Echo Chamber of Horrors

Let's get one thing straight right from the get-go. We would rather be last in reporting returns than be wrong... . If we say somebody has carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank, book it that that's true.

--Dan Rather, CBS News, early evening, November 7

We've always said, you know, this is not an exact science. It's an imperfect art at best. And one of the things I think we could do better is to underscore more often with people that while we believe we were right in making these calls ... they can be wrong.

--Dan Rather on CNN's Reliable Sources, November 11

It is not long past 4:00 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, on the morning of November 8, and Brit Hume and the rest of the Fox News commentators have lapsed into silence for what seems like a full 20 seconds, an eternity in television time. A quiet moment of contrition, perhaps, for the series of prognosticatory debacles that has preceded? A humble recognition of the fact that by this point--with the presidency effectively having been granted to and rescinded from each candidate over the course of six hours--there is nothing left to say?

If only.

No, the Fox News folks are quiet because they are watching CNN. Fox is at this moment broadcasting live video from War Memorial Plaza in Nashville, where thousands of Al Gore supporters stand in the rain, waiting for the vice president to appear and bring dramatic closure to the evening. People have been watching the stage with an acute sense of anticipation for hours, enduring a cold drizzle that, as the night drags on, has begun to feel unhappily appropriate. By this time in the morning, they--along with the millions of us watching television at home--have been subjected to a full range of results and emotions. Florida, and with it the election, has been given to them (7:49 p.m.), taken away from them (9:54 p.m.), given to George W. Bush (2:16 a.m.), and taken away from him (3:50 a.m.). Special graphics saying "George Bush, President-elect" and "George Bush, 43rd President" have appeared and then vanished. The vice president, the networks report, has called the governor to concede (2:30 a.m.) and then unconcede (3:45 a.m.). The crowd on War Memorial Plaza--and the viewers at home--are dazed and stupefied.

This is also a fair description of the network news anchors. Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw appear pained and enervated; Dan Rather, though apologetic, seems oddly energized, growing loopier as the hour grows later. "We've lived by the crystal ball; we're eating so much broken glass. We're in critical condition," he says. "We don't just have egg on our face; we have an omelet," Brokaw says. "If you're disgusted with us, frankly, I don't blame you," says Rather. Jennings, glancing despairingly around the studio for direction that is not forthcoming, admits he honestly doesn't know what to do next. It's not just Jennings: No one does.

This may be the best explanation for how it is that at this moment, circa 4:00 a.m. on November 8, the Fox News team (Brit Hume, The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol, and National Public Radio's Mara Liasson) has come to be watching CNN. As Hume comments in his desultory way on the scene in Nashville, he stops to survey the live video feed and then to listen to what sound like official announcements in the background. Except it turns out that these announcements are emanating from the giant video screen overhanging the plaza like a JumboTron at a rock concert: CNN correspondent John King is describing in authoritative tones what he knows about what is happening at the War Memorial, which is effectively nothing. Yet Hume and gang, apparently mesmerized by the prospect of some real information--is Gore about to appear?--strain to listen. And 10, 15--could it even have been 20?--seconds pass without comment from the Fox studio. All that can be heard are the murmur of the crowd and the strains of CNN. Mara Liasson finally breaks in with an embarrassed, "Well, enough of that. Our coverage is better than that," and Hume quickly concurs with a chuckle.

What makes this tableau even more weirdly postmodern is that the people on the plaza are gleaning most of their information from the television networks, which are being broadcast on the large screen looming over the crowd. (A similar screen is set up by the capitol building in Austin, where throngs of Bush supporters are gathered.) And what the networks are broadcasting, of course, is the scene at Nashville's War Memorial Plaza--so what the people on the plaza are seeing on the network broadcasts is ... themselves, watching themselves watching themselves (and so on) on the huge TV above. Which means, in effect, that they are gleaning information from themselves--except, of course, they don't know anything. It makes your head spin.

This moment is as emblematic of the evening's TV follies as any: Network A publicly reduced to watching Network B for information while Network B, in turn, watches itself. Can there be any more apt a symbol for the infinite feedback loop that television news has become? (Actually, maybe so: At one point, CNN's Judy Woodruff asks correspondent John King, "What's that noise in the background?" King, grinning sheepishly, responds, "Um, that's me. They've got CNN broadcasting on the big screen, so there's an echo." As you hear King's words reverberating a split second later in the background, the crowd on the plaza breaks into laughter and applause.)

Tom Brokaw: Doris, Doris, Doris ...

Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian-turned-TVanalyst: Uh oh, something has happened.

