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Profile: Murray Edelman
Murray Edelman was a participant or observer in the following events:
Fox News chief Roger Ailes has hired John Prescott Ellis, a freelance Republican political advisor and an intensely loyal cousin of presidential candidate George W. Bush (R-TX), to head the network’s election-night coverage for the 2000 presidential election (see October-November 2000). During the election, Ellis is in constant contact with Bush and his senior campaign aides, speaking with Bush himself five separate times during the evening.
Calling Florida for Gore - At 7:52 p.m., Bush’s brother Jeb Bush (R-FL), the sitting governor of Florida, calls Ellis to protest when Fox “mistakenly” projects Florida as going to Al Gore (D-TN). Ellis tells Jeb Bush that he is looking at a computer “screenful of Gore.” Bush reminds Ellis, “But the polls haven’t closed in the panhandle.” Ellis replies, “It’s not going to help.” Voter News Service (VNS), the voting consortium the networks all use, rates the race a 99.5 percent certainty that Gore has won Florida, a conclusion that VNS and network officials alike later say was a mistake (see February 14, 2001). The prediction is indeed inaccurate; within minutes, Gore’s lead begins to shrink again. At 9:38 p.m., VNS issues a correction of an inaccurate vote count for Duval County, stripping Gore of a number of phantom votes, and the race is again far too close to call.
Calling Florida for Bush - At 2:10 a.m., Ellis sees data from VNS that shows Bush with a 51,433-vote lead, and 179,713 votes left to be counted. (The latter figure is grossly inaccurate, later data proves; over 350,000 votes actually remain to be counted.) Gore would need 63 percent of those votes to win, a scenario that is statistically unlikely. Ellis calls Jeb Bush to say that it is “statistically impossible” for Bush to lose. Around 2:15 a.m., Ellis puts the telephone down and excitedly announces to his team: “Jebbie says we got it! Jebbie says we got it!” Even though Florida is still rated “too close to call” by VNS, Fox News vice president John Moody gives the go-ahead to project Bush the winner in Florida. Fox News anchor Brit Hume makes the call for Bush at 2:16 a.m. The other networks hurriedly, and inaccurately, follow suit. [Washington Post, 11/14/2000; Observer, 11/19/2000; Associated Press, 12/11/2000; Buffalo Beat, 12/14/2000; American Journalism Review, 1/2001; Nation, 11/6/2006; New York Magazine, 5/22/2011] Hume himself is a bit apprehensive of the call. “I must tell you, everybody, after all this, all night long, we put Bush at 271, Gore at 243,” he tells Fox viewers. “I feel a little bit apprehensive about the whole thing. I have no reason to doubt our decision desk, but there it is.” [Time, 11/15/2000]
Other Networks Follow Suit - As Hume is announcing Bush’s “victory” in Florida, NBC News election coverage chief Sheldon Gawiser is on the telephone with Murray Edelman, the editorial director for VNS. Gawiser is considering calling Florida for Bush, and wants to discuss calling the race for Bush while citing Edelman and VNS as the sources responsible for such a call. Edelman is shocked that Gawiser wants to make any call with Bush’s lead not only very small, but dwindling. But as the two are talking, Fox’s announcement comes over NBC’s monitors, and Gawiser breaks off the call, saying: “Sorry, gotta go. Fox just called it.” At 2:17 a.m., NBC projects Bush the winner in Florida and the next president of the United States. The joint decision team for CBS and CNN, Warren Mitofsky and Joe Lenski, make the same decision a minute later. After CBS declares Bush’s victory, anchor Dan Rather tells viewers: “Let’s give a tip of the Stetson to the loser, Vice President Al Gore, and at the same time, a big tip and a hip, hip, hurrah and a great big Texas howdy to the new president of the United States. Sip it, savor it, cup it, photostat it, underline it in red, press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on the wall—George W. Bush is the next president of the United States.” The ABC decision team resists making the call, not trusting the data (it had similar reservations about the earlier call for Gore), but according to ABC election consultant John Blydenburgh, a network executive overrides the decision team and has ABC declare Bush the projected winner at 2:20 a.m. Blydenburgh says the executive does not want ABC to look “foolish” by being the only network not to recognize Bush as the next president. The Associated Press (AP) refuses to make the call, saying that its figures show Bush with only a 30,000-vote lead, and that steadily dwindling (by 2:30 a.m., Bush’s lead, by the AP’s count, is below 19,000 votes; a glitch in the Volusia County numbers that comes in minutes after the call for Bush slashes Bush’s lead considerably, validating the AP’s reluctance to make the call). But the television broadcasts drive the story. Network pundits immediately begin dissecting Bush’s “victory” and speculating as to why Gore “lost.” [American Journalism Review, 1/2001; Nation, 11/6/2006] Shortly after 3 a.m., CBS’s Ed Bradley begins informing viewers that the AP numbers show Bush with a lead of only 6,000 votes. Rather tells the viewers that if the AP is correct, the previous call for Bush may be premature. “Let’s not joke about it folks,” he says. “You have known all night long and we’ve said to you all night long that these estimates of who wins and who loses are based on the best available information we have. CBS News has the best track record in the business, over a half century plus, for accuracy on election night. But nobody’s perfect.” However, few listen to either CBS’s caveats or the AP’s refusal to call the election. [American Journalism Review, 1/2001] By 4:52 a.m., Bush’s lead has dwindled to 1,888 votes.
Fox Leads the Narrative for Bush - Gore initially concedes the race, but when the networks begin retracting their declaration and return Florida to the “too close to call” status, he retracts his concession. In their last conversation of the evening, Bush tells Ellis that Gore has taken back his concession, and says: “I hope you’re taking all this down, Ellis. This is good stuff for a book.” The morning headlines in most daily papers declare Bush the winner; much of the news coverage slams Gore as indulging in “sour grapes” for not conceding the election. Rather later says: “We’ll never know whether Bush won the election in Florida or not. But when you reach these kinds of situations, the ability to control the narrative becomes critical. Led by Fox, the narrative began to be that Bush had won the election.” In 2011, Rolling Stone reporter Tim Dickinson will write, “A ‘news’ network controlled by a GOP operative who had spent decades shaping just such political narratives—including those that helped elect the candidate’s father—declared George W. Bush the victor based on the analysis of a man who had proclaimed himself loyal to Bush over the facts.” After the election, House Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) says: “Of everything that happened on election night, this was the most important in impact. It immeasurably helped George Bush maintain the idea in people’s minds that he was the man who won the election.” [Observer, 11/19/2000; Associated Press, 12/11/2000; Buffalo Beat, 12/14/2000; New York Magazine, 5/22/2011] Ellis later writes that Bush did not try to influence his coverage. “Governor Bush was, as always, considerate of my position,” Ellis will write. “He knew that I would be fried if I gave him anything that VNS deemed confidential, so he never asked for it. He made a point of getting the early exit poll data from other sources before talking to me.” [Associated Press, 12/11/2000]
Criticism of Fox, Ellis - Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, later says of Ellis and Fox while the election is still in dispute: “The notion you’d have the cousin of one presidential candidate in a position to call a state, and the election, is unthinkable. Fox’s call—wrong, unnecessary, misguided, foolish—helped create a sense that the election went to Bush, was pulled back, and it’s just a matter of time before his president-elect title is restored. But that said, John Ellis is a good man, a good journalist whose judgment was overcome by excitement. He put himself in an impossible situation, but the mistake was not so much his as Rupert Murdoch’s for putting him in that position.… Everybody knows it’s a partisan channel, but its marketing slogan, ‘We report; you decide,’ is now totally obliterated by the fact that one candidate’s first cousin is actually deciding, and then they report.” (Rosenstiel is apparently unaware that Murdoch, who owns Fox News’s parent company News Corporation, did not make the call to hire Ellis.) Rosenstiel’s colleague Carl Gottlieb is less restrained, saying: “It’s beyond belief. The network should not have allowed Ellis to report on this election. As a viewer, after reading this story and reading about Ellis’s involvement in calling the race, you can’t help but get the idea that this guy’s complicit in what’s going on now down in Florida.” Murdoch will later claim that Fox News displayed “no partisanship” in its election-night coverage. Ellis will later tell a reporter: “It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth—me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other president-elect. Now that was cool. And everybody followed us.” [Observer, 11/19/2000; Nation, 11/6/2006] Ellis will also later deny telling his team that “Jebbie” gave him the go-ahead to call the election for Bush, instead saying he made the call based on his own calculations. Statistician Cynthia Talkov, the only member of Fox’s election team who actually understands the VNS statistical models, later says she never saw Ellis making any such calculations, and will say Ellis did not ask her for her opinion for his call, though every other projection that evening was made with her explicit approval. Talkov is one of the people who will confirm that Ellis received the go-ahead to call the election from Jeb Bush. A post-election analysis prepared by outside reviewers for CNN later issues sharp criticisms of the networks, noting, “On Election Day 2000, television news organizations staged a collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy, recklessly endangering the electoral process, the political life of the country, and their own credibility.” Mitofsky, who invested election polls and developed the election night projection system the networks use, later calls Ellis’s actions “the most unprofessional election night work I could ever imagine. He had no business talking to the Bush brothers or to any other politician about what he was doing.” On the other hand, Ailes will characterize Ellis’s actions as those of “a good journalist talking to his very high-level sources on election night.” [Nation, 11/6/2006]
