Press Box

Tim Russert, Embargo Criminal

NBC’s Tim Russert violated the Voter News Service embargo of exit-poll numbers at least three times during the presidential primaries, according to Howard Kurtz’s Sunday, March 13, WashingtonPost piece about McCain strategist Mike Murphy (“Along for the Ride“).

VNS contractually bars its members–the networks and the AP–and its 100-plus subscribers from releasing the exit-poll data prior to the embargo time, usually set at polls-closing time for each state. But, as Kurtz writes, Russert shared early exit-poll numbers with Murphy for the New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan primaries. On the day of the New Hampshire contest, Russert told Murphy that “network exit polls showed McCain with a lead of 15 to 17 points.” Russert also told Murphy about “the first wave of Michigan exit polls,” which indicated that McCain was up by four points.

Russert’s office confirms that he broke the embargo in a most backhanded way: By faxing a letter that Murphy wrote to him yesterday, March 13. In the letter, Murphy explains that the leaks of exit-poll data arrived in torrents from various sources in the media, including Russert, all day long. In other words, Russert isn’t the only embargo criminal. The letter reads:

Dear Tim:

I wanted to clarify something in yesterday’s Washington Post article about me, by Howard Kurtz, that troubles me and may give some a wrong impression. It deals with exit polls.

I don’t want anyone to think that you and I were the only people on the campaign who traded a little exit poll gossip on election day. In fact, our campaign was awash in exit poll information from different news organizations all day long. Only Swiss television seemed to be out of the loop. In fact, in all the cases mentioned in Howie’s article, I called you and my goal was to get a hint or two to help me straighten out in my mind the many conflicting numbers we were getting from all the various news organizations. Then, as you recall, we would spend most of our time on the phone discussing the various likely potential outcomes and strategies that faced our campaign depending on which states we won or lost. All the usual political journalist/political consultant junkie talk that peppers every presidential campaign.

I hope this makes it clear that we were absolutely up to our necks in media talk about exit polls and you were a face in the crowd, not any kind of single source for anything.

On a side note, thanks again to you and your staff for the totally professional way you dealt with our campaign and our candidate. Just too many nasty trick questions and annoying video clips of past statements, but that’s why you get the big money. It was a pleasure to work with you guys.

Best Regards,

Mike Murphy

Among Russert’s claims to fame is that he is one of the best follow-up questioners in the business, a status he defends every Sunday on Meet the Press. Although Russert’s office volunteered the Murphy letter when I phoned for comment, he was busy with meetings and did not offer a comment. Had he, I would have asked this Russert-style set of questions:

Mr. Russert, Howard Kurtz says you gave exit-poll numbers to Mike Murphy. Mike Murphy says you–and others–gave exit-poll numbers to Mike Murphy. Did you, Mr. Russert, violate the VNS embargo by sharing the numbers with the McCain campaign?

If and when Russert responds, I’ll be happy to amend this item.

Russert now joins Peter Jennings as a convicted Campaign 2000 embargo criminal (click here for Jennings’ rap sheet) along with Brit Hume, Dan Rather, Chris Matthews, William Schneider, and other broadcasters who violated the embargo by either leaking the numbers outright or hinting broadly on the air what the numbers said.

Tomorrow, we’ll phone the Voter News Service consortium, which has threatened to sue Slate and the National Review if they continue to post early exit-poll numbers, to see if they’re preparing breach of contract suits against NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, or CNN for embargo busting.

(For the complete exit-poll brouhaha, you might want to read these previous “Press Box” columns: “VNS: Call In the Plumbers,” “No Exit,” “Exit-Poll Fetishism,” and, of course, “Peter Jennings, Embargo Criminal.” Also, “All the News That’s Fit to Suppress,” reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal.)