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21 June 2001

Our current howler (part III): Sybil speaks

Synopsis: Sammon’s account of Election Night is a study in self-contradiction.

At Any Cost
Bill Sammon, Regnery Publishing, 2001

Why did the media generally take a pass on "Floodgate?" Because no one claimed that the Gore campaign played a part in the water release And because no water was wasted. Bill Sammon, of course, disguises these points in his new book, At Any Cost (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/19/01). He never says what he knows full well—that Sharon Francis, a local official, asked PG&E to release the water. He never explains that no one ever said that the Gore campaign was involved. And he never mentions that other key point—that the water was used to generate electricity. Instead, he makes you think something that’s baldly false; in his nugget statement, he implies that the water was wasted—that Granite Staters couldn’t wash their cars all thanks to that bad man, Al Gore.

Why is such high-level bullroar permitted, without a peep of critical comment? We’ll examine that question on Saturday. But it might be worth seeing how bad things get when the Bill Sammons of the world get free rein. In the second chapter of his book, he examines a very important topic—the way the networks projected winners of various states on Election Night (including Florida). It is perfectly clear that the TV nets badly embarrassed themselves that night, and every American—Republican, Democrat, Independent, third party—has ample reason to be concerned about the networks’ procedures and conduct. This is no souped-up canoe trip, kids. In his chapter about the Election Night calls, Sammon deals with a serious matter.

Unfortunately, Sammon’s account of Election Night is a study in self-contradiction. In fact, he gives so many contradictory accounts of what went on, it’s like Sybil helped out with his work. Mid-chapter, Sammon unambiguously says it—"Democratic bias" explains the way the networks awarded the states. Otherwise, the calls were "inexplicable," he says. But just pages before, he paints a contradictory portrait, explaining how understaffed and incompetently-planned the networks’ Voter News Service was. This is pleasing for Sammon’s readers, but if VNS was as hapless as he says, it’s hardly surprising or "inexplicable" if the networks didn’t make perfect calls. And finally, just after his passage on "Democratic bias," he tells the story of the Fox News Channel; Sammon shows us FNC’s "decision desk" manager, John Ellis, as he awards the state of Florida to Gore. But was Ellis driven by "Democratic bias?" In fact, right after he awards the state to Gore, the very-Republican Ellis is on the phone with his cousin, Jeb Bush. "I’ve got a screenful of Gore" in Florida, Ellis tells him. This scene occurs right in the middle of Sammon’s claims that "Democratic bias" drove the networks’ faulty calls.

Maybe you don’t care about the slanders of Gore with which Sammon fills his book. But every American needs to know about the networks’ Election Night conduct. But as usual, Sammon is so busy typing up Pleasing Tales that his work on this topic is utterly useless. In truth, he seems to have made no effort at all to find out what really went on.

I. Network bias

There’s no real doubt that the various networks bungled their Election Night coverage. And Florida is only one part of it. For example, Sammon correctly says that anchors and pundits shot off their mouths, giving impressions about the races in various states that turned out to be simply wrong. Example? Sammon mentions Georgia, "a southern stronghold that Bush carried handily by a dozen points." When the nets held off in calling the state, pundits suggested Bush was in trouble:

SAMMON (page 33): "Look at this! Look at this war in Georgia!" marveled CNN’s Bernard Shaw. "To close too call!"

"This has got to be a shocker in Austin," replied Jeff Greenfield in the gravest of tones. "They had this one put away in their pockets for weeks, if not months."

We don’t know if Greenfield really spoke "in the gravest of tones." But even if Georgia was "too close to call" as the pundits spoke, Georgia didn’t turn out to be "close" at all, and these comments—made when western states were still voting—gave viewers a clear misimpression.

Sammon records a welter of such comments, and he alleges a pattern in the networks’ performance; according to Sammon, the networks quickly awarded states to Gore, but delayed when it came to Bush. And there’s no doubt why that happened; repeatedly, Sammon says it was "Democratic bias" that explained the pattern of calls. Indeed, the bias was so pervasive, it extended to Fox, according to Sammon’s account:

SAMMON (page 27): Even Fox News Channel—a cable network that has been accused by rivals of hiring and giving air-time to too many conservatives—put three Democrats on its "decision desk," the team of employees that analyzed the rattletrap VNS data and then projected winners and losers.

