TV Networks Compound the Voting Crisis
A few hours before dawn Wednesday, the nation's TV networks foisted their second outrageous blunder of the night on the American people. After "calling" the state of Florida for Al Gore earlier in the evening, the same networks announced that George W. Bush had won Florida -- and the White House. With a typical flourish, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw declared: "George Bush is the president-elect of the United States."
But before the sun rose on the East Coast, the networks were correcting themselves again, acknowledging that Florida was too close to call. By then, the arrogance of the television networks had compounded a distressing specter: The Electoral College might end up giving the presidency to someone who came in second in the country's popular vote.
Twenty-four hours after the polls closed across America, the reporters and commentators on the airwaves and cable channels seemed to be reeling from the succession of extraordinary events. Surely, millions of Americans were also stunned, as if the previous long night had been a vivid and protracted bad dream.
In effect, the TV networks made a bad situation worse. They added to the night's quickly escalating sense of confusion, disorientation and uncertainty about the election results.
Despite their vast resources and profuse assurances that they knew just what they were doing, the biggest television outlets -- ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and PBS -- incorrectly proclaimed that the winner of the presidential race had been determined. The list of those networks is a dishonor roll for American media.
Like most busy people, the executives and journalists who run the news operations of the TV networks don't have much time to spare for soul-searching. And it's unlikely a lot would change even if some genuine introspection took place. It's not a good sign that top execs are treating the networks' election-night madness as a public-relations problem.
The rushed and faulty projections for election results were dramatic manifestations of the kind of intrinsically flawed coverage of politics that goes on all the time in national media. Major outlets cast huge shadows across political landscapes, from campaign trails to gubernatorial offices, legislative bodies and the White House. But even the most influential reporters and pundits are in the habit of acting like they're mere observers.
Although journalists at key media institutions pose as flies on the walls of national politics, they're apt to function more like movers and shakers. Far from just telling us what's happening, the biggest-name journalists -- the ones holding forth on the networks throughout election night -- are always shaping the media terrain through which politicians walk.
Meanwhile, journalists and the politicians they cover are routinely financed -- one way or the other -- by many of the same business interests. Numerous firms that own powerhouse media outlets or pay for extensive advertising also spend gobs of money on lobbyists and campaign contributions. And the phenomenal amount of lucre that went into the 2000 elections is just a pittance compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate profits riding on future government policies set in Washington.
So, where are we now? After a year filled with denunciations of the pernicious roles played by money in politics, the big money has as tight a grip on the electoral process as ever. Not coincidentally, whether Bush or Gore prevails, the man who'll move into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. next January has long been cozy with economic elites of the nation.
After bringing us the fiascos of last Tuesday night, the TV networks assure us that they'll quit being so arrogant. And actually, it's easy to stop. They've done it hundreds of times. Periodic self-critiques and public shows of repentance are ingrained rituals for news organizations, which tout only corporate-friendly presidential candidates as serious contenders.
On the surface, the willingness of the TV networks to "call" elections prematurely and inaccurately may seem like an unfortunate quirk. But it's a reflection of what constantly happens when news operations -- bent on outdoing competitors -- put the drive for profits above public service. The people calling the shots at the major networks are acutely aware that they must strive to boost the bottom line of the parent company.
It's a metaphor for the profound ways that Campaign 2000 has left democracy in the dust.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist.