Imagine for a moment that the Storm of the Century (this century!) is heading for the Eastern seaboard. Imagine further that, in a bold, savvy move to re-invent government, the fictional federal administration (a) has already privatized NOAA and all other weather gathering offices and (b) has sold them to the All-Weather Cable Network.
Near-miraculously, the storm completely dissipates before it hits land, but, bowing to the pleas and threats from the Acme Umbrella Company (its wholly owned, beleaguered corporate parent), All-Weather continues to broadcast dire alerts of rain, wind and flooding -- pushing just ending quarterly sales of umbrellas and galoshes through the roof.
Imagine the rage of the citizenry when they learn they've been had; the sheepish explanations from executives that "we did the country a favor to get people to purchase emergency supplies they'll eventually need" simply don't cut it. Subscribership to the channel dips as their credibility is shot. Acme sales plummet, but, worst of all, both parent and subsidiary face ongoing, withering ridicule from the late night comedy shows.
On November 5, Brokaw, Jennings and Rather may not look like umbrella salesmen spiking news of impending drought -- but they are. Posing as newsmen, they are deceitfully extracting a payment (time and attention) from every viewer in return for an unnecessary product (stale news). If, mistakenly thinking your vote still mattered in what was in fact a landslide, you had canceled or delayed a valuable activity in order to vote, then their misdemeanor becomes even more serious. But don't expect the news nobles to experience the same blowback of anger and ridicule that singed the executives at Acme Umbrella -- America's anchormen are merely carefully choreographed players in a biannual national Kabuki ritual.
AND A WONDERFUL FORTY-YEAR PAGEANT it has been: though expensive and evanescent, projecting the results of just concluded elections has historically been one of the primary activities the big networks use to define themselves as a dominant social and political force. The early sixties marked the transformation of the television networks from chroniclers of the vote tally into priests of projection. At that time, they alone had the resources to conduct the exit polls, communicate that information, crunch it on new-fangled computers, and then -- often by midday -- make reasoned calls of the ultimate outcome. Probably due to a combination of self-interest and a sense of civic responsibility (licenses meant something in those days), they revealed projections of a given race only when that state's polls had closed.
For the higher purpose of prompt projections within a sensible budget, the networks early on colluded, basically creating the same kind of monopolistic instrument against which "progressive" journalism has been crusading for over a century. First, they shared exit poll information with each other. Then, in 1990, the arrangement was formalized with the creation of the Voters News Service (VNS), a consortium to pool both exit polling results and news prediction.
Sure, there were goofs, pratfalls and "mischief" along the way. An occasional projection had to be reversed the morning after; Californians would chronically grumble about the presidential projections that appeared prior to her own polls closing. Jimmy Carter is still vilified by Golden State Democrats for quitting early Election Night '80, thus presumably screwing the rest of the state's ticket. Nonetheless, until 2000, the system by and large held together -- meaning that voter/viewers held little or no leverage.
Then, the VNS cruised into its own perfect storm. A close national race, a few honest errors, and a radically changed mass communications environment for the first time brought serious scrutiny to the consortium. In Florida, the VNS provided the data that directly led to the networks' humiliating election night triple reversal of projected victor. Worse, this mother of all forecasting snafus occurred in the very election cycle where alternate forms of news delivery came of age. Beginning on election morning with unauthorized leaks of VNS's own projections, websites like the Drudge Report effectively exposed the emperors' nakedness. On television, the cable news networks inevitably trumped the networks with more and earlier airtime. By Wednesday morning, we had a meltdown of the operative network paradigm: that neatly structured, well-anchored election broadcast beginning at 7:00 p.m. eastern and reporting westward as the polls closed.
Today, VNS faces the same classic threats to extinction that devil all cartels. It has lost monopolistic control of supply (news, results) to other producers. And, thanks to Mr. Drudge and his many spawns, the barrier to entry as a competitor has plummeted by a factor of several hundred million. While the VNS has a perfect right, morally speaking, to continue to withhold privately gathered information, the reward for that behavior will continue to diminish.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, FOR THIS ELECTION, the news outlets have announced a complete restructuring of the VNS process. They say they will be "transparent" -- explaining as they go their sources of information and why they are calling the races the way they are. But, an examination of the culture of network electoral reporting would suggest that this perestroika promises to be as successful as Premier Gorbachev's savvy strategy to reform the USSR while maintaining central control.
