Panel debates media

Two GW professors joined a panel discussion of professional journalists to critique media coverage of last week’s presidential campaign at the National Press Club Monday night.

To say this is an unrehearsed panel is an understatement, said Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Harvard University’s Shorestein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy.

The 19th Kalb Report panel included GW Shapiro Fellows Steve Roberts and Helen Thomas, Ceci Connolly, a reporter from The Washington Post who traveled with Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore throughout their campaigns, Dan Raviv, national correspondent for CBS Radio News and Bill Schneider, senior political analyst for CNN.

GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs co-sponsored the event with the Shorestein Center.

Much of the discussion focused on the media’s mistakes in prematurely calling a Florida winner twice. Bob Lichter, president for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, called these inaccurate predictions the biggest single election-night blunder.

Terence Smith, a media correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer also sat on the panel.

Major broadcast networks announced Gore had won Florida before the polls closed. Early the next morning, the networks called Bush the winner in Florida and the 43rd president.

These mistakes will have consequences for journalists, Roberts said.

The public will look at what we do with more skepticism, which is probably healthy, Roberts said.

The Fox network was the first to call the election, Kalb said. He asked the panel why all of the other networks followed Fox’s lead.

Shneider said other networks are under tremendous pressure to call a state after others have already done so. He admitted that there are consequences to prematurely calling the race, such as giving voters a false sense that their candidate had won the election.

Deborah Mathis, political reporter for Gannett News Service, said the networks’ role of quickly calling an election will be debated in future years.

The time issue has to be brought under control, she said.

Connolly said that broadcast networks have more pressure than print journalists do. She said The Washington Post did not use a headline declaring Bush the president because election results were uncertain at press time.

Panelists debated the use of exit polls and how the polls influence a network’s decision to call a state winner.

The major networks all hire one company to gather data for exit polls, surveys of voters that are given as soon as a voter leaves the ballot box. A sampling of these polls are used as an early determinate of which candidate will carry a state.

Roberts said exit polls are a valuable tool for journalists, while Thomas called them trendy.

The journalists also criticized the media’s election coverage.

Kalb said the press did not push candidates enough, and media outlets did not give proportionate coverage to the poor.

Lichter said CMPA studied news coverage of the election and found that negative coverage of both candidates was almost even.

He said 60 percent of Gore’s coverage and 63 percent of Bush’s coverage was negative. But he said negative coverage occurred in waves.

Mathis disagreed, saying criticism of the liberal press led the media to cover Gore in a more negative light than Bush.

Roberts said newspapers should have covered the personal side of candidates more because that is what readers are interested in.

Thomas, a former White House correspondent, was quick to defend the media after the discussion.

The press has been put on the defensive, Thomas said. I’m not into `mea culpa.’ I think the press does a hell of a job.

After the hour-long discussion, panelists took questions from the audience.

Sophomore Matt Silverstein, an SMPA student, asked about the role of a news anchor in calling state victory. He said he believed ABC World News anchor Peter Jennings seemed hesitant when he was making calls, and wondered if Jennings has a responsibility to the public to mention reservations.

Should (anchors) act as a puppet? Silverstein asked.

Smith said an anchor should level with an audience and explain his or her hesitancy but still relay the information.

Mark Wojno, a second-year graduate student in GW’s School of Business and Public Management asked about the role of the internet in the campaign.

Roberts said the internet has helped and harmed the media’s coverage. He said the competition is healthy but often times internet companies have a different standard when reporting the news.

Kalb ended the discussion by saying that the role of a journalist is to cover, not make the news. He said media outlets were centrally cast for the first time last week.

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