The television networks goofed mightily in calling the presidential election. By now, everybody knows that.
But if the networks put more emphasis on being first than being right, what were the consequences? And what should be done, if anything, to make sure the media behave responsibly?
A number of Republican congressman and senators are incensed that the networks called so many states early for Vice President Al Gore. They say this shows bias. But the states that were called first, Kentucky and Indiana, were Republican states, and many of the early calls were obviously Democrat. New York, for example, gave about 60 percent of its vote to Mr. Gore.
If there was bias, then it was bias to get the story out early.
Sen. Ted Stevens believes that the networks' erroneous Florida call for Mr. Gore was ''devastating in the West'' for Republican candidates. But he says this with little or no evidence. The Rocky Mountain states went as expected to Gov. George W. Bush. California was in the Gore column from the beginning of the campaign -- and the Senate race had a Democratic incumbent with a weak challenger. In Oregon, the election was conducted by mail, which makes it unlikely that many voters filled out ballots late on the afternoon of Election Day. Washington state was close, just as expected, but half the ballots were submitted by mail before network stars called Florida.
Given these facts, it is hard to see how Sen. Stevens could be right.
If party officials and lawmakers want to give the media hell for their coverage of this election that's fine. The media did not surround themselves with glory during election 2000, and media leaders, especially those from television, have some serious discussions ahead about the value of exit polling and the practice of calling elections.
But the suggestion that Congress should ''pass a law'' to change the behavior of television and the press is a bad one. It's hard to see how Congress could write any election coverage law that would not be offensive to the First Amendment.
The media need to clean up their election night act. But the party activists and the politicians need to calm down. Sloppy reporting did not create the creaky electoral machinery in Florida or the tight presidential election.
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