Press Box

Who’s Afraid of Too Much Information?

Dear Steve,

Not only do we worship at different journalistic temples, we worship different gods, and I fear for you and your argument that my gods are much, much stronger.

Since you’ve ceased on the voter turnout point, let me amplify: As I wrote yesterday, journalists are under no obligation to report and write in a manner that will maximize voter turnout. To that statement let me add a corollary: Journalists are under no obligation to refrain from reporting or writing something that might persuade a voter to stay home and watch Friends reruns. Journalists are not in the democracy racket. They’re not in the game of empowering the populace. They are not social engineers. They need not think out the first, second, and third possible repercussion of most stories they write—the impact of disclosing exit-poll numbers being one of them—when they put fingers to keyboard.

If, indeed, some voters think the early release of exit polls are “deterring” them from voting, there are many workarounds short of calling a plague upon the Web sites that post the numbers. Impressionable voters could, for example, quarantine their over-sensitive souls from the cruel world by filing absentee ballots. That way the exit polls and late tracking polls would have no effect on their voting state of mind. Or, they could refrain from looking at the Web on Election Day, or vote the first thing in the morning before any exit-poll data is distributed.

Similarly, the National Election Pool could do a better job of keeping that $100 bill from flying out of their pants and onto the sidewalk. In the spring of 2000, after Slate and other Web sites published primary exit-poll data before the polls closed, the exit-poll consortium increased security and slowed the leak of data from a gusher to trickle. There’s no reason they couldn’t do it again in this election. I suggest you telegraph your concerns to the blabbermouths who own and subscribe to the National Election Pool.

Among the many deficiencies to your argument, add this: You fail to appreciate the willingness of many committed citizens to vote their conscience for their loser no matter what the outcome. Do you think a single Al Sharpton voter cast his ballot because he thought Sharpton had a chance of winning? They might be slightly nuts, but they’re not crazy. The Sharpton voter votes for Sharpton to make a statement, to buoy his prospects for the next primary, and if not the next primary, then the next campaign Sharpton enters. Likewise, in every presidential election (and some primaries), the presidential contest isn’t the only item on the ballot. There are statewide and local contests, tax referendums and initiatives. To imagine that voters stay home en masse to pout just because they’ve read the 2 p.m. exit-polls’ findings is preposterous.

You bet your life that I think it matters whether we find out at 11 p.m. or late the next morning who the winner is. In our last presidential election the count and recount, the fits and starts of the Florida returns on Election Night and the a.m. hours that followed were important and vital news. If voters want to wait until the next day or next week for tonight’s news, that’s their prerogative—but don’t pretend that it’s somehow unethical for a journalist to report what he knows when he knows it. (Also, you’re absolutely wrong when you say news consumers didn’t generally know who the winners were on Election Night before the advent of cable TV. The old broadcast networks used to stay up late giving the returns before the cable channels assumed their Election Night supremacy.)

I might muster a little sympathy for your argument and your appeal to ethics if the American populace were interested in voting in the first place. They’re not. Even without the exit-poll excuse, they devise a billion reasons not to go to the polls. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, only 67.5 percent of voting age residents bothered to register to vote, and only 51.3 percent of voting age residents cast a ballot, according to the Federal Election Commission. There are many reasons people don’t vote, but it’s remarkably lame for a journalist to pin even a sliver of blame on a few blogs and political Web sites.

Thanks for the dialogue,
Jack