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Bad Call In Florida

By Richard Morin

Monday , November 13, 2000 ; Page A27

It's abundantly clear that major television networks have no one but themselves to blame for the debacle in the wee hours of Wednesday in which they gave Florida and the presidency to Gov. George W. Bush and then sheepishly took it back an hour later.

But it's also evident that the networks are not about to blame themselves for the debacle. Instead, they've selected Voter News Service, the network exit poll consortium, to take the fall.

VNS was established by the networks in 1990 to conduct exit polls on Election Day--and apparently to serve as the whipping boy for bad decisions by network newsies.

Barely hours after the blown Bush prediction, VNS issued this oblique mea culpa: "The call for Bush in Florida later in the evening was made solely on the basis of the tabulated vote. . . . As the remaining voters were tabulated, that lead dropped dramatically and the members [the major networks and Associated Press] felt that even though Bush was still ahead, the responsible thing to do was to withdraw the call."

One problem: VNS never called Florida for Bush. Fox News was the first to declare Florida for the Republicans as vote counts supplied by VNS continued to show Bush with a substantial lead. Fox announced the call at 2:16 a.m. (Ironically, the decision to declare Bush the winner was made by John Ellis, who headed the call desk at Fox and happens to be Bush's cousin.)

The other networks quickly followed suit, only to take the call back around 3 a.m. But VNS officials confirm they never issued a prediction.

Warren Mitofsky, the first director of VNS who worked Election Night for CBS and CNN, reacted with disbelief when the VNS statement was read to him over the telephone. "VNS is confused," he said. "They did not make the second call. They have nothing to withdraw."

But withdrawing the non-call is precisely what they did. Why? VNS isn't talking. Its media patrons have imposed a gag order. "Right now I can't answer anything about Florida," Murray Edelman, editorial director of VNS, said. "That's the choice of the board right now."

Actually, Tuesday's debacle in Florida, which included an earlier call for Gore, was an inevitable consequence of a decision by ABC in 1994 to go out on its own to make election calls. Prior to that time, VNS had been responsible for all calls on Election Night, which were reported by the networks.

Then ABC News in 1994 decided to go its own way. It quietly set up a decision desk and staffed it with experts who reviewed the VNS exit poll results and incoming vote counts--and then made their own predictions.

It beat VNS to important calls, declaring Gov. Mario Cuomo the loser in New York, calling Bush's victory over Ann Richards in the Texas governor's race and Oliver North's loss to Sen. Chuck Robb in Virginia. It was the polling equivalent of Pearl Harbor. "The other networks were blind-sided," Mitofsky said.

The peace thus broken, a range war began. By 1996, each network had in place a decision desk staffed with statisticians, political scientists and consultants in service to a single dubious end: be the first to call the winner of state and national races.

So what's to do? One obvious answer is to give VNS and the networks some competition. The Los Angeles Times currently does the only other national exit poll. Other news organizations should, separately or together, conduct their own national and local exit polls as a check and balance on VNS.

The networks themselves need to dump their decision desks. Instead, make VNS solely responsible for making all state and national Election-Night calls. These calls would then be reported by the networks and subsequently by other media. The new rule (actually, the pre-1994 rule): Nobody makes early calls, or their access to VNS data, including the feeds of the actual vote counts, is severed instantly and for the duration of Election Night.

If VNS makes a wrong call, smite it hard. And if all this responsibility makes VNS reluctant to call all but the biggest blowouts before the very last vote is counted--who cares? Better a few late nights waiting for final vote counts than a few more late-night disasters.

Finally, take VNS mostly off the hook for Tuesday's debacle and put the networks squarely on it. In particular, here's what ABC must do, and quickly: Get Peter Jennings to beggar himself on the nightly news. Make him admit on behalf of ABC that the network was wrong six years ago to start this rush to judgment that culminated with Wednesday's humiliating Bush call. Order him to apologize effusively for any damage done to the political process. Finally, allow him to announce that ABC's decision desk has been placed in permanent storage. And make every other anchor do much the same thing.

Now that would be must-see TV.

The writer is director of polling for The Post.

B) 2000 The Washington Post

-- Martin Thompson (, November 13, 2000

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