BOB GARFIELD: TV critic Jonathan Storm of the Philadelphia Inquirer joined us last week to discuss the networks' chastened attitudes toward exit polls, so he watched with more than casual interest, and also detected some telltale phrasing and body language. But he believes that all in all, Tuesday night the networks acquitted themselves quite respectably. On a scale from 1 to 10, Storm says:
JONATHAN STORM: Well, as far as reporting the results of the election, I have to give them 8 or higher, because they reported the results of the election correctly. I did notice CNN - that whenever they really wanted to mix things up, they would go to the Crossfire crowd, and Bob Novak would [LAUGHTER] sit there and he -- his sources on the ground were saying, you know, that Jim Bunning lost, and that Kerry won in Ohio. So they did have their speculators and agents provocateurs on air, but as far as the news organizations went, they never got anything wrong as far as I could tell. And so you have to give them credit. And, given what was in the air, it would have been quite possible that, had we not had 2000, that they would have come on in 2004 and said it looks like Kerry's going to carry Florida and Ohio.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about the often-discussed question of how does the coverage actually affect the electorate, especially before polls close in certain states.
JONATHAN STORM: I don't think that a shoulder shrug or a cocked eyebrow or the inflection of a sentence from some news anchor is going to have much of an impact on how people who still have a chance to vote are going to cast their ballots. What was going to affect the viewers strongly were all of the partisan apologists and spin-meisters who dominated the first two hours of coverage on all the networks. You had Rudy Giuliani and Teddy Kennedy and Vanessa Kerry and the chairman of the Republican committee, and the chairman of the Democratic committee. That kind of smiling, unctuous -- make sure you keep voting for us was -- that's the kind of stuff that might have some impact.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a lot of discussion about whether the economy would trump the war or vice-versa, in the hearts and minds of Americans as they went to the polls. Turns out, the deciding factor was the culture wars and gay marriage and whether our society is going to hell in a handbasket. Were the networks caught as flat-footed by this issue as the Kerry campaign?
JONATHAN STORM: It wasn't just the networks. It was everybody in the media was caught flat-footed by that. The media always settles on issues, and I think that the exit polls, which are being flayed somewhat, were the first thing that indicated to the general public -- well, there's this other issue here that is so strong and so important to so many people that they base their vote on it. And so in that way the exit polls performed an amazing service.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah-ha. So then exit polls, irrespective of whether the networks used the data properly or cleverly on election night, turn out to generate a lot of insight about what has transpired, even if that insight doesn't really materialize for a day or two.
JONATHAN STORM: Exit polls provided the main story of this election.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jonathan. Well, once again, thanks so much for joining us.
JONATHAN STORM: It's fun. It's a pleasure. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Storm is a reporter and television critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer.