Television network executives are scrambling to address the damage done by early, incorrect vote projections reported on election night by their voting data service.
Networks ABC, CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox TV collectively own Voter News Service and, in response to criticism, say they are scrutinizing their projection and reporting methods.
U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who chairs the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee, says he'll also begin an investigation on the early calls. One obvious question: Was there political bias in favor of Democratic candidate Al Gore, or was it simply error or ignorance?
That question needs an answer because Florida Republicans are suing the service on grounds its tabulations led television media to project Gore the Florida winner before polls had closed in the state's Panhandle. That GOP-dominated area is in a different time zone, so polls there closed an hour later. Some Republicans say they didn't vote because the outcome was called.
One CNN executive explains that Voter News Service needs better technology to guard against error. He said it uses computer systems and technology handed down three decades ago, and updated along the way.
However, there's no question many of the state-by-state VNS computer models, which are based on sample precincts, are skewed. The VNS Florida model seriously underestimated the number of votes still outstanding toward the end of that state's vote tabulation.
As for Georgia, VNS reporting smelled of bias. An hour after Georgia polls closed, VNS reported the state was "in play." In play? The state has a solid GOP presidential voting record (it even went for Bob Dole in 1996) and all major polls showed Georgia clearly in the George W. Bush column. There was no "in play" about it.
Tauzin's committee has a right to investigate and expose the VNS mess. But the government should not and cannot enact reform in the private sector's reporting. That would come perilously close to trampling on First Amendment rights.
However, it would behoove the networks to institute sweeping VNS reform as soon as possible, and it would show good faith if it opened for public scrutiny its new computer models.