News execs head for Hill

Tauzin says election-night bias was in statistics, not reporting; ABC, Fox weigh in with their internal reviews
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Network news heads will troop up to Capitol Hill this week to talk about election-night mishaps, but House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) no longer is suggesting the networks' reporting was biased in favor of Al Gore.

"Our investigators.have found no evidence of misleading or biased reporting," Tauzin said. Although Tauzin is letting the networks off the hook a bit, he claimed initial results have found "statistical bias" in Voter News Service's information-gathering methods. "We have concluded, along with the networks' reports, that VNS used clearly flawed data models and clearly flawed statistical results," Tauzin said. VNS is a consortium formed by the networks to collect exit-poll data during elections.

"There is no basis whatsoever for concluding that there was any intentional bias on the part of anyone who took part in the projection process at ABC News," said a report released by ABC last week.

"Mistakes made by NBC on election night 2000 were regrettable, but we find not a trace of evidence to suggest that political or partisan considerations led to any slant or errors in the broadcast," NBC said.

The networks said there may have been statistical bias because VNS has been using the same models to conduct exit polls for the past 30 years without updating them to account for precinct and population changes. VNS exit-polls some 1,500 to 2,200 people per state, not enough to indicate how close the presidential race was in Florida.

Tauzin also criticized the networks for what he said was letting their desire to be first outweigh their commitment to be correct. "Accuracy and completeness of information were sacrificed to the goals of competition."

The networks don't disagree with Tauzin. In a report released last week, ABC recommended that its decision desks be kept apart from other news sources so those calls don't influence decisions. NBC made a similar recommendation last month.

"Competition, in news reporting as in other enterprises, can be a good thing," said ABC News. "But competition that encourages a journalist to report a story prematurely is bad."

CNN, CBS and Voter News Service have already released reports on election night. ABC and Fox gave Tauzin their results last week. All the networks found critical errors in their coverage.

In addition to isolating the decision desk, the networks suggested changes in election-night reporting, including waiting until all the polls in a state have closed before calling the result, favoring uniform poll closings, doing more of their own independent newsgathering to supplement VNS' results, explaining the difference between "projecting" a race and calling the final result of an election, and comprehensively reviewing and upgrading VNS' practices and systems.

Witnesses set for Tauzin's hearing on Valentine's Day are ABC News President David Westin, NBC News President Andrew Lack, CBS News President Andrew Heyward and CNN Chairman Tom Johnson. Voter News Service Director Ted Savaglio also plans to testify.

In addition, Ben Wattenberg, James Risser and Joan Konner, who wrote CNN's report, will be on hand. Tom Goldstein, a consultant who worked on NBC's report, and Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School, also are expected to testify.

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