For the first time in four years, we will all get to watch how the network news organizations perform when the presidency of the United States is at stake.
There is probably no need to remind anyone, but the last time not one of the networks wrapped itself in glory. All five television networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC), The Associated Press and their collaborative creation, Voter News Service, called Florida and the presidency for Gore. Then they all backed off. Later, all five networks declared Florida for Bush. Later still, they finally got it right: It was too close too call.
AP was spared the second embarrassing wrong call because it was generating its own set of tabulated returns that didn’t match with the VNS numbers. AP knew something was wrong and held back.
Until that night, VNS had a wonderful reputation for accuracy. Using exit polls, it had projected thousands of races and made only a handful of errors. Its return system also was known for its speed and accuracy.
But that awful night, VNS had problems with both its exit poll and the returns in Florida. Such was the faith of the networks that they went to the air not once but twice with stories based on VNS information that was wrong.
And there was hell to pay. The heads of the networks and AP were hauled in front of Congress, sworn to testify to the truth and grilled. Many promises of reform were made, many of which centered on fixing what ailed VNS. Some even talked of creating a second, independent organization for returns and polls.
But the idea of a second polling system died an early death. The idea of even splitting the cost among three major media organizations was considered too expensive. Instead, millions of dollars were spent to reform and repair VNS.
The first big test of the “new” VNS came in the 2002 elections, and the results of that test were less than impressive. The returns system worked so slowly that it was largely worthless. The exit poll was too unreliable to be used. The networks made do with returns from AP, leaving them with no projections and curtailed analysis of who had voted and why.
Going into the 2004 elections, news media are counting on less than what was envisioned for 2002. Two years ago, we had a single exit poll and two sets of tabulated returns, one from AP and one VNS. This time, there will be one exit poll and one set of returns.
The networks and AP formed the National Election Pool. NEP has contracted with Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International to produce the exit poll. In addition, the networks are contracting with AP to enhance their election returns systems.
But without the second return system once produced by VNS, everyone is in the same boat for not only the exit poll, but also the tabulated returns.
Members of NEP are confident they have fixed the problems that plagued VNS returns in 2000 and 2002. “We learned a lot from each failure. We have done lots of upfront extra testing, intensive testing of system functionality,” said Jack Stokes of The Associated Press. “Everything has worked in the primaries.”
Tom Joury is director of elections tabulations for The Associated Press. He says great care was taken to build redundancy into the system because there is only the single source for returns.
“We have multiple sources at the start collecting the votes,” he said. “We are most pleased with the analysis of the votes as they go in. We’re looking at absentee votes, voter turnout, etc. to eliminate errors. We have automatic failover to another system if the system goes down. We have done lots of things with systems and editorial control to overcome concerns about having only one source.”
Pool members say expense is the reason there is only one exit poll and one return system. Creating and maintaining a polling system that covers all 50 states is an enormous undertaking. They have to be scientifically accurate. On Election Day, 1,200 voters have to be persuaded to answer the questionnaires. It has to be done throughout the day, because different types of people vote at different times of the day. Then the results have to be crunched, analyzed and distributed to news agencies throughout the country.
“They are too much for any one partner,” said Cathy Levine of ABC News. “We need to pool together to provide this.”
Asked about the specific costs, Levine offered a telling response: “We don’t talk about that.” Published estimates of total costs range from $10 million to $15 million.
Tom Wolzien is senior media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein, an investment and research management company. He’s one of the people who made those large cost estimates. His experience includes 16 years at NBC, where he helped run the election unit.
Wolzien scoffs at the notion that the networks can’t afford to have more than one exit poll or returns system. He says for network parent companies such as Viacom, Disney or Time Warner, $10 million amounts to under half a cent on earnings. For a company the size of GE, it’s more like one-tenth of 1 percent.
“These decisions are being made by low-level managers under cost pressures at a point where there is little resistance,” Wolzien said. He points out that some of the greatest news organizations in the world are operating under a single-source standard – a standard far below what the same organizations would require in their day-to-day news coverage. When they lower the standard for a story as important as the election of the U.S. president, Wolzien says, it “jeopardizes fundamental coverage and the fundamental democracy of the country.”
Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC’s news division, says spending the money for independent systems would come out of the budget for other news coverage. “In many American newsrooms, AP is the single source for information. Many are comfortable with this,” he said. “We all remember 2000. We’re more cautious than we’ve ever been. We think the system is equal to the task.”
Tom Hannon, political director for CNN, points out that while there’s only one source of election results, what journalism organizations do with the information differs greatly.
“We do compete on the analysis of the information,” he said. Hannon argues that viewers are better served by this arrangement. “We can do much more by pooling our resources.”
But that differs sharply from the findings of CNN’s own independent committee. The committee was established in the wake of the 2000 fiasco to figure out what went wrong and to recommend changes for CNN to follow to avoid future disasters in election coverage. Joan Konner, James Risser and Ben Wattenberg comprised the committee. The full report of the committee’s findings can be found online Here
CNN.com published an article in February, 2001 about the findings:
Joan Konner of the Columbia University School of Journalism, also a member of the independent CNN review, said the panel found that the networks’ reliance on the same source, the Voter News Service, for data led to much of the problems.
“We believe that relying on a single source of information contradicts well-known, deeply entrenched, best journalistic practices,” she said. The study recommended an overhaul of VNS and the addition of a competing source of voting data.
Election night 2000 was “a very bad moment for us and our credibility,” said Wheatley. “The memory of 2000 should follow us into the next century.”
Perhaps that is one sentiment everyone can agree with.
Gary Hill is chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and director of investigations for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis.