Last week, we suggested the networks could learn from their election-night mistakes. That process has apparently begun, with most announcing investigations into their exit-polling operation and the translation of its data into projections. We applaud that effort, and not because Tauzin and company are fuming (we find their charges of bias unconvincing at best). Questions of when a race should be called-when most polls have closed in a state (as is now the rule), when all polls have closed in a state, or when all polls have closed nationwide-are worth considering. So, too, is the issue of a uniform poll closing, for which networks have pushed in the past. To his credit, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey plans to introduce such legislation, pointing out that for their part, broadcasters are in the business of breaking news, are not in the habit of withholding information and are protected by the First Amendment.
We're not sure what the right answer is. A mix of election news, rumors and projections will be available on the Web, a genie that cannot be bottled. To handicap broadcasters in the election-night race for news seems, as the lawyers say, arbitrary and capricious. A better strategy would be for networks to make it clear that their projections are educated guesses, not official pronouncements. Government could do its part with a PSA campaign reinforcing the need to vote and emphasizing the uncertainty of projections. After this election, it should not be a tough sell. Then again, the networks' first call of Florida for Gore was based on exit polls that may yet prove to have better recorded the voters' preference than did the butterfly ballot.