Hey, TV, let us have an election

Jon Margolis

November 02, 1992|By Jon Margolis

SO cherished, so vital is freedom of the press that society must suffer its abuses.

It is abused weekly in the supermarket tabloids, regularly in the television expose programs, too often in daily newspapers when zeal and simplemindedness overcome good judgment.

And it will be abused tomorrow evening if the television networks tell us who has been elected president before the votes have been counted and before some have been cast. Despite the pleas of a citizens' group and elected officials of both parties, the networks have stated that they will declare a winner as soon as possible, even if the polls in some states will remain open for hours. Worse, the networks will proclaim statewide winners in those states, such as Indiana, which lie in two time zones, before the polls in that state have closed.

This is far from inconsequential. Indeed, one of its many consequences is that some people, hearing that the presidential race is over, decide not to bother with voting.

This is wrong of them. Were they dedicated citizens they would betake themselves to the polls anyway, there to help choose their senator, congressman, county commissioner, sheriff, mayor and school board member.

But some don't, and with media power comes a certain amount of responsibility to deal with the world as it is, and specifically not to make it any worse. True, good journalism is un- (not ir-) responsible; it tells the truth and the devil take the hindmost. So why should not the networks "report the news . . . as quickly as they can," in the words used by NBC President Robert Wright?

Well, let's for a moment forget Mr. Wright's inconsistency, in that NBC didn't report the results of this year's Olympic events if it was going to show tapes of them on prime time for money. At the networks they report the news "as quickly as they can" when it is in their interest.

Just concentrate on that word "news." On Election Night, the news is the election results. But that isn't what the networks are reporting when they declare the winner at 5 o'clock Pacific Time. They are reporting, and interpreting, the results of exit polls.

A wonderful tool, the exit poll. By telling us who voted for whom, and why, it helps us understand ourselves. By telling the folks in the news business who probably won an election, it gives them a head-start in figuring out how to explain and analyze the results for viewers and readers.

But remember that "probably." Four years ago, CBS took a look at its exit poll and said that Michael Dukakis would carry Illinois. He didn't.

Even if they were perfect, exit polls would not be real. "They are a contrivance," said Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. He's right.

The exit polls are not what happened on Election Day. What happened is that people voted, and the votes were then counted. If by reporting those real election results "as quickly as they can," the networks discouraged voting, they would have a good argument that they had told the truth and the devil take the hindmost. The way it is, they play games and the political process gets perverted.

Worse, these games cannot even be adequately explained by network corporate greed, an understandable if not exactly noble motive. There's no evidence that calling the election first helps the ratings. In 1988, CBS called it first, and finished third. Besides, in this year of their chintziness they're all using the same exit poll.

Instead, ego and self-absorption, no nobler than greed and less sensible, appear responsible for network obstinacy. As people increasingly identify themselves through their profession, the temptation grows to regard one's work as vitally important. College professors have been guilty of this for years. People in the news business ought to be less reverent, especially about themselves.

Obeying the spirit of Canada's law, the networks refrained from giving the results of the 1988 parliamentary elections while Canadians were still voting. "It's their election, so we won't" give the results early, ABC's Peter Jennings said on the air, as though the decision were a gracious gesture, as though every Canadian cable company carrying ABC News would not have cut off the program rather than risk its license.

Here's a simple proposition: What networks and newspapers do on Election Day isn't as important as what the voters do. The voters decide what happens; news folks merely report and explain it. Whoever won the election at 8 p.m. Central Time would still have won it at 10 or 11 p.m., by which time all the polls would have closed and real votes would have been counted. It would be nice if the networks let the election take place, and then reported its results. Democracy is more important than games.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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