But ten pages later, Sammon tells a contradictory story; he explains how Fox’s Democrats tried to delay giving Florida to Gore, while Ellis, the Republican, went ahead and declared it. But that’s the way it goes in this chapter. Sammon often seems unable to recall what he has said only pages before. As long as the story’s a good one—as long as the networks are wrong, that is—Sammon goes ahead and tells his story, even if it contradicts something he said pages earlier.

But make no mistake—Sammon swears the networks were humpin’ for Gore. When polls in the eastern states begin closing, the networks begin awarding the states; and Sammon asserts a rank "double standard" as the nets rush to give states to Gore. At first, Sammon goes anecdotal:

SAMMON (page 41): The lopsided calls in Gore’s favor continued all night. The clarity of the double standard is downright jarring when one examines the calls made by CNN, which was typical of the networks:

Gore won Illinois by 12 points and CNN crowned him the winner in one minute [after the polls closed]. Bush won Georgia by 12 points and CNN waited thirty-three minutes.

Gore won New Jersey by 15 points and CNN announced it in one minute. Bush won Alabama by 15 points and CNN waited twenty-six minutes.

Gore won Delaware by 13 points and CNN waited just three minutes. Bush won North Carolina by 13 points and CNN waited thirty-four minutes.

Sammon repeatedly uses the word "inexplicable" to describe the networks’ calls. Finally, anecdote makes way for the following:

SAMMON (page 42): The pervasiveness of the double standard was shocking. Whenever Gore won a state by a double-digit margin, the networks projected him the winner in three minutes or less. But in state after state, Bush posted double-digit victories that the networks refused to acknowledge for at least thirty minutes.

"The pervasiveness of the double standard was shocking," he says. Sammon is directly accusing the networks of favoring Gore with their calls.

But you have to parse Sammon quite carefully. "[I]n state after state," he says in this passage, "Bush posted double-digit victories that the networks refused to acknowledge for at least thirty minutes." True statement? Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of "in state after state" is. In fact, Sammon names only two states that fit this pattern—Georgia and North Carolina (see data above). Alabama almost makes it three—in Alabama, the nets waited 26 minutes. Sammon is embellishing here just a tad—"state after state" overstates his examples—but he does at least raise a valuable question about the prima facie "double standard" he describes. (Sammon also says that the networks waited longer for Bush in states where the margins were narrower.)

But alas! Reading between the lines of his book, we see that he’s fudging some facts. In fact, the networks gave instant calls to Bush, too. Here’s what Sammon says at the start of this chapter, before he starts talking about "Democratic bias:"

SAMMON (page 23): [Dan] Rather’s hubris was nothing short of breathtaking. CBS and the other networks had been blithely awarding states to Bush or Gore for more than an hour…They called Indiana and Kentucky at the stroke of 6:00…They called Vermont and South Carolina at the stroke of 7:00, before election officials there even had a chance to tally the results.

The pleasing point here, at the start of this chapter, is what a Big Bum Dan Rather is, hubristically calling various states just as soon as their polling places close. But here’s what Sammon fails to mention: three of these states which were "blithely awarded" were blithely awarded to Candidate Bush—Indiana and Kentucky at 6 P.M., South Carolina at 7. Where was the bias in that? But then, this is exactly how SammonThink works. On page 23, Rather’s a bum for awarding states to Bush too quickly; by page 41, Rather’s a bum for awarding states to Bush too slowly. To make this mish-mosh hang together, Sammon doesn’t say who won those states on page 23, although he does fess up about South Ca’lina later on.

At any rate, Sammon only names three states—Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina—where a two-digit win by Bush produced a less-than-instant call. These are the states to which Sammon refers when he says that the networks were "inexplicably withholding states that Bush had won by landslides." But were those half-hour delays really "inexplicable?" In fact, they weren’t inexplicable at all. And how do we know? We know because of things which Sammon said at the start of this very same chapter.

