Blowing the Call
The networks' election-night debacle is a vivid reminder that hunches aren't news.
By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (firstname.lastname@example.org), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
THE DAY AFTER the most extraordinary vote in a century, a local television reporter was in my office interviewing me about the election-night performance of the news media. "A train wreck," I said, sitting back a little self-satisfied with an answer that, while lacking nuance and care, was a decent enough sound bite.
Then she pressed on: What did this dead-heat election between Al Gore and George Bush say about America?
Her shifting line of inquiry caught me off guard. I'm not a politician. I've never been a political scientist, political consultant, political columnist or political junkie. I've never even been on MSNBC. I had my opinion about what the results meant, as did every other God-fearing, mother-loving American, but I have no particular standing to address the sociopolitics of the ballot.
Did that stop me from yammering away? Of course not. Because I was on television. And we all understand the rules: When you're on television, you're not allowed to say, "I don't know."
Time after time we are reminded that the beauty of television--ferrying us to the news in real time, emotionally conveying the sweep of the big story--is also its bane. Because as the big story plays out, be it a plane crash or the death of a princess or a presidential election, there typically are long stretches when no one really knows what's happening. Yet the pressure to inform is as relentless as the camera, and time must be filled. In such moments, hard information inevitably gives way to supposition to outright conjecture. When the world is tuning in for answers, who wants to admit they don't have any? You're the expert; that's why you're there.
On election night, the usually reliable network news divisions succumbed to the pressure, in the process committing the biggest gaffe before a national audience since poor Bill Buckner let a ground ball go between his legs and cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series. But whereas Buckner had but a split-second to make or miss a play all by himself, the networks had hundreds of people complicit, all of whom had at least a little time to contemplate what they were doing.
Even in their worst nightmare, of course, they couldn't have imagined the consequences would be so dire, especially as to the Great Florida Flip-flop--projecting the state one way, then another, then giving up in abject defeat. More than humiliating, this performance went a long way toward establishing the toxic partisan atmosphere that has enveloped everything since.
Television has been projecting election results almost as long as the medium has been around, crudely at first but with rapidly increasing sophistication. Now the networks rely on their own consortium, the Voter News Service, to produce the elaborate computer models and extensive exit polling that allow them to call many elections the instant a state stops voting.
And their record for accuracy over tens of thousands of called races is an estimable one. Things have reached the point that when a network calls a state for a given candidate, it is more or less accepted as fact by us viewers--even by one with as much riding on the projection as Al Gore. Based on the networks' second try at calling Florida, Gore was only moments away from a concession speech when his aides got word that something was fishy in the Sunshine State.
Journalists especially can appreciate the intense pressure that mounts at such times. Yet there is more to these quick-trigger projections than election-night competition for channel surfers. They are the logical result of the horse-race mentality that the networks bring to the entire campaign. When consumers complain that the "media" don't cover the substance of presidential campaigns, it's simply untrue; the print and online media published encyclopedic amounts of information about the candidates and their positions. Yet the networks' showcase newscasts were mostly only about the polls, night after tedious night.
Grubbing through this wreckage, we are reminded again of what is supposed to be a bedrock principle: Journalists don't report hunches, even sophisticated ones, as news--especially, one would think, when the leadership of the free world is at stake. At such times the threshold for accuracy should be at its highest, not its most marginal.
Deadlines for monthly magazines are early and unforgiving. As I write this, it is November 13, and the only reason I've gotten leave to be this late is because I slipped Rem Rieder a $10 bill. At this moment I still don't know the next occupant of the White House. You, as you are reading this, presumably do.
It's frustrating, writing a story with an uncertain ending. I don't like not knowing. But I can live with it.