Civics 101 on Cable


By the time you read this, the fate of the presidential election will still be up in the air, almost one week after the bizarre event-a squeaker pitting Texas Gov. George W. Bush against Vice President Al Gore-took place last Tuesday.

Today, most Americans are still more than baffled at this ongoing political saga. There's still no president-elect, and we're awaiting the results of a crazy Florida vote recount.

So a nation remains glued to the cable-news networks as we all soak up every newspaper account, tune our car radios to the news and try to keep up with this election's still-unsteady path.

In this election, one that will surely be prominently chronicled in the history books, all of the cable-news networks-and especially MSNBC-can be proud of what they did to provide a much needed lesson in civics to the American viewing audience.

During the Florida recount and afterwards, the cable-news networks devoted their on-air hours and countless resources trying to educate the public about the finer, murkier points of this historic election.

We learned a lot about the oddities of the voting ballot in Palm Beach County, Fla., which apparently baffled some seniors who rendered their votes to Pat Buchanan, rather than Gore, their intended choice.

Another 19,000 Florida voters had their ballots trashed because they were not filled out correctly.

It's an odd time, indeed. It's like living in the
Twilight Zone

or a third-world country in which images of primitive and often unreliable mechanisms to count votes actually cost elections.

From watching cable, we learned about voting irregularities everywhere and we could relate to them. We also learned just how antiquated our voting process is.

Manual levers became stuck on aging voting machines in New York and in other large cities. One would expect that in rural Maine, but not the Big Apple. It happened all over the country, but Florida and its 25 electoral votes became the focus of a sleep- deprived nation last week.

It is odd that our own federal government-which advocates competition in advanced telecommunications and Internet technology in order to make America a premier player in the global economy-can't even come up with the gear to accurately count votes in its own 50 states. Go figure.

For many Americans, it was odd to pull the lever on a clunky voting machine or fill in a paper ballot, then go home to surf the 'Net on digital-subscriber lines or cable modems to follow an election story moving more slowly than the folks behind their computers.

While the cable news services are doing a remarkable job of documenting the aftermath of this election, it would be remiss not to say that they all blew it big-time Tuesday night. That's when all the channels mistakenly called Florida for Gore at around 8 p.m., and had to issue a retraction.

Multichannel News

senior editor Steve Donohue reports on page one this week, CNN, citing problems with data from Voter News Service-the exit-polling consortium backed by the networks and the Associated Press-was the first to retract Gore's Florida win, at 9:54 p.m. Other networks quickly followed suit.

I could go on about the dangers of national networks forecasting a winner based on exit polls, and their possible effect on the decisions of West Coast voters who may have thought their votes were not that important due to Gore's surprise victory in Florida.

We'll never know if it was those predictions that kept voters away from the polls, or just their own apathy. But election turnout this year, while high, was not a barn-burner.

Instead, I'll leave that harangue to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who last week said he plans to investigate the election coverage and the exit-polling system used by newsgathering organizations. And I would urge every news network to simply report the news, and not become it by making a premature call like the one in Florida.