Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Fox News Network has decided to conduct its own exit polls for Tuesday’s election contests. This does not sound like good news.
Since 1998, the network has relied on exit poll data provided by a media consortium, which today goes by the name of the National Election Pool (NEP). It includes ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, the Associated Press – and Fox, until this year. But now the network believes it has developed a “superior” system.
But what is a superior system?
Apparently, to Fox, it is a system that will allow the network to make election winner predictions on Election Night faster than NEP.
As the Post article notes, “The project, dubbed the Fox News Voter Analysis, was born from the network’s frustration at having underestimated Donald Trump’s chance of victory until late on Election Day in 2016.”
Let’s get this straight: It’s not that NEP made predictions that were incorrect, but that it made the predictions “late” on Election Day. And Fox wants to make the predictions earlier.
Why? Who is served by a rush to judgment? After all, the election winners will be announced as soon as all the votes are counted. So, how important is it to predict the winners earlier in the evening? The answer: Not important at all. At least to the citizenry.
So, why the rush? The answer: Competition among the networks to see who can be first, under the dubious belief that coming in first will somehow enhance the network’s reputation.
The last time Fox decided to make a similar rush to judgment was in the 2000 Election, when – at 2:30 in the morning after Election Day – it projected George W. Bush the winner in Florida. This projection caused all the other networks to follow suit, only to rescind the projection two hours later.*
The miscall and resulting confusion caused Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News Network, to admit, “In my heart I do believe that democracy was harmed by my network and others on November 7, 2000.”**
Now, apparently, Fox wants to go back to a competitive system, so it can call the election winners faster than NEP – which means faster than the other networks.
In this age of intense skepticism about the validity of any news source, the last thing we need is for any network to devise a new and “better” exit poll projection system that risks a rush to judgment and a major miscall.
Let’s hope the decision team behind this effort will respect the promise that Roger Ailes made after the 2000 election:
“Our lengthy and critical self-examination shows that we let our viewers down. I apologize for making those bad projections that night. It will not happen again.”***
*See David W. Moore, How to Steal an Election: The Inside Story of How George Bush’s Brother and Fox Network Miscalled the 2000 Election and Changed the Course of History (New York: Nation Books, 2006).
** Ibid, p. 1.
***Ibid., p. 151.