"Worst error" in history still haunting US television networks

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Tuesday, November 21 6:17 AM SGT

"Worst error" in history still haunting US television networks

NEW YORK, Nov 20 (AFP) -

Two weeks after the still-undecided presidential election, US television networks are reeling from the aftershocks of the "worst error" in television history and continue to defend themselves against charges of bias.

On November 7, major cable and network news channels fell into the pitfall of early predictions and were forced not once but three times to retract and correct their projections.

An early award of Florida's 25 electoral votes to Vice President Al Gore was withdrawn. An award of those same votes to Texas Governor George W. Bush was recanted.

But most egregiously, the award of the 43rd presidency of the United States to Bush, was also corrected, after Florida was deemed too close to call.

"You are probably furious with us and I don't blame you," CBS news anchor Dan Rather told his viewers.

"We are conducting a thorough review of election night procedures," said CBS vice president Linda Mason. "What happened is a blow to our credibility. We have to earn back the trust."

But even as the networks battle to regain their lost credibility in face of their haste to declare a winner, they face charges of bias.

According to the Republican camp, the errors can only be attributed to an innate preference by journalists for the Democratic candidate.

The Republicans claim that the quick and erroneous award of Florida to the vice president before polls in the west were closed made Republican supporters stay home, believing the race had been decided.

The networks are as quick to issue denials of bias as they were to report early exit poll results on November 7. Independent election-night review committees were being set up post-haste.

"The accusation that there was bias in CBS News reporting of election night results is completely without foundation," said CBS president Andrew Heyward.

"NBC prides itself on its standards of fairness and accuracy," said a statement released by the network.

"I state categorically there was no intentional bias in the election night reporting," said CNN's Tom Johnson.

The rhetoric has reached such a fevered pitch that the House of Representatives could vote on legislation sponsored by Louisiana Republican William Tauzin to launch a federal inquiry into the networks' conduct.

But the post-election drama that unfurls in the Sunshine State still makes for gripping television, according to ratings watchers at the Nielsen Media Research Institute.

Even the networks that have offered mea culpas and boasted of their self-flagellation for their election-night nightmare have seen a spike in their ratings.

The cable network MSNBC saw a three-fold boost in its election coverage compared to 1996, keeping 642,000 people glued to their sets for post-election coverage.

Fox News Channel has also seen a jump in its ratings, with producers gleefully predicting high ratings through Thursday, the US Thanksgiving.

"Worst error" in history still haunting US television networks

-- Ain't Gonna Happen (Not Here Not@ever.com), November 21, 2000

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