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
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
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.