They stopped the train dead, and with it any pretense that CBS, CNN and ABC were practicing independent, objective, knowledgeable analysis and journalism. CBS, CNN and ABC: Caught in the Tank with Kerry

On November 4, Jodi Wilgoren of The New York Times reported details of election night television coverage that are yet to get the attention they deserve. Buried deep in a story, far from the front page, here’s what Wilgoren wrote:

"The critical moment came at 12:41 a.m. Wednesday, when, shortly after Florida had been painted red for Mr. Bush, Fox News declared that Ohio — and, very likely, the presidency — was in Republican hands.

"Howard Wolfson, a strategist who joined the [Kerry] campaign this fall, burst into the room where the brain trust was huddled and told them ‘we have 30 seconds’ to stop the other networks from following suit.

"The campaign pollster, Mark Mellman, and the renowned organizer Michael Whouley quickly dialed ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC — and all but the last refrained from calling the race through the night. Then Mr. Wolfson banged out a simple, two-line statement from Mary Beth Cahill, expressing confidence that Mr. Kerry would win Ohio once the remaining ballots were counted.

"'All through the process, what was driving our decision making was the memory of how in 2000, by allowing Florida to go for Bush, a lot of momentum was blocked,' said one person who was in the room. 'Our whole goal was stop the train from moving that way.'"

They stopped the train dead, and with it any pretense that CBS, CNN and ABC were practicing independent, objective, knowledgeable analysis and journalism. It is perfectly acceptable for networks to listen to what a campaign has to say, but not to ignore empirical evidence to favor that campaign.

In its wisdom, Fox News had selected Michael Barone as the on-air presence of its "Decision Desk" of election analysts. No living human knows more about the intricacies of American elections than Barone, for decades the principal author of "The Almanac of American Politics," the indispensable repository of fact, analysis and insight. Name any county in the country, and Barone not only understands it politically, he’s been there.

Fox News called Ohio, first and correctly. A while thereafter, Barone analytically demolished the spurious Kerry campaign spin that outstanding votes, including the much-discussed provisional ballots, could overcome the President’s Ohio lead. Later, Barone would report that Karl Rove had called, urging Fox News to call New Mexico for the President to put the Electoral College count over the top. Fox refused, because the numbers were not then sufficient to make the call with confidence.

Stating fears of repeating the debacle of Election 2000 television news coverage may well provide CBS, CNN and ABC with enough fig leaves to escape concentrated mass condemnation. In fact, Jacques Steinberg and David Carr of The New York Times wrote that story also, strangely appearing only two pages following Wilgoren’s revelations, but with no references to the Kerry campaign’s successful lobbying of the networks.

We are willing to listen to those of the media — television and print — who start with the simple declarative "We screwed up" and follow with a commitment to return independence and objectivity to their news coverage. While we are waiting, we, who have been labeled as idiots and worse, are at least smart enough to find alternative news sources.

November 11, 2004
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