One problem with technology is that you can't un-invent anything. Thus the television networks are not going to shut down or dismantle their Amazing Electo-Matic Machine because a few congressmen are making noise about hasty reporting of election results. Indeed, they've retooled the machine to make it even more impressive. Tonight's array of computer-generated graphics on all three networks will probably be the dazzliest thing since the last Fourth of July fireworks blowout.
Last week Rep. Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) wrote letters to all three networks urging them to "exercise your good judgment by agreeing not to project a winner of any race until all polls have closed" today. Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) planned to visit the presidents of all three network news divisions yesterday with similar tidings.
The networks say they have no intention of listening to any of it.
"It really has reached ridiculous proportions, this effort to get us not to tell the public what the pols know and what the big-time pollsters know," said CBS News anchor Dan Rather from New York yesterday. "Ridiculous. My instructions are what they have been every year: to be accurate, to be fair, and to do what you think is journalistically responsible, and that's what we're going to do."
Rather, nursing a sore throat but determined to be on the job from noon today until as late as 2 a.m. tomorrow, says that if the politicians are so concerned about this issue, they should institute a standard poll-closing time and have a 24-hour voting day throughout the country. "Would I be a journalist everyone could trust," he asks, "if every time politicians or, God help us, sociologists, told us how to do our job I said, 'Oh, yes master, we'll do just as you say'?"
CBS News has issued a policy statement promising that "the winners will not be broadcast until all the polls have closed in a state or, in those states with more than one closing time, until a significant majority of the polls have closed." The other networks have made similar pledges. Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, said in his statement, "ABC News will not use exit poll data to suggest the winner of an election in any state until polls in that state have closed."
Warren Mitovsky, crack pollster for CBS News, said yesterday, "We are not going to give away the results of any state while that state's polls are open. There'll be no winking at the audience and saying, 'Men have voted 72 percent for Reagan, women 52 percent for Reagan, and guess who's winning.' "
Despite all the statements and explanations, the networks actually are adhering to the same policies they followed four years ago. The networks are holding firm -- but pliably. They are laying down the law -- but also, one network news executive concedes, going to be more careful than usual because of all the pressure that's been brought to bear. "The networks are not noted for their guts, and they are politically vulnerable -- more than any other medium in this country, because broadcasting is the only medium licensed by the government," the executive says. "They don't want to have to go back to Washington when this is over and get beat up on again by a bunch of hayseed congressmen."
However, network news departments are hotly competitive at such times, it should be remembered. What they say in the cool of contemplation and what they do in the heat of battle may not necessarily be the same. Besides, they have all this wondrous, and costly, data-gathering junk at their disposal. Each network will have spent around $10 million just on polling this year according to one insider's estimate. And as one savvy network news producer says, "You can't tell the little boy not to eat the candy bar he's already got."
"We have to pay attention" to the congressional clangedy-bang, says ABC News executive vice president David Burke, "because we do go down and testify so many times a year. At least we did this year. Do we pay attention? Yes. Do we wait until the polls close in California before we say that a candidate has the 270 electoral votes needed to be president? No. That's asking us to suppress factual information. When you start to suppress information like that you're starting down a long and slippery slope."
Burke finds newspaper columns piously urging restraint by the networks in reporting election results to be on the disingenuous side. For one thing, he says, it has never been proven that early reporting of election returns has any appreciable effect on voter behavior.
"It boggles my mind, actually," Burke says. "I can't believe that people are saying we should withhold information. In a free society there is just no way you can seal off one region of the country from another. What about radio stations that broadcast over state lines where poll closing times may be different? To carry it to a ridiculous extreme, maybe they should ban long distance phone calls so nobody in one part of the country knows what's happening in another."
Mitovsky says that for all the hysteria over the use of exit polling, "Exit polls are really the red herring in this story. If you never saw an exit poll you would know, with a 20 point margin, that Ronald Reagan is the next president by 8 o'clock." Thus efforts of some states to impair or discourage exit polling are futile. Arledge and Burke agree with Rather that if Congress is so concerned, Congress should look at the possibility of standardizing poll-closing times. "Instead of attacking the messenger, they should solve the problem," Burke says.
"No journalist worthy of the name should agree to keep a little secret from the audience," Rather says. "I'm not going to do it. The politicians accuse us of being haughty or arrogant. There's nothing haughty or arrogant out there in that newsroom. Our job is to get the news and report it, and that's what we'll be doing."
