Thu, Feb 08, 2001 EST
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Independent Report Calls CNN Election Coverage
A `Debacle'

By David Bauder   Associated Press
NEW YORK — An independent report released Friday labeled CNN's election night coverage "a debacle" and said all the television networks confused the public and interfered with the electoral process.

The report, by three journalists commissioned by CNN, is the toughest look yet at the networks' role in prematurely declaring George W. Bush the winner on election night.

"Television news organizations staged a collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy, recklessly endangering the electoral process, the political life of the country and their own credibility, all for reasons that may be conceptually flawed and commercially questionable," the report said.

"The final judgment of news quality is that CNN's election night coverage was a debacle," it said.

CNN responded with several steps, including a promise not to use exit poll information to declare winners in close races.

CNN joined ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and MSNBC in twice making wrong calls in Florida election night — once for Al Gore, and later giving the entire election to Bush by saying he won Florida. Each network retracted both calls and Bush's election wasn't assured for several weeks.

The Associated Press wrongly called Florida for Gore early in the evening, but did not declare Bush the winner that night.

The CNN-commissioned report said television networks were guilty of "an abuse of power" for interfering with the electoral process and the election result.

Network calls for Bush created a premature impression that he was the winner, a characterization that carried through the post-election challenge, it said.

The networks' excessive speed, combined with an overconfidence in experts and polls, "produced a powerful collision between the public interest and the private competitive interests of the television news operations and the corporations that own them," the journalists said.

The competition ultimately was foolish since few viewers knew which organization called races first, and because each network essentially funded the others' work, the report said.

The networks and the AP are members of Voter News Service, which provided exit polling data and voter tabulations. VNS data has been criticized as flawed, and the report said VNS used outmoded technology that the networks failed to upgrade.

Like other networks have in recent weeks, CNN promised that it would not project a winner in states where the polls are still open. Networks initially called Florida for Gore before some polls in that state had closed.

While the report recommended networks stop using exit polls entirely to project winners, CNN resisted that step. It said only that it wouldn't use exit polls in states with close races.

The report also recommended networks stop using returns from key precincts to project a winner. Instead, CNN said it would fund its own new system to sample key precincts in close states.

The report was written by James Risser, former director of the Knight Fellowship Program at Stanford University; Joan Konner, former dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism; and Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Other networks have released their own internal reports with similar recommendations for improvements, but none provided such a damning overview of television's performance as a whole.

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