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The Results Are Finally In

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2000; Page C01

The media may want to demand a recount.

As the spectacle of dueling news conferences, photo-ops and legal filings has turned the Florida mess into the latest television miniseries, one verdict in the endless presidential race is already in. Journalists, as judged by the court of public opinion, are guilty of poor coverage and irresponsible behavior.

And, according to a Pew Research Center poll, a majority says the press has too much influence as well.

Every so often, an event erupts that crystallizes the public dissatisfaction with the Fourth Estate. Sensational newsmagazine shows took a beating after NBC's "Dateline" blew up a truck. Hidden-camera probes were criticized after ABC's "PrimeTime Live" had producers infiltrate a Food Lion deli. The relentless tawdriness of the Lewinsky saga came to symbolize the wretched excess of the scandal-hungry media.

Election night 2000 was just such a moment. The networks are greatly embarrassed--and rightly so--at first calling Florida for Al Gore, then calling the state (and the election) for George W. Bush, and retracting both calls within a couple of hours. Some Republican House members are planning hearings on alleged bias in the projections. And the public is disgusted.

In the Pew survey, 87 percent want the networks to hold off on announcing a winner until nearly all the votes in the country are counted. Eight in 10 say news organizations project a winner not to get out important news but as part of a great rush to be first.

While the networks insist there is no proof that early exit-poll suggestions depress turnout, the public isn't buying that line. More than half say that calling Florida for Gore in the early evening may have had an effect on how people across the country voted. (The networks that called Florida as early as 7:50 p.m. Eastern time seemed unaware--or unconcerned--that polls hadn't yet closed in the state's Panhandle region, which is in the Central time zone. The networks give themselves a loophole by promising not to project a winner until a "majority" of state polls have closed.)

Little wonder, then, that 53 percent say the media have too much influence on the election's outcome--up from 46 percent in 1992.

While two-thirds say the media were fair to Gore and Bush, Republicans, not surprisingly, are more critical. Fewer than half the Republicans surveyed say both candidates received fair coverage; only 20 percent give the press an A or a B, with 27 percent handing out an F. Among Democrats, 39 percent say A or B, and only 10 percent flunk the press.

For all the media hand-wringing that inevitably follows elections, little is likely to change. The networks will probably be a bit more cautious in using exit polls, and some may field their own pollsters rather than sticking with the Voter News Service cartel, which gave everyone some bad numbers this time around. But if the status quo prevails, the profession is likely to keep scoring below politicians in the very polls to which the media have become addicted.

Indigestion

Barbara Walters says it's all "a tempest in a soup bowl." But her daytime ABC talk show, "The View," has been burned by the disclosure that the panelists have been chatting about Campbell's Soup--which happens to be paying for the delicious mentions.

"Do I think this is a big deal and it compromises my 35-year record of integrity? No," Walters says.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Campbell's was paying for a new kind of product placement on "The View." While sponsored segments are not unusual on entertainment shows, the idea that products could seep into the conversation--among some prominent journalists--is an eye-opener.

Indeed, when co-host Meredith Vieira, formerly of "60 Minutes," said her daughter doesn't eat much but loves Campbell's Mega-Noodle, Walters said: "Didn't we grow up . . . eating Campbell's soup?" And the group burst into the famous slogan: "M'm! M'm! Good!"

Walters says she instinctively ad-libbed the line, but that "if I had it to do over again, would I have left out that one little remark? Yes." In fact, Walters vetoed a planned segment in which co-host Joy Behar would judge the audience's soup-sipping techniques. "I thought this had gone too far," she says.

As a "20/20" anchor, Walters says she's in a different position than the other panelists, doesn't offer her political opinions and will stay out of further soup chat. She sees nothing wrong with Campbell's getting the on-air soup plugs in exchange for underwriting the show's visit to California last week. But--let's face it--it smells funny.

Hangover

The Portland Press Herald reporter who uncovered George W. Bush's driving-under-the-influence conviction last July says the Maine paper is making him a scapegoat.

"I'm getting a little angry," Ted Cohen says. "They ought to 'fess up and say this was not Cohen's fault." The 49-year-old reporter, who has worked for the paper for a quarter-century, is adamant that he did his job.

Cohen learned of Bush's 1976 DUI arrest when he asked a police official if he had "any dirt on Bush." Cohen told his assignment editor, who said he shouldn't pursue it because the charge was too old. No higher-ups were told. The story broke on Fox News four days before the election.

In a subsequent news story, the Press Herald said the assigning editor and Cohen concluded that the incident "was too old to be 'germane.' " But Cohen says he reached no such conclusion. The editor, he says, "just decided we're not going to do it. I didn't protest."

Says Managing Editor Curt Hazlett: "Ted could certainly have called me. He didn't. No one is trying to hang him out on that. I guess I can't fault him for listening to his editor, but given the subsequent magnitude of the story, I wish he had kicked it up the ladder."

Cohen says that "if I failed, I failed to follow my heart. My heart told me I had a huge story."

Live or Memorex?

"Saturday Night Live" served up one of its hilarious presidential skits recently, with Darrell Hammond (as the pompous Gore) and Will Ferrell (as the bumbling Bush) moving into the White House as co-presidents.

It was cast as an episode of "The Odd Couple," with the Oscar Madison-like Bush smoking a stogie and drinking milk from the container while the Felix Ungar-style Gore fussed at him. They wound up settling a dispute by playing a game of rock, paper, scissors.

The folks at National Public Radio thought this was pretty funny--just as they had laughed at an on-air commentary by Peter Loge about a co-presidency. "Think Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar go to Washington," Loge said. "You can almost see Bush sprawled on the sofa watching baseball as Gore hovers about, picking up stray potato chips and whining about the air quality in the White House." What's more, "all disagreements would be resolved with a game of rock, paper, scissors."

In a letter to the NBC show, NPR Senior Editor Susan Feeney said: "We are always thrilled to learn more about who is listening to 'Morning Edition.' The similarities between your opening skit on Saturday night and Peter Loge's Thursday morning commentary were uncanny."

But "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels says two of his writers were up late finishing the piece last Wednesday night, before the NPR commentary aired. "It did happen separately," he says. "I don't think we're fighting over the originality of the 'Odd Couple' idea," which had been bouncing around. "But the paper, rock, scissors thing I thought was uncanny. It was unnerving to me that someone else thought of it."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company