AAI Calls, Again, For Breakup of Voters News Service. Monopoly joint venture in exit polling shows danger of putting all eggs in one basket.

American Antitrust Institute 2919 Ellicott Street, NW Washington, DC 20008 202-244-9800

November 19, 2002 Contact: Robert H. Lande, University of Baltimore Law School rlande@antitrustinstitute.org 301-585-5229 (home) or 410-837-4538 (office)

Voter News Service Disappoints U.S. Public AgainAAI renews call to disband media JV for exit polling data

"America's news media once again put all our eggs in one basket, and dropped the basket," said University of Baltimore Law Professor Robert H. Lande on behalf of the American Antitrust Institute.

Preserving diverse, competing voices in mainstream broadcast media is critical for sustaining a vibrant, healthy and well-informed U.S. democracy, the American Antitrust Institute (AAI) reiterated following the computer system failure of the Voter News Service (VNS) during the recent midterm election. VNS is a joint venture between five major TV news organizations -- ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and CNN, and the Associated Press -- designed to produce and analyze election exit polling information.

AAI has renewed its call for antitrust enforcers to break up the Voter News Service, which creates a network media bottleneck for election night information. VNS is the only national firm that compiles polling data taken as voters leave voting booths. This information is considered more accurate than pre-election polling data and makes it possible to analyze the inner meaning of an election by identifying which demographic groups voted in what ways and for what reasons. It is used by the news organizations as they report the election results, by scholars, politicians, and journalists in analyzing the meaning of elections, and by pollsters in developing and refining their models for voter turnout.

Until the 1988 election, the major news organizations did their own exit polling and made their election predictions independently. In 1990, ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN formed the Voter Research & Surveys, combining their exit polling operations as a cost saving measure,. In 1993, the Voter News Service was formed, and AP joined. Fox joined in 1996. All six major news organizations now rely on the same data and the same models, rather than compete to predict election results the most accurately.

Following the 2000 elections, AAI blamed the networks' erroneous reporting of the presidential election results on the void of competition and urged the government to break up the VNS. In a November, 2000, letter to Clinton Administration chief antitrust enforcers, AAI Senior Research Scholar and University of Baltimore Law Professor Robert H.Lande asserted that the 2000 presidential election night coverage debacle may have been avoided if rival news organizations actually competed to provide the best information on election night, and such competition would most likely have resulted in a variety of election prediction and analysis techniques. Instead all six first called the election in favor of former Vice President Gore, then a few hours later reversed themselves, calling it for President George W. Bush, and finally admitted that neither candidate had clearly prevailed. Despite the networks spending millions of dollars to upgrade the VNS following the double-miscall fiasco, the new 2002 VNS computer system failed. The public was left with no exit polling data alternatives during election night coverage. Monopoly meant there would be no backup system in place.

Unlike 2000, the networks exercised extreme caution when calling the 2002 midterm electoral winners. In some instances, the news groups declined to 'call' winners even after candidates had phoned the victors to concede defeat. Although the networks were spared from more televised embarrassment this time around, the malfunctioning VNS deprived the public of exit poll electoral analysis.

Media consolidation and the homogenization of election information have a direct negative impact on public access to information about the dynamics of democracy. True and effective competition is needed in the media sector even more than in other sectors. Yet, when it comes to election night polling, the media has eliminated competition. If all we care about is saving money, we should be moving rapidly toward a single news organization for the nation. Shouldn't citizens of a democracy demand something more?