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Election showed America TV's strengths, flaws

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000


For TV newshounds, it has been both the best and worst of times.

As the fight over the White House has unfolded, the battle has provided some of the biggest ratings and most compelling coverage for news outlets -- particularly among morning news shows and the 24-hour cable news outlets.

But documenting the battle between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush has also led broadcasters to their biggest mistakes in recent memory, tarnishing the triumphs.

On the plus side: Florida's sunshine laws and the 24-hour news channels gave viewers access to proceedings at the Florida Supreme Court, ongoing ballot recounts, the Florida Legislature's special sessions and more.

Those who wanted to likely had access to more information about this election than any other in history -- with even the Supreme Court pushed into a landmark concession by providing audiotapes of its proceedings to the public for the first time.

But the rush to provide information also led to big mistakes, nowhere more evident than the two mistaken calls handing Florida first to Gore and then Bush on Election Night.

Even the live coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling Tuesday, which saw news analysts trying to decipher a 65-page ruling on live television, brought unhealthy memories of how the rush to report can bring disaster.

Though TV news reporters eventually got it right, concluding that Gore's hopes were dashed by the decision, the sight of reporters such as NBC's Dan Abrams and ABC's Jeffrey Toobin frantically flipping through pages on air led some experts to wonder: Isn't there a better way?

"The answer is not to limit coverage, but we have to find a way to deal with the continuous news cycle," said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It's like we've got this car that goes 200 miles per hour, and we haven't found a good way to drive it yet."

Left hanging is the big question: Did TV news influence the news while reporting it?

Many analysts say no. Even though talking heads fought partisan battles during cable's endless stream of talk shows, the decisions over who actually won Florida seemed to stem from political and legal considerations that far outweighed public portrayals.

"Apart from one or two incidents, this was mostly decided in the courts," said Andrew Tyndall, an analyst of network news content for Inside.com.

"After this, we'll talk a lot about whether news coverage swayed public opinion. But these judges seemed to be making their decisions based on the law and their opinions, not the public's perception."

University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus, one of the state's best-known and most-quoted political pundits, suggests the constant coverage of recounts and court battles in Florida helped school the public on how complicated the issues were, preparing them for the court's resolution.

"People could see the eyestrain and difficulty involved in recounting votes," MacManus said. "So people could understand the Supreme Court's ruling a little better."

Frank Sesno, Washington bureau chief for CNN, shrugged off criticisms about TV coverage, saying the biggest impact from television's focus on the Florida battle may come in prompting electoral reforms, both in Florida and nationally.

"This will fuel the push for uniform polling times nationwide and a change in voting technology," Sesno said.

And despite the avalanche of negative press and plans by some lawmakers to hold hearings on the faulty election calls, doubt remains it will bring lasting change in how TV outlets cover future elections.

Already ABC, NBC and Fox have released statements saying they will likely wait until all polls in a state are closed before calling a state. They also have called for an independent investigation of Voter News Service, the consortium that networks say provided faulty vote information on election night.

But Barbara Cochrane, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says that Voter News saves networks too much money to be eliminated and that the pace of modern-day news makes slowing coverage difficult.

The most potent lesson of the past 36 days may not be one TV news outlets prefer: that when it comes to election results and breaking news, any reports should be taken with a grain of salt.

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