Stop the Madness  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   January/February 2001

Stop the Madness   

It's past time for networks to stop calling states before the votes are counted.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Related reading:
   » Defying Election Law
   » Failing Grade
   » How They Blew It
   » Polled Enough for Ya?
   » Palm Beach Follies
   » Raise Your Right Hand
   » Playing Favorites?


"BABY, IT AIN'T OVER til it's over" -- Lenny Kravitz
It's a shame they don't call pennant races like they call states.
Think of all the anguish that could have been prevented if some sports equivalent of Voter News Service had projected a winner in the 1964 National League pennant race when the Phillies had a six-and-a-half game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals with 12 games to go.
After all, it was almost mathematically impossible for anyone, even a team from Philadelphia, to blow a lead like that. The networks could have blithely declared the Phillies the winner, and that would have been that.
No humiliating collapse. No years of haunted memories. No Chico Ruiz stealing home. Just on to the World Series.
But, of course, they don't choose game winners or champions based on partial scores. You have to play it out.
An interesting approach. It might even work if adopted by the television networks on election night.
There was a sense of inevitability about the Florida Flip-Flop Fiasco. Sure, the networks and their Voter News Service have an impressive batting average when it comes to projecting winners. But that's part of the problem. Because they are so often accurate, over time projections have been granted the status of received wisdom. Once a state has been parceled out to one of the contenders, the verdict is accepted, even if just a fraction of the actual votes (oh, them) have been counted.
But a high batting average can't equate projections with results, as we were reminded so painfully--twice--in the recent unpleasantness. If you're going to treat them as facts, there's no margin of error.
Look at all of the damage caused by the election-night twin spin. Who knows how many Bush voters were deterred from going to the polls by the early call of Florida for Al Gore? This development was presented as an indication that the veep was heading straight for 16th and Pennsylvania. The polls hadn't even closed in the Florida Panhandle, not to mention points west.
More devastating was the wee-hours bestowal of Florida upon George W. Bush. While it wasn't long before the networks took it back and placed it properly in the "damned if we know" category, the harm to Gore's cause during the nerve-shattering aftermath of recounts, appeals and hanging chad was incalculable. It created the indelible image that Bush had won the Sunshine State--and hence the election--only to have the presidency snatched away from him, when in fact we were dealing with two candidates locked in a contest truly too close to call. It conferred a sense of legitimacy upon Bush that he hadn't yet earned, and locked Gore into the image of the sore loser who just won't go away.
The portrait that emerges from Alicia C. Shepard's reconstruction of a night to forget (see "How They Blew It") isn't too reassuring. The election wizards forgot to adequately factor in the absentee voters when they called Florida. A mistake awarded Gore 10 times as many votes as he actually got. Another drove his vote total backwards.
What's more, the awarding of states is hardly an academic exercise. It's done in the frenzy of network vs. network competition. Everybody wants to be first, and no one wants to be last. It's hardly a shocker that statistical models can be overwhelmed by peer pressure.
Congress, you'll be relieved to know, is convening hearings on all of this. Louisiana Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin has detected that dreaded liberal bias lurking behind the decision to give Florida to Gore. (Perhaps the media veered sharply rightward in the next few hours before their misstep in the opposite direction.) And the networks themselves are investigating what went wrong.
But there's really no need to bring Philip Marlowe out of retirement. The solution is easy: Just say no. Stop projecting winners. Wait until the votes are counted.
It's time for the networks to pledge that they will get out of the prognostication business. After this year's mega-embarrassment, that shouldn't be so hard to do.
And it can be done, as the Associated Press reminded us in the early hours of November 8. As the networks, one after the other, pronounced Bush the winner, the AP remained silent. Turns out the wire was keeping its own scorecard. And it could see that the fat lady wasn't even humming yet.
All of the networks had declared, "Game over." Editors were beseeching the wire to make a call. But the AP hung tough.
It may have been uncomfortable then. It doesn't look so bad now.

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