II. Network incompetence

There’s one sure-fire treat Sammon throws to his marks—The Networks Are Always Wrong. Mid-chapter, The Networks Are Wrong because they’re biased, "inexplicably" refusing to award states to Bush. But are the delays really "inexplicable?" Not if you read the first part of this chapter. As the chapter opens, Sammon offers a different treat—in these pages, The Networks Are Wrong because they’re stupid. More specifically, he goes into great detail about the incompetent procedures by which the nets will "award" the states. Given what Sammon says in this part of his chapter, it’s hardly "inexplicable" if they make some bad calls. And he even gives an obvious reason why the errors might work against Bush.

Just how bad are the networks’ procedures? Incredibly bad, Sammon says. "Like the aging dons of the organized crime families," the networks have set up the Voter News Service (VNS), he explains. And VNS is a yowling, complete mess:

SAMMON (page 24): Voter News Service had become sloppy over the years. Its data were riddled with errors. Its statistical methods were outdated and unsound. Its computers couldn’t even communicate with each other. Yet VNS had been lucky. None of the recent presidential elections had been close enough to reveal its flaws.

Only Sammon could write this passage on page 24 and be totally shocked, just a few pages later, when VNS doesn’t call states to a T. And by the way, did we mention that VNS really stinks? Sammon says so for several pages:

SAMMON (page 24, continuing directly): Professional pollsters, statisticians or political experts did not conduct VNS election polls—well-meaning but inexperienced housewives, retirees, college students, odd-jobbers, and other political novices did…

Sammon rattles on, through pages 25 and 26, detailing how hapless the VNS procedures were (especially in Florida, by the way). On page 34, he starts up again, giving even more detail about the Sunshine State chaos. Forget about the exit polling—how did VNS pick the sample precincts where they would tabulate actual votes? They were dumb when they did that too:

SAMMON (page 34): There was nothing scientific about the selection of these "sample" precincts. Rather, they were chosen for just one reason—they were the rare polling places where results were actually tabulated on site before the totals were forwarded to county election headquarters…VNS selected 120 of these precincts and staffed them with another batch of temporary, one-day workers known as "stringers." Like the VNS exit pollsters, the stringers were not exactly political pros.

Yikes! On and on the author went, explaining what a mess VNS was in Florida. VNS stunk everywhere, Sammon says, but Florida was worse than most states!

Given Sammon’s extended descriptions, it’s amazing that VNS got anything right; it hardly seems "inexplicable" to hear that some states were awarded a bit slowly. And it would hardly seem like a Dan Rather plot if VNS bungled in Florida. But Sammon doesn’t just show that VNS is a mess. He even explains why VNS errors might tend to favor the Democrats.

There had been a problem with VNS exit polling "for years," Sammon explains on page 26. The exit polling tended to favor Democrats, he says, apparently because Democrats were more willing to speak with exit pollsters. For example, Sammon quotes VNS honcho Murray Edelman, discussing a 1996 Senate race which VNS blew in New Hampshire:

SAMMON (page 27): "For some reason, Democrats in New Hampshire were more likely to talk to us than Republicans," shrugged Edelman after the blown New Hampshire call. "I don’t have a good reason why."

Sammon quotes a "VNS insider" saying that VNS "weights" its data to adjust for the problem. Sammon refers to this problem as built-in "Democratic bias," although he says the term is not meant "in a pejorative, political sense, as in: ‘The Washington Post has a Democratic bias.’" Mrs. Graham surely thanks him for that.

So do you start to see the problem here? In the middle of the chapter, Sammon says that the slow calls for Bush are "inexplicable," and he flatly asserts that the modest delays were the result of "Democratic bias" on the part of the networks (in the pejorative sense). But just pages before, he has said that VNS is a total mess, and he has said that Republicans tend to avoid exit pollsters. So how about this—what if slightly more Republicans avoided VNS exit pollsters this year, slightly more than VNS "weighted" for? Duh-uh—VNS might have to wait to count real votes before they could award states to Bush. The exit polls would systematically make it look like Gore was doing better than he really was. Is this what happened in North Carolina and Georgia? We don’t have the slightest idea. But the thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to poor Sammon; he’s happy as long as he’s bashing the networks. First they’re stupid, then they’re corrupt. It doesn’t seem to cross his mind that—as the aging dons of the organized crime families say—his two portraits maybe don’t blend.