--NBC News, November 8, 2:18 a.m.

There is no underestimating the psychological impact of the unanimous network calls for Bush. For anyone born since 1940--and for pretty much everyone else, too--television is truth. Yes, everyone knows that advertisements are full of distortions and exaggerations, that pundits are full of hot air, that sitcoms and dramas and even "reality TV" are not real. But in a matter as weighty as this, the presidency of the United States, television is simply not wrong. Television, for most of us, is reality.

Even presidents and would-be presidents get their reality from TV, which is why Gore conceded in response to the 2:16 a.m. network call. When Tom Brokaw said, "George Bush is the president-elect of the United States," television was not just reporting an external reality. It was declaring reality. Hundreds of thousands of votes remained to be counted in Florida and elsewhere. But with the network calls for Bush, the election was--as the mammoth TV screen outside the capitol in Austin blared while displaying a video montage of George W. at work and play--signed, sealed, delivered to the Texas governor. This despite the fact that, based on the vote count then current, he hadn't actually won.

Television cannot be blamed for butterfly ballots, hanging chads, or the oddity of the Florida vote count's falling within the statistical margin of error, but it can be blamed for the erroneous impression that the election was won by Bush and then stolen by Gore. Bush may yet, through courts and counts, legitimately win this election. But if he doesn't, there will be the lingering feeling that his rightful election-night victory was yanked away from him unfairly. And depending on the outcome, Gore will look like either a sore loser or an illegitimate winner. While it is demonstrably false that a Bush victory was clear on the morning of November 8, the power of television is such that the impression many people had on Wednesday morning was that a victory by Bush (the television said he won!) was stolen by Gore. This is not a trivial misunderstanding; the media, through faulty news coverage, may have robbed a Gore presidency of whatever fragile legitimacy it might have had. And having declared Bush the winner, the networks had, however subconsciously, a stake in continuing to depict Gore as a sore loser.

The networks giveth and the networks taketh away.

--Tom Brokaw, NBC News, late evening, November 7

How could the networks (all of them!) have screwed up something so important (twice!) as a presidential election call, briefly coronating the wrong candidate?

For a satisfactory answer to this question, we have to go back to 1934, when passage of the Federal Communications Act established licensed broadcasters' responsibility to serve "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." The act was supposed to ensure that, since the government was basically giving away part of the public domain, the commercial licensees would produce at least some programming that served the public interest and not just a broadcaster's bottom line.

At the dawn of television, news rarely made money, and it wasn't expected to do so. Though the very first television news show--Camel Newsreel Theatre, which premiered in 1948 on NBC--was designed as a fundamentally commercial enterprise (its sponsorship contract stipulated that there must always be a Camel cigarette burning visibly in an ashtray on the news desk), subsequent news programs like The Huntley-Brinkley Report (which premiered in 1956) and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (which premiered in 1963) were aimed at generating prestige but not necessarily profits for the networks. Broadcasters could generate quality news programming and serve the public interest without being overly concerne with commercial imperatives.

CBS's 60 Minutes changed that. Premiering in 1968, 60 Minutes was almost a decade old before it became the ratings hit that it remains today. But when it did, as one of its creators, Don Hewitt, said years later, "it single-handedly ruined television." Before 60 Minutes, news shows were seen as a public service; after its great success, they were seen as potential profit centers.

For a few years, news divisions managed to hold the line, albeit feebly, against eroding quality, even in the new profit-maximizing environment. The legacy of network news was still a proud one, and the diversity of ownership produced healthy competition among network news divisions for talent and stories. But as conglomerates came into power--like General Electric (which bought NBC), a product manufacturer and defense subcontractor; Westinghouse (which bought CBS), a manufacturer and defense contractor with insurance and banking interests; and Disney, a media-entertainment complex (which bought ABC)--the emphasis on the bottom line intensified. News division budgets were sometimes cut deeply.

After the dismal 1988 election (Michael Dukakis versus George H.W. Bush) drew poor ratings, the corporate bosses at GE and Westinghouse pointed to the $17 million it cost to do polling and data collection for each of the news divisions and asked whether that figure couldn't be reduced. Until this point, each network had its own armada of statisticians, pollsters, and political scientists, who would collect data in the field and oversee the decision making process on election night, making sure calls were made accurately and not prematurely. In this way, each network served as a check and balance on all the others: As soon as, say, ABC had declared so-and-so the winner in Florida, then NBC and CBS would be checking their own, independently collected numbers to see whether they felt comfortable following suit. Yes, the networks competed hard to be first; but they were very careful because if they were wrong they would be shown up quickly.

