A few hours before dawn, the nation's TV networks foisted their
second outrageous blunder of the night on the American people. After
"calling" the state of Florida for Al Gore earlier in the evening, the same
networks announced that George W. Bush had won Florida -- and the White
House. With a typical flourish, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw declared: "George
Bush is the president-elect of the United States."
But before the sun rose on the East Coast, the networks were
correcting themselves again, acknowledging that Florida was too close to
call. By then, the arrogance of the television networks had compounded a
distressing specter: The Electoral College might end up giving the
presidency to someone who came in second in the country's popular vote.
Twenty-four hours after the polls closed across America, the
reporters and commentators on the airwaves and cable channels seemed to be
reeling from the succession of extraordinary events. Surely, millions of
Americans were also stunned, as if the previous long night had been a vivid
and protracted bad dream.
In effect, the TV networks made a bad situation worse. They added
to the night's quickly escalating sense of confusion, disorientation and
uncertainty about the election results.
Despite their vast resources and profuse assurances that they knew
just what they were doing, the biggest television outlets -- ABC, CBS, NBC,
CNN, Fox and PBS -- incorrectly proclaimed that the winner of the
presidential race had been determined. The list of those networks is a
dishonor roll for American media.
Like most busy people, the executives and journalists who run the
news operations of the TV networks don't have much time to spare for
soul-searching. And it's unlikely a lot would change even if some genuine
introspection took place. It's not a good sign that top execs are treating
the networks' election-night madness as a public-relations problem.
The rushed and faulty projections for election results were
dramatic manifestations of the kind of intrinsically flawed coverage of
politics that goes on all the time in national media. Major outlets cast
huge shadows across political landscapes, from campaign trails to
gubernatorial offices, legislative bodies and the White House. But even the
most influential reporters and pundits are in the habit of acting like
they're mere observers.
Although journalists at key media institutions pose as flies on
the walls of national politics, they're apt to function more like movers
and shakers. Far from just telling us what's happening, the biggest-name
journalists -- the ones holding forth on the networks throughout election
night -- are always shaping the media terrain through which politicians walk.
Meanwhile, journalists and the politicians they cover are
routinely financed -- one way or the other -- by many of the same business
interests. Numerous firms that own powerhouse media outlets or pay for
extensive advertising also spend gobs of money on lobbyists and campaign
contributions. And the phenomenal amount of lucre that went into the 2000
elections is just a pittance compared to the hundreds of billions of
dollars in corporate profits riding on future government policies set in
So, where are we now? After a year filled with denunciations of
the pernicious roles played by money in politics, the big money has as
tight a grip on the electoral process as ever. Not coincidentally, whether
Bush or Gore prevails, the man who'll move into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. next
January has long been cozy with economic elites of the nation.
After bringing us the fiascos of election night, the TV networks
assure us that they'll quit being so arrogant. And actually, it's easy to
stop. They've done it hundreds of times. Periodic self-critiques and public
shows of repentance are ingrained rituals for news organizations, which
tout only corporate-friendly presidential candidates as serious contenders.
On the surface, the willingness of the TV networks to "call"
elections prematurely and inaccurately may seem like an unfortunate quirk.
But it's a reflection of what constantly happens when news operations --
bent on outdoing competitors -- put the drive for profits above public
service. The people calling the shots at the major networks are acutely
aware that they must strive to boost the bottom line of the parent company.
It's a metaphor for the profound ways that Campaign 2000 has left
democracy in the dust.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of
Highly Deceptive Media.