At the end of the day, it is not the networks' attitudes towards computers that will prevent true reform -- rather, it will be their attitude toward voters. The establishment media both buy in and propagate a pernicious zeitgeist that, at its core, views voters as children. Like children, voters must be cajoled, sweet-talked, assisted, fed or bribed with other considerations. From the networks' perspective, for the purpose of increasing "participation," it is neither dastardly nor manipulative, but rather noble to prevent people from making an informed decision about how to allocate their time.
This attitude is philosophically joined at the hip with the growing national mindset that voting is a sacrament of self-actualization that should not be denied due to past felonious behavior, current lack of registration, or (here in California) even lack of citizenship. (In other cases there is no philosophy: "get out the vote" or "register to vote" campaigns are often cynical, highly targeted attempts to achieve specific results while evading campaign finance laws.) For both the networks and the ultra-suffragists, turnout is the ultimate barometer of national electoral health. Their ideal, apparently, is government by the indifferent.
Unfortunately, an infantilized public inevitably makes bad decisions. When the left criticizes capitalism, one of its chestnuts is that American business shortchanges society through short-term planning horizons. If indeed long-term strategic perspective is a virtue, why has every single election "reform" of the last twenty years diluted the number of invested, long-term thinkers in the electoral pool? The original constitutional criterion limiting suffrage exclusively to male land holders probably strikes most today as Paleolithic: but, as we face a new hundred year war against terrorism and at home the structural bankruptcy of our wealth transfer programs, the essential wisdom of having democratic leadership chosen by those with the most at stake has never been more obvious.
Just as it does from every farmers' market to every stock market, the free flow of truthful information will cause the blossoming -- not the shriveling -- of the electoral process. Many people of good intent still possess the misplaced fear that premature voter knowledge skews elections. But the danger is not from knowledge before, during or after the balloting. Rather, the threat to the momentum of a political cause lies in the propagation of disinformation -- either strategic or inadvertent -- in an artificially restricted knowledge environment. Without the checks and balances only possible when there exists a free flow of information, anyone with an agenda can manipulate voters. With appropriate stimuli, the populace can be induced to vote -- or induced to stay home. The cultural mandarins in the media and politics have it exactly wrong: by opening the national dialogue to include all available knowledge, there will be less opportunity for mischief, as the checks and balances of free information will police the liars, manipulators and incompetents.
ALL LOVERS OF DEMOCRACY -- NO MATTER where they are on the political spectrum -- need to get rid of their squeamishness regarding early election returns. Partisans must emotionally detach themselves from the irrational fear that unmanaged, pre-mature results and projections can hurt their cause. Two years later, many Republicans are still yelping about how Florida results were reported before the Panhandle people had finished voting. They need to get over it. Regarding all electoral information, confident campaigns should be saying, "bring it on."
The new reality of one continuous news cycle streaming concurrently across a range of media offers an under-appreciated opportunity to strengthen democracy. There is no reason that interested lay citizens shouldn't get their hands on real time electoral data -- much as in the past decade they have kicked their way into the Wall Street club via online portfolio management. One example of real transparency would be to make the raw data of exit polling available for all to download and continuously update. Inevitably, some entity would provide tweakable shareware for average people to make our own projections. These customized scenarios could even then be fed back, aggregated with thousands of other projections to create a kind of cosmic consciousness that would probably achieve uncanny accuracy. And, assuming personal anonymity can be assured on an electronic voting machine, what is wrong with real time actual returns pulsed hourly from each precinct? Much like an electrocardiogram recording heartbeats, these interstitial snapshots may well expose -- and ultimately reduce -- voting fraud. Power, prestige, and -- yes -- revenue will flow to those media whose data combine timeliness with integrity.
Someday, the VNS cartel -- or its replacement -- will crash and burn. It is in the best interests of all those who prefer a robust democracy to make that day come sooner rather than later. If, this Tuesday night, every single incumbent in the country wins re-election, just remember that the winds of change are still blowing, and, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, you don't need the All-Weather Channel to tell you.