Archive for Wednesday, November 15, 2000

The dangerous game some journalists play


November 15, 2000

The television talking heads and a good number of print journalists on Election Day 2000 were caught by their own game.

That game apparently had only one rule: Be first.

What some journalists apparently have forgotten during the years is the other rule that has guided all good journalists: Be accurate.

How is it that the profession has sunk so low that the major television networks' news organizations could have twice made huge blunders when reporting on election returns from Florida. How could they have been so compelled to be first that they forgot the component of accuracy.

When the networks early on election night declared that Vice President Al Gore had won Florida's 25 Electoral College votes, it was surprising to many. But in a nation that has become accustomed to instant gratification, many of us raised only one eyebrow and then believed.

Then the networks recanted, saying the margin in Florida was far too narrow to call the race. Florida went back into the neutral category.

Throughout the evening, CBS correspondent Dan Rather told viewers, with a great deal of pride, that his network was the first to realize the mistake. Again, being first was the most important element. It was not as important to admit that a mistake had been made.

For several hours, the vote totals in Florida trickled in, and Rather and other network commentators told us over and over that the state could fall either way.

Then, at 1:18 a.m. last Wednesday, in an abrupt announcement, the networks decided that Florida had landed on the side of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. They flashed his photograph on the screen, declaring him the 43rd president of the United States.

This time, many of us raised both eyebrows and kept watching, as a surreal drama unfolded. Ultimately, the networks returned Florida to the too-close-to-call category.

Clearly, the journalists' mistakes will have no bearing on the true outcome of the election unless voters in the west did not go to the polls based on the early call in Florida on Gore's behalf.

But the journalists' mistakes should be an embarrassment, an embarrassment that should not be repeated.

When journalists believe that being first is more important than being accurate, the profession has sunk to a putrid low.

Each journalist should have a voice speaking to him or her that questions whether what the journalist is writing or speaking is accurate. If the journalist doesn't hear that voice, or if the journalist has chosen to ignore that voice, the journalist should quit the profession.

They should scramble to be the first to do so.

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