Networks plan to stick with early victory calls

November 02, 1992|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Whose election is it, anyway?

That question has hovered over television coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign ever since it began, as viewers and candidates object to what they regard as intrusive reporting. And it's the question that is provoking debate over Election Night, when the networks could well declare the election to be over before millions of voters have gone to the polls.

They did it four years ago. By 9:30 p.m. EST, 90 minutes before the polls closed in California, ABC, CBS, NBC and Cable News Network had called George Bush the winner.

Despite renewed pressure from Congress and elected officials on the West Coast, the networks say they will stick with their current policy of calling each state after most of the polls close in that state.

What that means is that if Mr. Bush, Bill Clinton or Ross Perot piles up a big lead in the Eastern, Southern and Midwestern states, the networks would call a winner at an hour when Californians are commuting home from work.

"Such projections serve no useful purpose," said Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington-based group that has organized opposition to the networks.

Mr. Gans has enlisted the support of 154 members of Congress and four Western governors, as well as a coalition of women's groups that says the early projections could jeopardize the chances of female candidates in the West. While some studies suggest that projecting election results before the polls close reduces voter turnout, the networks and other experts say the findings are inconclusive.

Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, said: "There's absolutely no substantive evidence that calling elections in advance has an impact on people going to the polls."

If the government is concerned about early projections, network executives say, it should pass legislation requiring uniform voting hours across America. The House of Representatives has twice passed such legislation, but it has not been approved by the Senate.

More broadly, the networks argue that they cannot be in the business of withholding news. If exit polls in the East and the Midwest determine a winner, they say, they have the obligation to report that to their viewers.

At least five West Coast TV stations, most of them CBS affiliates, will take matters into their own hands. They say they won't broadcast network coverage until the polls close in their own states, although CNN and other TV stations, as well as radio, will be reporting results.

Critics say early projections are another example of the way television, along with the rest of the news media, skews the electoral process.

They say that the election should belong to the voters and that incessant polling, instant analysis of the debates and predictions from the pundits all serve to insert the news media needlessly between the candidates and the electorate.

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