But in 1990, under pressure from corporate headquarters, the Big Three networks joined with CNN and the Associated Press to establish the Voter News Service (VNS). The VNS pooled survey and polling data for all the news organizations, saving them each up to $10 million per election. This also had the advantage of relieving the individual networks of the responsibility to make election projections. Instead, VNS would make the call on a given state or election and then make that call available to all the networks and news services at the same time. But while this saved money, it removed the system of checks in place under the old regime, since VNS had become the sole source of data.

Compounding this problem, ABC News decided in 1994 to set up, more or less clandestinely, its own decision desk to interpret and extrapolate from VNS data. Drawing on VNS data but making its own predictions, ABC successfully called George Pataki's gubernatorial defeat of Mario Cuomo in New York, Chuck Robb's senatorial defeat of Oliver North in Virginia, and George W. Bush's defeat of Ann Richards in Texas before VNS did--and therefore before any of the other networks did. It was, according to Richard Morin, director of polling for The Washington Post, "the polling equivalent of Pearl Harbor." By 1996 all the networks had their own decision desks for processing VNS data.

This has brought us to the current arrangement--the worst of all possible worlds. With everyone drawing on the same VNS data pool, there's no opportunity for independent corroboration (or disputing) of results. Yet with each network hoping to have its predictions be the first, there's enormous competitive pressure to make calls prematurely, before VNS has called an election or a state. This is why we had the spectacle on election night of states and congressional elections being pulled back and forth willy-nilly. And it's why we are now treated to the bizarre spectacle of networks crowing not about who was right first but who was wrong last. (We also get to see network executives trying to hide behind VNS--as if VNS were other than a creation of the networks!)

This is where we appear to be, folks. The CBS New--News has now, for the second time tonight, pulled back Florida.

--Dan Rather, around 3:50 a.m., November 8

The most malodorous product of this execrable system in the 2000 election was the botched Florida call. When Florida was declared the first time, all the networks and VNS gave the state to Gore at about the same time. They also all retracted around the same time, within a 20-minute period. But here's a telling point, little noted in press reports to date: VNS never called Florida for Bush. The numbers it was producing around 2:15 a.m. were trending that way, but not definitively enough for them to make the call. It was reportedly Fox decision desk staffer John Ellis--who, as has widely been reported (originally by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker), is a first cousin of George W. and Jeb Bush and had been on the phone with them all night--who called Florida, and thus the election, for Bush that night. The other networks, under pressure from their corporate chieftains not to get badly beaten by the upstart Fox, quickly followed suit over the next two minutes. It's impossible to put too fine a point on this: The outcome of a very close presidential election was nearly decided by George Bush's first cousin--who had quit his job as a columnist for The Boston Globe because, he said, his loyalty to his cousin would trump his commitment to objective journalism. If that doesn't indicate a problem with the system as currently constituted, what does?

We ought not to speculate on a Bush presidency yet. And I think you're right. Should we speculate on a Gore presidency? I mean, someone has got to be president.

--Sam Donaldson, ABC News correspondent, late evening, November 7

The problems afflicting television news (PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is an admirable exception to most of what follows here) go broader and deeper than incorrect election calls, serious as those may be. The list of negative indicators is long and familiar. The evening network news audience has dropped from 40 million to 20 million over the past 10 years, with viewers defecting to CNN or the Internet or simply tuning out. In the 1960s, the average candidate sound bite on television was 45 seconds; today it's less than eight seconds. According to the Hess Report, a project of the Brookings Institution funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, nightly news shows are devoting less and less time to campaign coverage. The last eight weeks of this election (before November 7, that is) saw 670 fewer minutes of coverage than the comparable period in 1992. And the percentage of that time dedicated to "horse race coverage," as opposed to exploration of substantive policy issues, keeps increasing; it comprised 71 percent of all campaign coverage between Labor Day and the end of October this year. Horse race coverage bleeds quickly into wanton speculation. CNN may have been the first network to institutionalize speculation-as-news--the art of reporting on something not just as or after it happens, but before. Now all of the networks have caught on.

The most urgent challenge of all may be how to minimize what I'll call the Ellis effect: the danger that TV media will cross the line from reporting an event to affecting it. To some extent, there's an inevitable Heisenberg principle at work in all reporting. No media rendering of events is completely transparent, and such basic decisions as what to cover and how to cover it can always have an impact on an audience's perception of reality, which may then affect how the audience reacts to it. But surely there is something to be done about the more tangible problems of "changing" reality by making erroneous election calls, or of suppressing turnout by making early (even if correct) election calls. Republican Congressmen Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, Christopher Cox of California, and Cliff Stearns of Florida held a press conference on November 17 to demand hearings on the effects of early calls by the networks, especially in Democratic states. While Tauzin was engaging in partisan gamesmanship, this is a bipartisan complaint.