Fox 'Investigation' Comes Up Empty - Fox News will announce an “investigation” of any conflicts of interest or unprofessional behavior concerning Ellis’s role in declaring Bush the winner, but nothing will come of any such investigation. The “investigation” will find that Ellis gave no VNS information to either George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, or any Bush campaign official, though Ellis himself will freely admit to a New Yorker reporter that he shared VNS data with both Bushes repeatedly during the evening. Such sharing of data would constitute a violation of journalistic ethics as well as possible criminal behavior. [Observer, 11/19/2000; Nation, 11/6/2006] Ailes had specifically warned his team not to share VNS information with anyone from the campaigns. [Salon, 11/15/2000] Before the investigation is even launched, Moody will say: “Appearance of impropriety? I don’t think there’s anything improper about it as long as he doesn’t behave improperly, and I have no evidence he did.… John has always conducted himself in an extremely professional manner.” [Washington Post, 11/14/2000]
Entity Tags: Voter News Service, Warren Mitofsky, Tom Rosenstiel, Sheldon Gawiser, Tim Dickinson, Roger Ailes, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, Brit Hume, Boston Globe, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., Associated Press, News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, Murray Edelman, Fox News, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather, Cynthia Talkov, Carl Gottlieb, George W. Bush, NBC News, Henry A. Waxman, John Prescott Ellis, John Moody, John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush, Joe Lenski, John Blydenburgh
Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections
The US House Committee on Energy and Commerce holds a hearing on the news networks’ election night decision to project George W. Bush the winner of the Florida election, and thereby the winner of the US presidential election (see November 7-8, 2000). One of the matters at hand is Fox News’s choice to have its election night coverage anchored by John Prescott Ellis, President Bush’s cousin and an intensely partisan Bush supporter (see October-November 2000). The chairman of the committee is W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-LA).
Opening Statements - In his opening statement, Tauzin tells the assemblage that the hearing is to “give us a real sense of what went wrong in terms of the election night coverage of the presidential election of November 2000.” He notes that news coverage issues have been raised in every election since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election. Early calls—the practice of news outlets to “call,” or project, winners in states before elections in other states have closed—have long been acknowledged as having a “deletorious” effect on voting, and the use of “exit polling”—polls of voters taken outside polling booths—have proven both “valuable” and “dangerous.” Voter News Service (VNS), the independent consortium that provided polling and other data to the networks and press agencies for their use during their election coverage, uses exit polling to help those news outlets “project” winners in races. Tauzin spends much of his opening statement attacking VNS and the use of exit polling as the “source” of the election night dissension, and says that on the whole, VNS data “produces statistical biases in favor of Democrats in this case today and against Republicans, that the statistical flaws tend to overstate the Democratic vote in the exit poll and understate the Republican vote.” Tauzin says that investigations have “discovered no evidence of intentional bias, no evidence of intentional slanting of this information,” and instead says the entire problem rests with VNS and its use of exit polling data. In their opening statements, many Republicans echo Tauzin’s remarks. Ranking minority member John Dingell (D-MI) calls the election night coverage “a monumental screw-up which I think has embarrassed an awful lot of people.” Dingell repeats Tauzin’s claim that no evidence of intentional bias has been found—calling such allegations “inflammatory”—and says that the focus of future hearings should be on the issue of voter disenfranchisement. Having said all that, he goes on to say that the networks’ decision to call Florida for Bush in the early hours of November 8, 2000 was premature, and lent itself to later allegations that attempts by Democratic challenger Al Gore were baseless and troublesome. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) accuses the networks of trying to influence Florida voters in the Panhandle, a traditionally Republican stronghold, by prematurely calling the state for Gore eight minutes before polls closed in that region. In questioning, Sherrod Brown (D-OH) notes the almost-immediate appearance of the “Sore Loserman” campaign (derived from the names of the Democratic candidates, Gore and Joe Lieberman), which attempted, successfully, to paint attempts by the Gore campaign to force vote recounts as attempts to “steal” the election.
