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Exit polling: Why gag the media?

On Tuesday, as for 15 years of elections past, Americans divided for a time between the knows and the know-nots, the favored media few who knew the projected outcomes from the exit polls and the unfavored many not allowed to know until the polls closed.

TV hosts, not very good at keeping secrets that may influence ratings, use winks, nods and hints as they approach closing time. The first time I witnessed this tactic was in April 1988, when NBC's Tom Brokaw announced, two hours before the New York polls closed, that Gov. Michael Dukakis "may well be headed for victory in New York." Get it?

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The voluntary embargo goes back to 1985, when complaints came from West Coast voters about projections declaring Ronald Reagan the winner in 1980 and 1984 before some had voted. Studies showed no significant influence on the West Coast outcome. But the networks, under fire from Congress, agreed to withhold their projections for any state until its polls closed.

With a lot of hints from TV anchors not wanting to miss the story, voluntary censorship prevailed, leaving journalists in the uncomfortable position of doing what journalists aren't supposed to do - keeping secrets.

It prevailed, that is, until the Internet came along with its looser standards. Slate magazine, not part of the Voter News Service that includes the TV networks and the Associated Press, managed to get leaks on the New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan primary projections and went right out with them.

It planned to do the same on subsequent primaries until faced with a threat by the Voter News Service of a lawsuit, charging violation of intellectual property rights. Now Richard Morin, director of polling for The Washington Post, predicts the demise of exit polling, "mortally wounded by a handful of irresponsible news organizations."

That would be a pity because exit polls provide a lot of valuable information other than winners and losers - about voter motivations and the economic and demographic spread. Why does Morin think exit polling will die? Because, he says, of the networks' inability to keep their promise of a voluntary embargo.

But why are the networks afraid of Congress, which is constitutionally forbidden to make any law abridging the freedom of the press?

They could just drop the embargo and let Americans know, in timely fashion, what they have found out. That would be better than a two-class system of "we now, you later."

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society