I would rather walk through a furnace in a gasoline suit than be wrong about anything.

--Dan Rather on Reliable Sources

I did not enjoy looking like a fool.

--CBS political analyst Bob Schieffer to radio-TV-personality Don Imus on November 8

Other than momentary embarrassment, the networks have suffered no ill effects from their dreadful election-night performance. Quite the opposite. At 11:00 p.m. on November 7, CNN had nearly eight million viewers, its highest total since the day of the Columbine murders. For the three days after the election, the cable networks CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News drew ratings 500 percent greater than their average third-quarter numbers. And the total election-night audience for broadcast and cable combined was 61.6 million viewers, a 70 percent increase from 1996, when Bill Clinton clobbered Bob Dole. In fact, while ratings were higher in the 1960 and 1976 elections because the overall U.S. population was smaller, the 2000 election drew more households than any election in television history. What's more, advertisers are banging down the door to buy slots on the election-controversy broadcasts. Larry Goodman, CNN's president of ad sales and marketing, has reported that clients have come to him saying, "Get me on the air and keep me on the air for as long as this thing stays hot." And trade publications report that some networks are selling special "breaking news" packages to advertisers. It is clear that, given the perverse logic of the news industry whereby bad news is good for ratings and profits, the networks can financially afford to address some of their problems.

A straightforward solution to the Heisenberg-Ellis problem would be a proscription on calling elections before all votes are cast. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have expressed an interest in some kind of regulation along this line, and a recent Pew Research Center poll found that 87 percent of respondents thought networks should wait until all votes are counted before announcing election results.

An easy remedy for the problem of VNS being the lone data source is to establish competitors who will also collect exit poll data and early returns. The hard part is finding the funding to bankroll such competitors. (Currently, the Los Angeles Times has the only other national-election-data service.) But this remedy addresses the most extreme symptom of the debasement of public-service programming by television.

Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate proposes a regulation that correlates the size of a local broadcaster's market share with the size of its mandated public-service obligation, as a way of ensuring that primary-election debates, for example, get more television coverage. Robert Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, proposes outlawing paid campaign commercials outright and replacing them with free prime-time slots (in chunks of 15 minutes and longer) to candidates from parties who have polled more than 5 percent in the previous election.

But such proposals seem, one way or another, politically unrealistic: too utopian, too naive about the broadcasters' lobbying clout, too cavalier about abrogating the First Amendment. What's more, an occupational flaw of the civic-minded media critic is the chronic underestimation of the human appetite for fluff over substance. An effective reform plan must take this foible into account. More important, such a plan must one way or another win network news divisions enough distance from commercial demands that they have the freedom and the resources necessary to produce good news programming.

I said earlier that the most apt symbols of the election-night follies were those that signified the closed-loop nature of the network news media. But perhaps a still better symbol of television news today is George Stephanopoulos's beard. As November 7 turned to November 8, viewers could watch as the ABC commentator's beard grew visibly darker--remarkably so, like something in a time-lapse photography series.

What the gradual darkening of George's beard suggests to me--he stayed on the air for 14 hours straight--is that the relationship between time and the news has changed. No longer, the former Clinton aide's face seemed to be saying, is the news a fixed point in time. News, in other words, used to be presented for the most part in discrete increments, with the arrival of the morning and evening newspapers or the broadcast of the nightly news. News was not simply information, an endless supply of data, but, rather, perspective, something you could take the time to digest. Of course, in reality, events never stopped long enough for the morning paper or the evening newscast to fix them in place; after all, the conceit that we ever knew the "latest" from Israel or Tallahassee just because we read the morning paper was always arrogant. And the new, continuous-flow definition of news more nearly approximates the flow of life itself. Still, news in the days when the news cycle remained a once-per-24-hour-period proposition was certainly different--not to say better--in that it gave more time both to viewers and to news broadcasters, who could produce real stories, place them in their proper context, and explain them, rather than simply provide running commentary on a live video feed. What we see when we watch CNN or MSNBC, or news on the networks that is constantly "breaking" (as with O.J. or impeachment or JonBenet or, now, the 2000 election) is not news in the classic sense but, as media expert Bob Lichter has put it, the "news-gathering process. You're watching reporters gathering items. Some turn out to be right; some turn out to be wrong; some are propaganda spinning from the campaigns." We would do well to remember this. ยค