Politicians often approach the news media with the old maxim: Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel (or more currently, its electronic equivalent). Republicans complain about media bias with friends, colleagues, or Republican backers, but when asked by the media themselves, they often deny with pained faces that the media have treated them unfairly, since they don't want to be seen as whiny or unfriendly.
That's why it was remarkable that U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who chairs the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee, held a press conference Nov. 16 calling for an investigation of media misbehavior on election night.
Rep. Tauzin specifically identified the networks' decision to call Florida a win for Al Gore at 7:50 p.m. Eastern time, when voters in the Florida Panhandle (on Central time) still had 10 minutes to make it to the polls. "Coverage of the election ought to be reporting the news, not making it. And when coverage of an election affects voter turnout and affects the result in a close race like this one, Democrats and Republicans have to be very careful that we make some changes so it doesn't happen again."
Republicans cited Yale scholar John Lott, who estimated as many as 10,000 Republican voters could have been discouraged from voting by the network calls. The moderate Republican Leadership Council said last week it had commissioned a phone survey of more than 35,000 Panhandle voters in which 2,380 supporters of George W. Bush said they decided not to vote after hearing that Gore had won the state.
Hearings like what Mr. Tauzin is proposing are not unprecedented. In 1984, Democrats complained that early network projections for a Ronald Reagan victory curtailed turnout for Walter Mondale and other Democrats down the ballot. The networks responded by pledging to never call a state before the polls in that state were closed, an unofficial compact they broke this year by calling Florida before the polls closed in the Panhandle.
Mr. Tauzin presented findings that the networks called states for Mr. Gore quickly, but called states for Mr. Bush with similar margins of victory much slower. "I think there is now a presumption of bias in the reporting, and that the networks will have a duty when they do come before us in our hearing to overcome that presumption," he declared.
The congressman cited data on CNN's election-night calls. When Mr. Gore won a state by 6 percent or more, CNN made the call immediately. In nine Bush states, including one where the Texas governor won by 15 points-Alabama-the calls were delayed: "All of the networks, cable and broadcasting, effectively gave America the impression that the George W. Bush states were too close to call while the Al Gore states were falling in line for Al Gore."
Network spokesmen quickly surfaced with predictable declarations that they were never biased. "I state categorically there was no intentional bias," stated CNN President Tom Johnson. NBC News spokeswoman Alex Constantinople said, "NBC News prides itself on its standards of fairness and accuracy." CBS News President Andrew Heyward insisted: "The accusation that there was bias in CBS News's reporting of the election night results is completely without foundation."
Mr. Tauzin's call for hearings into media bias is somewhat surprising given his discomfort last year over revelations that PBS and NPR stations were swapping donor lists with the Democratic National Committee and other liberal and Democratic groups. Tauzin spokesmen insisted the stations were foolish since the subcommittee had been trying to dispel charges of liberal bias in public broadcasting.
In the end, Congress is unlikely to pass any law regulating election night TV coverage, but hearings pressing network executives to explain their news practices ought to have a chastening effect on their proud declarations of fairness and objectivity. Network bosses are used to showing tobacco industry executives or tire industry CEOs explaining that they didn't know they caused any public harm. Network leaders' denials will look no more credible-if they end up on television.