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TV news jumped the gun -- and that's inexcusable

Putting ratings before facts caused the election coverage roller coaster, says Mark Harris

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Chris Matthews

TV news jumped the gun — and that’s inexcusable

Let’s get right to the one thing that, as of this writing, is NOT too close to call: Tuesday night’s election coverage represented a historic low point in the credibility of television news. Not once but twice, every major TV news organization, from the Big Three networks to CNN to relative upstarts like MSNBC, called a winner in the Florida presidential race, then said: Sorry, we goofed.

And the fact that the outcome is still in dispute makes television’s double false declaration even less excusable. It would be a huge mistake to pretend that TV’s big goof was a result of the closeness of the race. It wasn’t — rather, it was a predictable outgrowth of a desperate need to keep the visual narrative flowing, even in the absence of facts. And it resulted in a failure — twice in six hours — of journalism’s most basic mission: to present truthful information.

On Wednesday night, ABC’s ”Nightline” presented an hour by hour look behind the scenes of the network’s own news organization on election night, and made a sympathetic case for the incredible pressure its information gatherers were feeling to deliver a winner — any winner — in Florida. The problem is, they and every other network seem to have forgotten that whatever pressure they felt simply isn’t the home viewer’s problem. The fact that no network wants to be the last to call an election doesn’t excuse haste — that’s an issue of intramural competition that has no place in a discussion of standards of accuracy.

Nor should we be too quick to buy TV news’ argument that in an era of channel surfing, they have to make fast calls. Combined ratings for this year’s election coverage are up an estimated 34 percent from the 1996 Nielsens, suggesting that there are plenty of people out there who are patient and grown up enough to stick with a long, complex, and uncertain news evening for the duration.

It turns out that, in fact, it’s really TV news itself that has attention deficit disorder, not viewers. Faced with hours of airtime to fill, the networks and cable organizations don’t have anchors or correspondents with the gravitas to pull it off. MSNBC’s choleric Chris Matthews, practically flecking the TelePrompTer with spittle, is a guy you want to listen to for five minutes, not five hours. CBS’ Dan Rather, spouting his ”tight as a tick in a Texas tornado” metaphors, now appears to be caricaturing himself, as does ABC’s Sam Donaldson. And CNN’s Bernard Shaw, glowering from within what continue to be the darkest and ugliest sets and graphics this side of public access, is pretty tough going over the long haul.

So instead, TV news has to build plotlines, complete with peaks, valleys, and unexpected twists. ”What a roller coaster!” crowed practically every anchor about Florida by early Wednesday morning. But Florida wasn’t a roller coaster; it was a too close to call race that was TURNED INTO a roller coaster because of the incorrect leaps and lurches the networks were taking us through. Nov. 8 quickly became a day of apology (although whenever network news organizations say things like ”we have a lot of soul searching to do,” you can be sure that period of monkish self examination won’t last longer than a commercial break). Meanwhile, they kept screwing up. Long after the Florida double debacle had become a public embarrassment, MSNBC called the U.S. Senate race in Washington for Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell. Then MSNBC uncalled it.

Here’s something for all the networks to consider: If just one TV news organization had possessed the integrity to say throughout Tuesday evening, ”We know our competition has called Florida for Gore (or Bush), but we’re just not certain yet,” they would now be the most trusted source of news in America. Instead, they’re just another part of an industry that, at the moment, is one big laughingstock.