Focus on Fox - Henry Waxman (D-CA) is the first to mention Fox News. He reads from a Los Angeles Times editorial, quoting: “Suppose that a first cousin of Al Gore had been running one of the network news teams issuing election night projections. Suppose that having previously recused himself from a columnist job saying his objectivity would suffer from family loyalty, this cousin had chatted with Gore six times on Election Day. Suppose the same cousin had been the first to declare Gore as the winner in Florida on election night, helping coax the rival networks to follow suit, leading George W. Bush to call up Gore in order to concede, thereby helping to create that Gore was the duly elected president of the United States long before all the votes had been counted. Can anybody reasonably doubt that the pundits would be working themselves into a nonstop lather charging the liberal media as accessories to grand larceny? Can we imagine, say, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox news channel right-leaning heads dropping the subject?” Waxman says this was absolutely the case, but with Fox News and John Ellis, not Gore and an imaginary Gore cousin at another network. “[O]f everything that happened on election night this was the most important in impact. It created a presumption that George Bush won the election. It set in motion a chain of events that were devastating to Al Gore’s chances and it immeasurably helped George Bush maintain the idea in people’s minds than he was the man who won the election.” Several other Democrats echo Waxman’s statements.
Issues with Florida Election Practices - Peter Deutsch (D-FL) cites issues of rampant voter disenfranchisement of African-Americans, a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, with over 100,000 ballots, mostly from African-American voters, apparently not counted. Deutsch says flatly that “there is no question, it is no longer debatable that if the vote in Florida were counted, Al Gore would be president of the United States.” Bobby Rush (D-IL) cites a large number of incidents where minority group voters were “harassed by police departments” in Florida and in other states besides. In many instances these voters were stopped from voting entirely; in others, their votes were not counted. Other Democrats, such as Eliot Engel (D-NY), echo Deutsch’s and Rush’s concerns; Engel says: “Al Gore was not the only one who lost that night. The American people lost that night, and the news media also lost that night.”
Testimony regarding Independent Review of Election Night Coverage - The first witness is Joan Konner, a professor of journalism at Columbia. Konner led a panel commissioned by CNN “to look at what went wrong in [CNN’s] television coverage of the presidential election 2000.” Her panel submitted a report on the election night coverage to CNN, and CNN provided that report to the committee. “[S]omething went terribly wrong,” she says. “CNN executives, correspondents, and producers themselves describe election night coverage as a debacle, a disaster, and a fiasco; and in our report we agree.” She blames the problems with CNN’s coverage on “excessive speed and hypercompetition, combined with overconfidence in experts and a reliance on increasingly dubious polls. We have stated that the desire to be first or at least not to be consistently behind the others led the networks to make calls unwisely based on sketchy and sometimes mistaken information.” The choice to create, fund, and use VNS by all the networks was primarily a cost-cutting decision, she says, but that choice was a mistake: “Relying on a single source eliminates the checks and balances built into a competitive vote-gathering and vote system. It eliminates the possibility of a second source for validating key and possible conflicting information.” Another member of the panel, James Risser of Stanford University, notes that the report’s findings apply equally to other networks along with CNN.
Media Panel - After much questioning of the CNN panel, a second panel is sworn in. This panel includes: Fox News chairman Roger Ailes; CBS president Andrew Heyward; CNN chairman Tom Johnson; NBC president Andrew Lack; ABC president David Westin; VNS director Ted Savaglio; VNS editorial director Murray Edelman; and the Associated Press’s president, Louis Boccardi. In an opening statement, Savaglio admits that VNS made “errors” in vote tabulation and predictives based on “flaws” in the statistical analyses. Two major errors were made on election night, Savaglio says, the first leading to the incorrect awarding of Florida to Gore early in the evening, and the second provision of data that indicated Bush had a statistically insurmountable lead in Florida that did not include an accurate tabulation of votes cast in Volusia County as well as errors in other county tabulations and estimates. Boccardi says that the Associated Press used VNS-provided data in the erroneous Gore projection, but “takes full responsibility” for the error. The Associated Press did not join in with the second, Fox News-led projection of Bush’s victory. “[T]he race was too close to call” at that point, he says. “It would be right to surmise that the pressure on AP at that moment [to join the networks in calling the election for Bush] was enormous.” Heyward testifies that CBS, like CNN, hired an independent panel to assess its election coverage, and has a number of improvements to be made for future coverage. “Our method of projecting winners, one that, as you have heard, has produced only six bad calls in over 2,000 races since the 1960s, failed us this time; and as a well-known candidate would say, failed us big time in the very state that held the key to this election,” he says. He also notes that charges by Republican committee members that there is an inherent bias in the statistical models against Republicans “has been rejected by every single outside expert who examined each of the networks, even those experts, and you heard from them today, who are the most highly critical of us.” Lack asks why there was not more media coverage and examination of other voting-related problems, from “ineffective voting machines” and “confusing ballots” to allowing felons to vote.
