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Committed to the First Amendment 8/12/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

We vote no

The recommendations released two weeks ago by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform are just that, recommendations. Some, particularly uniform-ballot standards, are overdue. Others, like those that stray from punch cards to the prognostications of TV networks, should be ignored.

The commission's recommendation that "news organizations should not project any presidential-election results in any state so long as polls remain open elsewhere in the 48 contiguous states" was unrealistic, given the speed with which the electronic media, particularly the Internet, can relay information. It was made chilling by the additional suggestion that, "if necessary, Congress and the states should consider legislation, within First Amendment limits, to protect the integrity of the electoral process." We are afraid that, in the post-election rush to affix blame, that First Amendment caveat could be open to some wide interpretation.

And if news organizations don't agree voluntarily, the commission said, the government should consider withholding official tallies. As a last resort, the commission recommends what to us should have been the starting and ending point of its recommendations regarding coverage: uniform poll-closing hours. The networks are for it, and it would require no journalists to do the equivalent of sitting on a hot stove, which is to sit on information.

Giving the commission's report some legs was the fact that the Bush administration signed off on it, though not on the specifics. What that really means, though, is that, politically, the president could not take shots at an effort to fix the election process and effectively endorsed the idea of taking steps to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised. So do we. But trying to control news-media coverage shouldn't be one of them.

Don't give up the tape

Staying on the subject of election night, we are glad to see that NBC President Andrew Lack continues to resist Rep. Henry Waxman's attempts to force the network to turn over an internal tape purporting to show GE Chairman Jack Welch urging NBC to call the election for Bush. Those attempts, in increasingly threatening letters to Lack over the past few months, stem from a hearing back in February when the network news executives were paraded before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. We had advised them not to attend and said then that the sight of them "yes-sir-ing and yes-ma'am-ing their way to the woodshed" was something we had hoped never to see. Sadly, one of the fruits of that diseased tree has been the Waxman witch-hunt, including threats of possible government action. To their credit, Lack and NBC have refused to surrender the tape to the powerful congressman. Waxman should stop asking.

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