The presidential election finally came to an end last week, but Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) has no plans to let the news networks off the hook.
In letters to CBS News President Andrew Heyward, NBC President Bob Wright, ABC News President David Westin, Fox News President Roger Ailes and CNN President Tom Johnson, the would-be chairman of the House Commerce Committee said he will continue his investigation of election-night miscues.
"Our own analysis of the networks' election night 'victory calls' indicates an incontrovertible bias in the results that were reported," Tauzin wrote. He listed examples to show that the networks more readily called close states for Gore than for Bush.
"In short," he said, "the data-collection system and models used by the networks produced results which consistently reported Vice President Gore's victories earlier than Governor Bush's victories, portraying a skewed electoral picture and disenfranchising many American voters. By any definition of the word, isn't that bias?"
The news networks had no comment, other than to say they are conducting internal investigations on exit polling and early predictions.
Tauzin kept the tone civil, thanking the networks "for taking this matter seriously enough to launch your own internal investigation." He also thanked them "for assuring our committee and the public that your network was not intentionally biased in its election-night coverage. I hope that will prove to be true, as I have carefully avoided making any such charges."
Though planning to persist in his investigations, Tauzin says he does not plan to introduce legislation other than a uniform-poll-closing bill co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). He plans hearings in January or February.
Tauzin's assurances may be comforting to some news-media executives, but others remain concerned about government intrusions.
"Almost any form of regulation would be a disaster," said Terence Smith, of PBS' Newshour With Jim Lehrer
, at a Media Institute luncheon last week in Washington. At that event, news executives discussed whether the media made a mistake on election night and what should be done.
Most of the panelists agreed that all the major news organizations lost some credibility.
"There are questions that all of us have to answer. We just have to hope that [the public] will continue to trust us," said CBS' Bill Plante.
"Credibility is the single greatest issue here," agreed Smith, "and it's the highest price to pay."
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, defended the news organizations and said the government needs to let them investigate themselves. "The notion that news organizations need to explain themselves to the public is very important."
The panelists said it is likely unconstitutional to make any law that prevents the networks from using exit polls or predicting election results. And, with the Internet, "it's hard to believe it would be possible to enforce a ban on releasing exit polling," Plante said. "The information would be out there."
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