III. Pure contradiction

And right in the middle of all this confusion, there’s John Ellis, awarding Florida to Gore. How was that "Democratic bias" actually working out in the trenches? Based on the mid-day exit polling, Ellis "thought his cousin was going to lose the election," Sammon says—although he didn’t say so to his cousin, George W. Bush, as they chatted off and on that day by phone. But in Florida, the exit polls turned out to be inconclusive, so no award was made at 7 P.M. when voting shut down in most of the state. Remember, all of Ellis’ assistants were Democrats. Here’s what happened when the other nets began awarding Florida to Gore, starting at 7:49:

SAMMON (page 37): [Ellis] insisted it wasn’t family loyalty that made him hesitate. Rather, he said that two other members of the Fox decision desk team doubted that Gore had indeed locked up Florida. Pollster John Gorman and consultant Arnon Mishkin, both Democrats, were not ready to make the call.

But as the Democrats held back from making the call, Ellis, the Republican, pondered various factors, and he "jettisoned his reservations and called Florida for Gore at 7:52," Sammon says. The phone was soon ringing:

SAMMON (page 38): Within moments, Ellis received another phone call from Austin. Only this time it wasn’t George W. It was Jeb, who had just watched he networks essentially announce that he had failed to deliver Florida to his brother.

"Are you sure?" Jeb asked Ellis, according to the latter’s account in Inside magazine.

"Jeb, I’m sorry," Ellis answered. "I’m looking at a screenful of Gore."

What a remarkable anecdote! Sammon insists, before and after this passage, that the networks were showing their "Democratic bias" when they rushed to call Florida for Gore. Meanwhile, here is Ellis—not just a Republican, but George Bush’s cousin—and as he looks at the VNS data, even he sees a "screenful of Gore!" Since analysts at the other networks were reviewing the very same VNS data, why in the world would a writer want to say that they called the state due to "Democratic bias?" Like almost everything else in this chapter, this critique makes absolutely no sense—except as a sop to Sammon’s readers, a silly tale that he knows they will like.

The sheer irrationality of Sammon’s chapter would be hard to overstate. Not only does Sammon take us through the conceptual chaos already described. When the networks take back their call of Florida, he complains that they didn’t then award it to Bush—even though we now all know that the state was in fact too close to call. We even get one of Sammon’s favorite words again. "Incredibly, the networks waited four more hours before giving Florida to Bush," he writes, as if "Democratic bias" was at work there too. Of course, by the time that Sammon wrote his book, he knew what we all know now—the networks shouldn’t have awarded the state to Bush, and had to retract that call, again. But remember the formula, boys and girls: The Networks Are Always Wrong. We all know, as we read Sammon’s book, that the networks were correct when they held off on awarding Florida to Bush, and erred when they did make the call. But by formula, The Networks Are Always Wrong, and the formula says that The Networks Are Biased. Seeming to write from a bureau on Mars, Sammon lustily scolds the nets for not making the wrong call hours earlier.

So Sybil is writing our history now, and no one even so much as says "Boo." How can it be that work this bad isn’t laughed out the door? We’ll look at that question this Saturday.

Next: Sammon and Simon do C-SPAN.


The occasional update (6/21/01)

Reagan Democrats: Why do the networks hold off on calling states until most of the polls in the state have closed? Even in states where the exit polls are overwhelming? At one point, Sammon explains:

SAMMON (page 31): Because twenty years earlier, the networks had called states so early for Ronald Reagan that President Jimmy Carter actually conceded while polls were still open in California. Democrats went apoplectic, and liberals trumpeted a study by the University of Michigan that concluded the early calls dissuaded countless would-be Carter supporters from bothering to cast their ballots.

Sammon takes several pages to tell this story. Right in the midst of his extended rant about the "Democratic bias" driving election night calls, he tells the tale of how the nets called states very quickly for Reagan. He makes no effort to relate this to his overall thesis. As usual, Sammon shows no sign that he sees any hint of contradiction.