House Committee Opens New Round of Post-Election Finger Pointing

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - Election night coverage by television networks was so confusing November 7 - particularly the various reports on who won Florida - that Congress is holding hearings on the controversy this week.

Though the heads of all the major TV networks are scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee February 14, it's unclear what specific remedy the hearings might produce. What is clear is that Republicans and Democrats will have competing agendas that day.

On election night, the major networks initially predicted Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore as the winner of Florida, then changed it to "too close to call."

Shortly thereafter, they projected Republican George W. Bush the winner, but later rescinded that projection, too. The predictions were based on an exit polling system, called the Voter News Service, which is collectively owned and used by the major networks.

Some Republicans alleged media bias in favor of Gore caused the early prediction for the former vice president. But according to several sources, studies conducted during the months since the election suggest that VNS was a major cause of the premature call in Florida because it underestimated the large number of absentee ballots in this election. The mis-reporting of the results also caused a number of voters to file suit, claiming they had been disenfranchised by the early projections.

"Our role here is certainly not to wave a wand and suggest what content or what the networks should address or how they should address it," said Pete Sheffield, a Republican spokesman for the House Commerce Committee. "We're not going to censor the networks. We have no role and no interest in any of that," he said.

"What we want to do is make sure that it never happens again," said Sheffield. "In this effort that's moving forward on election reform, maybe it's not such a bad idea to address the role of the networks, or at least the role they played in the most recent election... calling races in certain states before polls had closed, and certainly before polls had closed out west," he said.

Sheffield said the committee Republicans hope to promote legislation to create uniform poll closing, discourage the networks from calling races until the polls close, and question the networks' reliance on the VNS system.

Democrats, however, signaled that they will be interested in discussing another subject altogether.

"I'm pleased that [Republican committee Chairman] Congressman Tauzin (R-La.) held a press conference to inform us that committee investigators found no evidence of intentional political bias on the part of the networks on November 7, 2000," said John Dingell (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee.

"I am especially pleased that we can put this issue behind us and focus on the more serious and suspect matters surrounding this election, particularly the issue of voter suppression and disenfranchisement," Dingell said in a statement. "We must ensure that voters' rights are protected, which is why we should move with all possible haste in creating an Election Commission. I look forward to a vigorous discussion of all these issues and am pleased Chairman Tauzin had the foresight to schedule this valuable hearing," said Dingell.

John Samples, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government, says it's not necessary for Congress to get involved by grilling network executives.

"Clearly, the initial purpose of the hearings was that some people, particularly the Republicans, felt that they had a justified reason to think they had been mistreated by the networks who had negligently and wildly called it for Gore," said Samples.

But now, months after the election, "the purpose is not really to do anything; it's to be seen doing something," said Samples. "It's to vent Republican frustration over this and... humiliate the networks."

"Networks... are genuinely embarrassed," over the Election Night missteps, said Samples. "The question is, who punishes them for that mistake? The government? I don't think we want to go down that path at all."