L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 101, December 4, 2000
GOP Congressman Upset Over Election Night 'Early Calls'
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. and chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications, is hopping mad about those early network "calls" that had Al Gore winning the state of Florida as of 8 p.m. on election night, Nov. 7.
(The networks soon withdrew those projections, as the Bush ballot plurality mounted throughout the night.)
Such erroneous predictions of the outcome in the Sunshine state -- which turns out after a week of re-counting to have favored George W. Bush by only a few hundred votes, thus making the Republican candidate our presumptive president-elect by the slimmest margin in living memory -- may have discouraged Bush supporters in the Florida panhandle (which lies in the Central time zone, and where polls therefore closed an hour later) from bothering to go vote at all, the Republicans complain.
The Republican Leadership Council said Thursday it had commissioned a phone survey of more than 35,000 Panhandle voters, in which 2,380 Bush supporters said they decided not to vote after hearing that Gore had won the state.
This presents a "very disturbing picture, I think, of probable bias," the congressman says. And Rep. Tauzin isn't going to take this sitting down, either. He's going to hold hearings!
CNN Chairman Tom Johnson, in two letters to Tauzin Thursday, replied that he would name an independent advisory committee to look into what went wrong in the news network's election night coverage. But he added that "As chairman of CNN, I state categorically there was no intentional bias in the election night reporting."
"Intentional" is an interesting word. There's little doubt most of the East Coast press corps tend to vote Democratic, and would thus be less likely to exhibit a proper skepticism (subconsciously, at least) if the wavering election night totals showed a brief preference for Mr. Gore.
Rep. Tauzin sees further evidence for this theory in the fact that there were delays in calling nine states that Bush won by at least 6 percentage points, while there were no delays in calling any state that Gore carried by 6 percentage points.
But all this misses the real point.
To the extent that the networks refrain from projecting election results until most polling places have closed, they have done so (since about 1985) on the basis of voluntary restraint. No law requires this, nor should it, not could it ... so long as America enjoys its precious freedom of the press.
Television networks are not even required to pretend to be objective. If he so desired, Mr. Johnson could have gone on the tube at suppertime Nov. 7 with as histrionic a live editorial as he pleased, warning viewers that Satan himself would visit their homes and steal away their children if they voted for George W. Bush. No law could prevent it, nor would Mr. Tauzin have had the slightest business huffing and puffing and threatening "hearings."
The reason the news media generally seek to maintain an appearance -- and sometimes even the substance -- of even-handedness is because in a free market, viewers or readers are free to turn away and seek other sources if they believe they're not getting the straight dope.
Hundreds of thousands of American viewers are indeed showing increasing skepticism about the objectivity of the old "Big Four" networks -- explaining precisely why so much of their viewer base is eroding to talk radio, the Internet, and even (gasp) the print media, which can offer so much more diverse a range of detailed background, analysis and commentary.
If 2,380 Bush supporters in the Florida panhandle really decided not to vote after hearing some guy on TV say he was "projecting" Mr. Gore had won their state, they're a bunch of dolts. Generations of our forefathers fought and died to preserve Americans' right to cast a vote as they see fit, and these folks stayed home and watched "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ... or the Ellie Mae Clampett Bib Overall Beauty Pageant and Gator Rassling Finals, or whatever it is they watch out west of Panama City ... because some guy on TV told them not to bother?
The iron fist behind Rep. Tauzin's thinly-veiled threat to "hold hearings" is the regulatory power of the Federal Communications Commission, of course. The potential for such political blackmail making this just one more reason to banish the FCC entirely, restoring a truly free market to America's airwarves.
Let the networks alone. The sooner viewers realize they're on their own out there in the wide world of news consumption, the sooner they'll re-establish a healthy dose of skepticism about what they "heard on TV."