service, disagrees. "We're designing something we believe is going to be better than we had before. And we anticipate that it will be ready for the 2002 election."

VNS is expected to discuss the improvements publicly early next month. The changes are expected to address absentee ballots, which have increased in recent elections. A larger absentee vote tends to more closely resemble the regular vote, according to a source familiar with election reporting. Where the last election correlated the absentee vote to a past gubernatorial race, the source suggested, the prior presidential race might have been a better match.

The networks have pledged to be more restrained in projecting winners. They plan to distinguish between projections and final tallies, refrain from projections for a state where polls remain open, and even avoid calling some close races.

A system malfunction on Election Night 2000 prevented numbers from the Associated Press, which proved to be more reliable than other tallies, from being fully utilized for cross-checking. "The networks want a second source of data," said AP Deputy Director Brad Kabfeld. "We're that source." This time, he added, the numbers will be available on VNS's computers (AP is a founding VNS member, along with ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox).

The highest priority, says a network executive, is not even to provide accurate projections but to keep inaccurate information off the air.

Another malfunction in the system could change the way elections are reported on television, a network executive suggests, beginning with Election Night prime time special reports. "There'd be 10 o'clock reports with far fewer results than people are used to. That would call into question the value of that 10 p.m. broadcast. It could kill the entire broadcast."