CNN faults itself and VNS

Report says TV news harmed by 'collective drag race' to be first on election night

CNN issued a stinging report Friday blasting not only its own election-night "debacle" but all network coverage, which, it said, damaged both democracy and journalism.

The colorfully written report by journalism professors Joan Konner and James Risser and veteran politico and PBS Think Tank
host Ben Wattenberg began with a preamble that said that, on Election Day 2000, "television news organizations staged a collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy, recklessly endangering the electoral process, the political life of the country and their own credibility."

The authors deemed foolish the networks' "hyper-competition." They stated that few viewers track network calls, since networks fund their own competition, and that the networks' "haste led to two mistaken calls in the state that turned out to hold the key to the outcome of the election," playing "an important role in creating the ensuing climate of rancor and bitterness."

CNN said it has decided, based on the report and its own analysis, that it will no longer use exit polls for projections in close races, although the report recommended using only actual vote tallies in all cases.

"If CNN can't make the call in a state at poll closing, it will then only project a winner in that state using actual vote data from the statewide vote tabulations and key precincts," the network said. In states where the margins are less than 1%, CNN said, it "will not project a winner, even if it is reported that all the outstanding ballots have been accounted for."

CNN said it will also fund, and welcome partners for, a sample reporting system for key precincts with close races expected. That would add a second source for the network's Decision Desk for cross-checking Voter News Service data or, CNN said, the succeeding organization's data.

Like other networks, CNN said it will remain a part of VNS only if the cooperative can assure the network that the election 2000 errors will not be repeated. VNS is likely to institute method and technology changes recommended by outside audits. "CNN is prepared to pay its fair share," the network said.

The report rejected allegations of political bias, based on perceptions that states were called earlier for Gore than for Bush, which some critics said discouraged voter turnout.

But it admitted it wasn't a great night of television. "Despite the best intentions and weeks of news departments' preparations prior to the election, for a variety of reasons CNN and the other networks fell short in their coverage of election night 2000, ''a network statement said. " We at CNN do not intend to let that happen again."

NBC and CBS issued reports last month, sharing blame for the election-night debacle with VNS. VNS has been criticized by several networks for flawed data and dated technology-which should have been upgraded by the network partners, CNN's report suggested.

All the networks say they will exercise greater restraint in calling states until polls close and are reconsidering approaches to election-data gathering.