The politicos, says Rather, are "always looking for someone to blame" for problems like this, and they often pick the networks. "We've been blamed for everything except El Nin o in the past few years," he says. "Politicians love to talk about our responsibility but they are not willing to talk about their own responsibility."
For all this fuss, for all this concentration on the way the story will be told, the story itself doesn't promise to be of exactly Hitchcockian suspense. The networks have been reporting for weeks now how virtually certain a Reagan victory is. Who's going to be on the edge of his seat? Election Night '84 could make the Emmy Awards look like a real nail-biter.
Those independent stations around the country showing old movies as counter-programming against election returns really should schedule them to start at about 8:02. The story would be over and we could all settle back and watch "Casablanca" again. It wouldn't have a lot of surprises either, but at least we could have a good cry.
Of course there will be House and Senate races and, thanks to exit polling, enough demographics to sink a ship of state. But by and large the network news departments may have already over-covered the story to the point of exhaustion. It's as if they had been ballyhooing the Super Bowl for a year and now expect viewers to watch it in rapt fascination even though they know not only which team will win but practically what the score will be.
According to "Megatrends," information is now the single most abundant product of this society. It could be that people are drowning in it rather than thriving on it.
Rather insists there is a story here and a good one, and his usual boyish bravado has him champing at the bit. "I like politics, and this should be a very interesting evening," he says. "Even if you buy the idea, and I'm not sure that I do, that this will be absolutely and totally Reagan's night, the Republicans' night, some very interesting questions arise: was it a popular victory for Reagan? A victory for his policies? What's he going to do with that victory?"
Thus Rather has not taken any tap-dancing lessons just in case he finds he has scads of time to fill tonight and nothing to fill them with. It's a certainty that viewers will hear more than once those familiar Rather words: "Here's what we think we know." As for his current infirmity, Rather says he will get through it not thanks to chicken soup but with "some of Jean Rather's famous Texas-prison chili" and several cups of "her very strong coffee, which is strong enough to float buckshot in." Rather says he normally has an exercise regimen he goes through before these marathon sessions but that the sore throat has ruled that out.
For Rather, the election will be fun. Others look on fun elections as things of the past. That may be the real motive behind all the protests: people have fond memories of hanging onto their TV sets all night while results trickle in. Even pollster Mitovsky has them. "I loved elections for years," he says. "I'd sit there with my beer and popcorn, and keep score for hours and hours. Of course, it still takes time with a close election." Mitovsky won't need much beer or popcorn tonight.
Former NBC News president Reuven Frank says "I hate election night" and doesn't mind that he is not involved in this year's at all. "It's all numbers and plywood," scowls Frank, who supervised this year's convention coverage for NBC. He notes of the exit polling brouhaha that the Democrats and the Republicans do their own exit polling and that this information always drifts around to the networks, who are then expected by the politicos dutifully to ignore it.
Frank did ignore it earlier this year when, during coverage of the New Hampshire primary, he learned that Gary Hart's exit polling showed a Hart runaway as of 4 o'clock that afternoon. He didn't use the information on the air and still regrets it. With that kind of information floating around today, the networks could probably call the national election, or "project" its outcome, on their evening newscasts, but all say they won't. We'll see.
The one most noticeable change from 1980 will be that the hardware is even more elaborate. Mitovsky predicts audiences will be absolutely awed by the graphics and wizardly displays of information. Things have come a long way since the 1952 election fondly recalled by Frank, when the man in charge of NBC's coverage bought 96 cash registers, two for each candidate (Eisenhower and Stevenson) in each state, and the numbers were punched up on the air with the clangings of cash register bells as accompaniment.
"This is the real marriage of art and computers and data," Mitovsky says of the graphics. "This year you'll see the start of something that will progress tremendously in the years to come. The presentation is spectacular. In the future there'll be a lot more analytical use of graphics. Not just numbers, not just lines, but all kinds of things that move up and down."
After a few hours of this sort of thing, viewers may get the feeling they're looking at their own tax returns as rendered by Walt Disney Productions.
Now all three network news departments have their hands full -- pressures from Congress not to tell too much too soon, pressures from the competition to be first on the block, and the pressure to hold onto viewers during coverage of an election whose conclusion has seemed virtually foregone for weeks, and for an audience so satiated on political TV that they may all but weep with boredom.
The conclusion of what seems like the longest TV election year ever could be the most listless landslide in American history.
Here's the really unhappy fact: the 1988 campaign begins Wednesday morning.