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Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 2000 /24 Mar-Cheshvan 5761

Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas
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The next election --
WHILE POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS are now year-around, few thought that elections might become nonstop, too. So, it's not too early to begin thinking about the next election in 2002 and the presidential race in 2004 and decide what the current electoral gridlock has taught us.

While the federal government should not standardize ballots because such prerogatives are reserved for the states by the Tenth Amendment, it might be helpful to establish a commission to study ways to make voting less confusing and the tabulation less chaotic.

Many state legislatures vote electronically. Citizens might do so, too. Whether we use the Internet or phone in our votes using a Social Security or other number specifically assigned for the election, something better than the current patchwork quilt system is clearly needed. Making the way we vote more uniform and user-friendly might reduce the potential for fraud in places like Palm Beach County, Fla., where "chads'' are on the floor and credibility is in the tank.

Something also needs to be done about the media. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) wants to hold hearings on why all the TV networks (starting with Fox) picked the wrong man -- twice. While Congress ought to be focusing on getting its own House (and Senate) in order before it tells the networks how to improve their indefensible performance, hearings might help focus some shame where it belongs. Because of the First Amendment, Congress should avoid any legislative remedies for network shortcomings, but shining a national spotlight on the Klieg light industry might help the media better focus.

The networks have all pledged to establish panels to look into their election night coverage and recommend how they can do better. That sounds like a good start until you realize that only CBS has an outsider on its panel-- the respected Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. The rest are all using network insiders. This is like the Justice Department investigating itself, which is why we once had an Independent Counsel law.

The resurrection of the old National News Council, which the networks hated, but which served the public well, would be another good idea. The council, which ceased to exist in the '70s (the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee said it had been "taken over by kooks''), served as an intermediary between the public and the media. It took seriously legitimate complaints about inaccuracies, bias and sensationalism. Properly staffed with credible people, a contemporary news council might pressure the media to do the type of professional job they used to do before ratings and other considerations supplanted good journalism.

The need to get it first has replaced the need to get it right for the networks. Exit polls, "computer models'' and other means of "projecting'' winners increasingly look to the public like a sophisticated version of Tarot card readings or the Psychic Hotline. If the primary business of broadcast journalism is to serve the public, the election that will not end shows how ill-served the public has been.

One change the networks can make immediately is to stop hiring operatives from Republican and Democrat camps as "commentators,'' "analysts'' and reporters, such as George Stephanopoulos, who repeatedly noted on ABC the "ties between (Florida Secretary of State Katherine) Harris and Gov. Bush.'' The network downplays Stephanopoulos' ties to Clinton-Gore. He's a "correspondent'' now, you see, because ABC brass says so. His partisan-in-crime, Paul Begala, co-hosts CNBC's "Equal Time.'' There are fewer Republicans in the same category, but even if their number achieved parity with Democrats, the practice is still a bad idea.

Media labeling and commentary masquerading as questions should cease, though it probably won't. Reuters called Harris "a cultured heiress with a staunch Republican pedigree.'' CBS said she was "a child of privilege, born to one of the wealthiest families in Florida.'' NBC's David Bloom repeatedly called Harris "Florida's Republican Secretary of State.'' "Good Morning America'' labeled Circuit Judge Terry Lewis a Baptist. Similar labeling was used on Kenneth Starr. None of it is meant to be complimentary.

Media culpability in this election goes beyond the bad network calls. The networks, especially, suffer from bias denial and falling credibility that ill-serves the public at a time when truth and accuracy were never more needed.

So let the reforms proceed but let's get them in place long before the next election.

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