Press Box

VNS: Call In the Plumbers

When President Richard Nixon couldn’t stop the leaks of information from the White House, he organized a “Plumbers Unit” of washed-up secret agents, mercenaries, and political fruitcakes to harass suspected blabbermouths. The plumbers’ most famous target, of course, was the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate.

Voter News Service–the fine folks from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and the Associated Press who create exit-poll data–have a similar Nixonian problem. They can’t seem to plug the leaks of embargoed Election Day numbers from Web sites (Slate, National Review Online, and the Drudge Report, to be specific), which have been ridiculing the ineffectual embargo in recent weeks by publishing them. (For the complete back story, see “No Exit,” “Exit-Poll Fetishism,” and “Peter Jennings, Embargo Criminal.”)

To stop the leaks, VNS first went after the demand side, threatening to sue Web sites that run the numbers before the embargo is lifted. That hasn’t worked, because a new Web site always seems to pop up to run the numbers when VNS shuts one down. So, yesterday, as the New York Times reported, the consortium attacked the supply side. VNS hoarded the 2 p.m. numbers for the networks and AP and made its 100-plus subscribers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, wait until 4 p.m. for exit-poll data.

Wailing like a kid who has had his ball taken away from him, Washington Post director of polling Rich Morin told the Times that the move “punishes people who have used the data responsibly in the past.” That’s Morin’s official story. What he didn’t tell the Times was that the Post started getting the forbidden numbers by other means at about 2:30 p.m.

Who leaked? Presumably the networks or the AP! You have met the enemy, VNS, and it is you! Send in the plumbers! Or, at least offer G. Gordon Liddy a job in your security department.