Ailes's Statement - Ailes blames VNS for Fox’s “mistakes” in its reporting, saying: “As everyone knows, Voter News Service, a consortium with a good track record, gave out bad numbers that night. In the closest race in history the wheels apparently came off a rattle trap computer system which we relied on and paid millions for.” He claims, “Through our self-examination and investigation we have determined that there was no intentional political favoritism in play on election night on the part of Fox News.” Ailes does not mention his choice to use Ellis as Fox’s election night anchor in his verbal statement, but in a written statement he submits to the committee, he says that Ellis was not the person who made the final decision to declare Florida for Bush. The news division’s vice president, John Moody, made the final call. As for hiring Ellis, he praises Ellis’s professionalism and experience, and writes: “We at Fox News do not discriminate against people because of their family connections. I am more than happy to give you examples of offspring of famous politicians who are employed at Fox News.” He also says that he was aware that Ellis was speaking to both George W. and Jeb Bush throughout the night, and writes: “Obviously, through his family connections, Mr. Ellis has very good sources. I do not see this as a fault or shortcoming of Mr. Ellis. Quite the contrary, I see this as a good journalist talking to his very high level sources on election night.” Though Ellis has freely admitted to sharing VNS data with both Bushes, Ailes writes, “Our investigation of election night 2000 found not one shred of evidence that Mr. Ellis revealed information to either or both of the Bush brothers which he should not have, or that he acted improperly or broke any rules or policies of either Fox News or VNS.” He concludes: “[I]n my heart I do believe that democracy was harmed by my network and others on November 7, 2000. I do believe that the great profession of journalism took many steps backward.”
Questioning the Media Representatives - Almost immediately, Ailes raises the question of skewed exit polling that appears to favor Democrats, though experts have refuted these claims in just-given testimony, and Savaglio has just said that exit polls exhibit no such bias. Ailes tells the panel: “I do know that when Republicans come out of polls and you ask them a question they tend to think it’s none of your business and Democrats want to share their feelings. So you may get some bias there that is inadvertent, just because it’s a cultural thing and unless you send the Republicans to sensitivity training you’re not going to get them to do that.” Tauzin says that a study of VNS results tends to bear out Ailes’s claim. Westin says if there is bias in exit polling, it cuts both ways, an observation with which Tauzin also agrees. Savaglio admits that after midnight, VNS provided substantially inaccurate information to the networks that led them to conclude Bush had a slight but insurmountable lead in Florida. Lack denies the rumor that Jack Welch, the CEO of NBC’s parent company General Electric, made the decision for NBC News to follow Fox’s lead in declaring Bush the presumptive winner in Florida. Waxman accepts Lack’s denial, but notes that he has been told Welch’s command to declare Bush the winner is preserved on videotape, “filmed by NBC’s advertising and promotions department.” Lack says if the tape exists, he will provide it to the committee. Bart Stupak (D-MI) asks the representatives directly if they believe any bias towards one party or another exists in their networks’ coverage, and all answer strongly in the negative. Heyward says that rumors of networks such as his trying to “slant” their coverage to give the idea of an “inevitable” Gore victory are entirely negative, and says: “[C]ertainly we displayed the popular vote graphic 15 times between 7 and 11. President Bush was ahead every single time; on the electoral count, 75 out of
100 times.… The video [shown by the commission at the beginning of the hearing] that gave the impression that the networks were saying Gore’s got it in the bag I believe was misleading, yes.” Westin agrees with Heyward, and says the networks generally gave the impression of “a much more balanced, much closer race throughout the night.” Under questioning by Gene Green (D-TX), Ailes contradicts previously presented evidence and says no one at the election desk, Ellis or anyone else, was in contact with “Austin” (meaning the Bush campaign and George W. Bush personally) at all that night. [House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2/14/2001]
Entity Tags: CBS News, Sherrod Brown, Bobby Lee Rush, Roger Ailes, Raymond Eugene (“Gene”) Green, Ted Savaglio, Tom Johnson, US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Voter News Service, ABC News, Andrew Heyward, Andrew Lack, Associated Press, W.J. (“Billy”) Tauzin, Peter R. Deutsch, NBC News, Rupert Murdoch, Louis Boccardi, Fox News, Eliot L. Engel, David Westin, Clifford Bundy (“Cliff”) Stearns, CNN, Murray Edelman, George W. Bush, John Prescott Ellis, Jack Welch, Joan Konner, John Dingell, John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush, Joseph Lieberman, James Risser, Henry A. Waxman, Bart Stupak
Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections, Domestic Propaganda
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