Voter News Service called into question

NBC, Fox News threaten to bolt, and an activist group wants a Justice Department probe of the election-night foul-up

Fox News and NBC said last week they would not remain members of the Voter News Service unless the polling consortium can explain the election-night misinformation that led to great embarrassment for the networks as well as itself. An antitrust activist group last week asked the Justice Department to break up VNS, blaming the election-night mishaps on the absence of competition for data among networks.

And telecommunications law firm Smithwick & Belendiuk sees VNS at the heart of an FCC investigation it seeks.

NBC also said it would not renew VNS membership unless "it is satisfied that VNS has taken the steps needed to ensure the accuracy and integrity of its data. We stand ready to provide our fair share of additional funding that might be needed to accomplish this."

Fox and NBC said last week they would not call the results of a state until all the polls are closed in that state. Previous policies, after talks with Congress, delayed calls only until most polls in a state were closed. ABC News made a similar pledge Nov. 22.

The American Antitrust Institute blamed the Voter News Service for the absence of competition in exit polling for the erroneous election results. In a letter to the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, AAI Senior Scholar Robert H. Lande, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, said that "The Voter News Service fiasco makes us wonder whether things have gotten to the point where a mistake or bias will not be corrected by the normal give and take of competition among media firms. There is, however, a solution that will at least move us in the right direction: The antitrust enforcers should break up the Voter News Service." Until 1990, the news networks did their own exit polling.

Smithwick & Belendiuk is asking the FCC to launch a private investigation under a little-used section of the Communications Act, which allows the agency to initiate a review even if it has not received a petition from a party with standing. The provision was first used during the TV quiz-show investigations.


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