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Media Out for blood; VNS takes Fall

  • A secretive media consortium that uses exit polls to project the winners in U.S. elections seems set to take the fall for blunders committed by the television networks.
Exclusive to The SPOTLIGHT
By Christopher Bollyn

After the networks' double-barreled blunder in Florida by prematurely declaring Al Gore the winner and then George W. Bush, Voter News Service (VNS), the little-known private company that provides news organizations with exit poll information and early "unofficial" election returns, faces intense scrutiny by Congress.

For 16 years, The SPOTLIGHT has investigated VNS and exposed the people and problems behind this joint media venture managed by the six major networks themselves (one manager each) to produce election data used by their own news outlets.

On Election Day, VNS claims to have used temporary workers in every state and to have conducted exit polls in about 1,400 precincts. Supposedly, the data collected by its pollsters was then transmitted to its members and "subscribers" for the afternoon and evening broadcasts.

At 7:52 p.m., VNS declared Gore the winner in Florida.

At the time, VNS says it was relying on exit poll information from 38 precincts and actual votes from 12 locations in Florida.

By around 9 p.m., additional returns were making some analysts nervous and Bush himself was questioning the call. CNN put Florida in the undecided category at 9:50 p.m. and others followed suit. VNS retracted its Gore projection at 10:13 p.m.


Embarrassed television media mouthpieces, uncomfortable with having their carefully cultivated images badly tarnished, have blamed VNS for the networks' blunders in broadcasting erroneous Florida results on Election Night.

"As far as I'm concerned," CBS anchor Dan Rather said to radio talk show host Don Imus about VNS, "we have to knock it down to absolute ground zero, plow it under with salt, put a barbed-wire fence around it, quarantine it for a few years and start off with something new."

The "mistakes" will put pressure on the networks to disband the VNS information cartel.

Fox News Channel founder and CEO Roger Ailes has already said he wants to replace the consortium set up by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC, and the Asso ciated Press with more than one service.

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said on Nov. 16 that news outlets acting out of a liberal bias on election night may have cost the GOP significant votes across the country with their premature call of the Sunshine State for Gore.

Flanked by Reps. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), Tauzin called for congressional hearings in De cember or early next year to explain the networks' mistaken projections on election night.

Tauzin, slated to become chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, said he plans to summon network heads, news executives and pollsters to testify at the hearings.

"There may be other reasons for why what happened on election night actually happened, but the presumptive conclusion that I think any reasonable person will reach, after reviewing this evidence, is that there must have been -- there probably was -- bias in the reporting of the election by the major networks of our country," Tauzin said.

VNS did not respond to repeated calls from The SPOTLIGHT for comment. However, the attention being focused on VNS may force the secretive outfit to come into the light and explain itself to voters.

After being badgered for information by The SPOTLIGHT last summer, VNS finally produced a one-page bro chure, scant on real information, explaining what it does. After its disaster in Florida VNS has been compelled to create a public presence on the Internet, al though it maintains a mere facade of a web site.

"They're the only game in town, and nobody really knows anything about them," says Carroll Doherty, an editor at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Andy Kohut, director of the center and president of the National Council of Public Polls, to which VNS supposedly adheres, told The SPOTLIGHT that "error lies on both sides, with VNS and the networks," for the false Florida election results broadcast across the nation.

The Committee for Honest Politics has filed lawsuits on behalf of voters in at least two counties in Florida's panhandle seeking an injunction against seven TV networks and the Voter News Service (VNS) to prevent them from broadcasting election projections in future elections before all polls close in the state.

Voters contend that the premature claims that Al Gore had won the state di minished the value of their votes. The western panhandle is in the Central Time Zone and the polls there stayed open for another hour after the polls had closed in the remainder of the state.

VNS has issued two public statements but the publicity-shy group would not make its executives available for comment.

"There's a congressional investigation; there's a lawsuit pending," said VNS editorial director Murray Edelman. "It's a pretty inflamed subject right now," he said, and VNS doesn't want to "pour any more kerosene on it."