The real story behind the projections debacle on Election Night -- when the networks prematurely called the winner of the presidential race -- is that it was as much a failure of antitrust regulation as of statistical sampling. For although ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC each presented its newscasters and pundits as if they were sitting on top of their own vast and busy information enterprise, in fact they all were relying on the same statistical sample, provided by Voter News Service -- a joint venture of the television networks and the Associated Press that conducts exit polls.
When each news team talked about "our projection" and "our call," it was, in effect, committing consumer fraud. And when Dan Rather said we could take his projections to the bank, it must have been his network's account that he had in mind.
Just after Election Night the American Antitrust Institute asked the Justice Department to break up the Voter News Service; since then, the networks have been withdrawing from it voluntarily. This is a step in the right direction -- from reliance on a central source to independent reporting.
But the real problem -- that Americans get their news from too few sources -- will not disappear with Voter News Service. In fact, antitrust measures must be enforced more vigorously across the board. The value of the media and the news it brings us depends on it.
While it may seem that the projections debacle is unique -- when was the last time that the news organizations were all so wrong at once? -- it is possible that the only thing unique about it is that everyone knows it happened.
Elections projections are ultimately verified when the actual results start coming in. But reality is rarely so one dimensional. Most events require coverage from different angles in order for the public to get a full picture, and even then, most stories are too complex for the kind of postmortem applied to the election projection. When angles are missing, how is the public to know that anything is amiss?
There has been little protest over the consolidations that have taken place in the past 20 years in media and other industries. During that time, Americans have been asked to forget everything they ever knew about competition: that having many competing sellers is good and having only a few sellers is bad, that government intervention to prevent mergers that threaten competition is good and that the existence of many independent and competing news organizations is required for meaningful news.
There is no sign that the consolidation tide will turn anytime soon. In January, while ostensibly running for president as a maverick, Sen. John McCain wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, asking why it was dragging its feet in approving the acquisition of a TV station by the parent company of the Chicago Tribune.
According to FCC rules, the Tribune would have had to sell one of its newspapers to get FCC approval, but after the senator's complaint, permission was granted without the divestiture. What's more, McCain's defense of this particular media consolidation paved the way for even more mergers. Just in March, the Tribune acquired the Los Angeles Times. In this case no antitrust objections were raised.
While the consolidation of ownership is a major problem in the news business, the projections debacle reveals that it is far from the only problem. Cooperation between independent organizations in the name of efficiency is equally problematic. While Voter News Service may be dismantled, the New York Times and ABC now jointly produce news on the Internet, a project they began last January.
According to economics textbooks, consumers get what they want. If we were really unhappy with the uniformity that the news giants deliver, we could expect to see the emergence of competing organizations that would find opportunity in our dissatisfaction.
As the textbooks have it, consumers do not need governmental protection because they are protected by market forces. But textbook economics is built on the assumption that consumers are fully informed about the quality of the product they are getting. Such is not the case in the media: If consumers are offered only a few sources of news, how can they know what they're missing?
Of course, the government can't guarantee full news coverage, nor would one want to charge it with such a task. But the government can guarantee a healthy process: Ownership of news organizations must be much more diffuse than it is today, and cooperation of any form between news organizations must be either prohibited or monitored closely.
Americans have an almost religious belief in the superiority of privately, rather than government, controlled media. Intervention by the Justice Department would no doubt be portrayed by the networks themselves as anathema to truthful coverage. (It bears mentioning that the British do not share this suspicion -- their British Broadcasting Corp. is widely considered to be as reliable as any of the networks in America.)
That fear of government is unfounded. Antitrust regulations do not put the U.S. media in danger of government takeover. In the Justice Department's long record of preventing firms from colluding, never has the result of its intervention been government control of the regulated firms.
The antitrust agencies should continue to be vigilant in monitoring media -- and other -- mergers. As we learned from the election projections debacle, the consolidation of media sources presents a very real danger: misinformation. A democratic government is only as good as the news media forces it to be; paradoxically, it is only the government that can ensure that the news media properly does its job.