BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. A Voter News Service computer breakdown Tuesday forced broadcast and cable news to suddenly do without exit poll data -- a last minute monkey wrench in the works for organizations already chastened by the reporting fiasco of Election 2000. Gone were the detailed breakdowns of voting patterns, demographic segment by segment; replaced by old-fashioned broad analysis of the voters' will. Producer at large Mike Pesca who watched the coverage as always with nearly pathological attention was struck both by the exit polling data that the media didn't much need and the early campaign tracking polls that the media didn't much heed. Hi, Mike!
MIKE PESCA: Indeed!
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, so Mike how was the first election without VNS?
MIKE PESCA: It was pretty careful. It was the Heinz Catsup election -- it may take a while, but you know when, when it finally comes out in the end it'll be worth it.
BOB GARFIELD:Yeah, but without the VNS data did you find yourself wondering if New Hampshire's Latinas, for example, went for Sununu or Shaheen? Did you miss the detail?
MIKE PESCA: [LAUGHS] No, I didn't. I don't think anyone did. The oldest cliche in politics is, when you're trailing in the polls before an election you say you know there's only one poll that matters, and that's the poll on election day, and I don't think they mean the VNS poll. I think they mean when people actually vote. Now the VNS data is useful for academics and there's actually strong reason to think they'll be able to recover all that data for future studies. But the networks all promise us news and analysis, and they proved that they were able to take voting trends, and from those trends, smart people could make good analysis. This is what Aaron Brown did.
AARON BROWN: I just think that in close races, one of the things that people thought a lot about tonight is who supports the president? We are post-9/11; we are perhaps on the edge of a war with Iraq. We want people to support the president, and that's how some of these broke and maybe I'm inventing a theory or maybe that's in fact what happened. But it feels that way.
BOB GARFIELD:All right. Now that was reasonable and non-controversial. Was there anything you saw that was particularly good or, or particularly awful?
MIKE PESCA: I choose to take the second part of that question first, and possibly leave the first part off the table. Yeah, there was one thing that was my pet peeve -- the race for the Senate in Texas was supposed to be this close and exciting race, and it was an interesting race because you had the black mayor of Dallas, Ron Kirk, running against the Bush/Rove-designated candidate. But it was never close. Yet the media continued on with this fiction that this was some barn-burner of a race, and right up until two days before the election, Sunday New York Times Week in Review, they reviewed six close races, and Texas was on the list! And the one race -- if the Texas race took away attention from anything, it was the race for Senate in Georgia which came as a shock to everyone on election night, but it really shouldn't have.
BOB GARFIELD: Now that's the face where Max Cleland lost to Saxby Chambliss.
MIKE PESCA: Right. Saxby Chambliss, or as MSNBC's expert, Pat Cadell called him--
MAN: I'm, I'm, I'm really outraged by this. This guy got away with murder this year. And that's one of the few [...?...]--
MAN: Who's "this guy?"
MAN: This Chambliss - Chambliss Saxby - and I, I, I just feel very bad--
MAN: Saxby Chambliss, who -- whichever you'd like -it's a weird name anyway.
BOB GARFIELD:Okay, [LAUGHS] anybody can make a mistake. But it, it was shocking that this war hero who lost an arm and both of his legs in Vietnam could lose on of all issues national security -- that Max Cleland was soft on national security.
MIKE PESCA: Right. That shock was registered on the -- in the expressions of most of the news that night. But look at the polls, and the polls were out there -- they were telling you that the race was close. A week before the election I was getting really upset at the Washington Post and the New York Times cause they would write these stories about the close races and never include actual numbers. And that's a whole other discussion -- should you include what the polls are saying. The reason that they don't do it is because there's a fear that if you do too many polls, then you're covering horse race rather than policy. If the polls are inaccurate you as the media could wind up skewing the election. However, there's also a thought that as a media consumer I have a right to the data, and if I looked at the data I would say wait a minute! They're telling me Texas is close but it's really not. Hey wait a minute -- look at Max Cleland -- he could lose!
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so why weren't they looking at the numbers if they were clear enough.
MIKE PESCA:It was as if on Election Night Max Cleland's name stopped being Max Cleland and just became triple amputee Max Cleland. Here, listen to Judy Woodruff. JUDY WOODRUFF: Max Cleland, they thought -- as you said, triple amputee-- there's no way the Republicans can beat him.
MIKE PESCA: Now I don't know how many of the national anchors actually looked into that race, but I'm somewhat of a political junkie. I watched the debate on C-Span, and I have to tell you, at the end Max Cleland, although I'm sympathetic to the guy, he came off as a little bit out of touch -- he ended with a statement "Take it to the max, with Max." And it was a little weird because he was getting hammered on points -- on solid points -- not on puns -- the whole night by Chambliss. So if you actually watched that debate you'd come away from it thinking that Cleland was in trouble, which he turned out to be.
BOB GARFIELD:Mike I guess the question is -- is this just carelessness? Is it egregious evidence of the media really being misleading in order to hype the, the drama of these campaigns? And does it have some sort of greater implication for democracy?
MIKE PESCA: It's probably just carelessness. As far as implications for democracy, people in Georgia who were doing the actual voting did get a better picture of that race than we outside of Georgia were getting from the national media. But the final point is perhaps the next election cycle in a couple of years, I wish they would publish more poll numbers and leave it up to the viewer and the reader to decide what races are the ones to watch, because what, what did we find out and why were they being so careful in this election? Once you lose a new consumer's trust, it's a really difficult thing to regain.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mike. Well thanks for your analysis. Now-- you know, get back to work.
MIKE PESCA: If by work you mean watching the runoff in Louisiana -- I sure will. [MUSIC]