Same Time Next Year

Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey (joined notably by Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin) has taken an important step toward resolving the problems surrounding election-night coverage. Markey last week introduced a uniform-poll-closing bill that strikes us as the best way to guard against mistaken election calls' affecting an election. We were heartened to hear that Tauzin, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee and the most vocal critic of the network's premature calls, will not push for legislation beyond the poll-closing measure, recognizing broadcasters' legitimate interest in conducting polls and making predictions. The fact that this was the closest election in more than a century, perhaps ever, does not get the networks off the hook. The emotional roller coaster precipitated by those calls, un-calls and re-calls was bad enough, but of more concern was the possibility that early calls discouraged voting in an election decided by so few votes.

This race may have been an aberration on the order of a hundred-year flood, but it was one that exposed the flaws in network reliance on a communal polling service. And while the media must remain free to interpret as well as report the news, recent events suggest there is a civic interest in discouraging anyone from crying "winner" in a crowded polling place. Creating a sort of "election standard time" (Alaska and Hawaii remain problematic) will, as Markey says, "minimize the potential that future premature projections by the television networks regarding the winners of a presidential election will influence voter behavior in other states." For their parts, we encourage all the networks to decide not to call races in individual states until all the polls are closed in a state, not simply most. We also think they should clearly identify their calls as predictions, not gilt-edged guarantees. And we think the industry could volunteer to put some PSA muscle behind a uniform-poll-closing voter information campaign should the Congress finally pass this overdue bill.

We promise to wait until all the votes in the House and Senate are cast before calling passage of such a bill a victory both for election coverage and the electorate.

TV's Star Witness: Itself

It was wall-to-wall court TV last week, or at least it seemed like it sometimes. Last Thursday, we surfed the networks only to find a roadblock of judges, lawyers and witnesses (Fox, though, at least in Washington, turned out to be the syndicated Divorce Court). We would argue that a stronger case for cameras in appellate courts, state and federal, was made in a few days of Florida election cases last week than has been made in all the years preceding. That's because three of the most important court dates in recent history were going on, almost simultaneously, in front of the cameras. While criminal trials remain more problematic, given the dynamic added by the presence of juries and defendants, appeals courts seem to us a no-brainer. At least as conducted in Florida last week, they are great civics lessons, not to mention high drama that has yet to end-and have done nothing but instill confidence in the process at a time when that has arguably never been more important.

Those looking for portents might find one in the fact that two of the cases were before judges Lewis and Clark. Perhaps they will be trailblazers in the effort to persuade federal appeals courts to open their doors to the 21st century. It was fascinating, instructive and one of the citizen-friendliest aspects of a process that otherwise looks surprisingly like the unbridled prosecution of competing political interests, the public interest be damned.