Roundup: CBS News chief details erroneous Florida election calls

Tuesday, November 28, 2000

CBS News' chief says the networks' mistaken early calls Election Night that Al Gore — and later George W. Bush — had won Florida were due in part to flawed exit polls in the Tampa area and a “significant computer error” in Volusia County's election agency. CBS News President Andrew Heyward said in a letter to Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications panel, that his network's initial call for Gore at 7:50 p.m. EST on Nov. 7 was based on Voter News Service exit polls and actual vote data, interpreted through tested statistical models. But at about 9:20 p.m., CBS found that exit poll results in the Tampa area had overstated Gore's lead and that tabulated votes in Duval County were probably wrong, Heyward said in the letter released Nov. 21. That call was retracted at 9:54 p.m. When the networks then erroneously called Florida for Bush a few hours later, Heyward said, “another series of confusions took place — including what at this juncture appears to be a very significant computer error made by the Volusia County Elections Department — which led to another series of bad calls by the television networks and newspapers across the nation.” Tauzin, R-La., is investigating what led to the early election calls, how they affected voter turnout where the polls were still open and whether any inherent biases were involved. Tauzin, planning congressional hearings in January, released responses from the networks and the Associated Press to a series of questions he has asked in preparation. CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN and the AP make up the consortium that uses Voter News Service exit polls and actual results to project election results. Although Tauzin received responses from all six news organizations, Heyward went into the most detail about what led to the mistaken early Florida calls. He said the matter will be thoroughly reviewed by a three-person panel headed by Linda Mason, CBS' vice president of public affairs. Top executives at ABC, CNN, Fox and NBC also said they had begun intensive internal examinations of what went wrong and sought to assure Tauzin of their cooperation. Johnson announced that an independent panel will review CNN's projection procedures. Members are Joan Konner, former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; James Risser, former director of the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford University; and Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Associated Press

Maryland: State judiciary proposes restricting electronic court records

The state judiciary has proposed severely limiting public access to electronic court records, a plan opposed by media groups and civil liberties activists. Under the proposed changes, only police, lawyers and government agencies would be allowed unrestricted access to computerized criminal records. Others would have to prove they wanted them for a legitimate government or business activity. If the Maryland Court of Appeals adopts the guidelines, they would affect nearly 3,000 individuals and businesses that subscribe to a computerized dial-in service to check court records. For a $50 annual fee, subscribers have access to all civil and criminal records in county and district courts. The proposal would eliminate that service, and records would be available only through the Department of Public Safety's computerized information system. Users would have to justify requests for those records. Criminal and civil records would still be available at courthouses. Court officials say the guidelines, which were made public this month and will be the subject of a public hearing Dec. 13, are necessary to balance the public's right to know with privacy concerns. Sally W. Rankin, court information officer for the judiciary, said such records are generally kept open so people can monitor how their government operates. News organizations also rely on computerized data for information on the subjects of articles. Tom Marquardt, managing editor of The (Annapolis) Capital, said the proposed guidelines would restrict access to information that is crucial in monitoring the effectiveness of the courts. Associated Press

Nevada: State high court refuses to grant relief to news organizations

The state Supreme Court has ruled that there is nothing it can do to grant relief to three news organizations that were booted out of a Storey County court hearing. The court decided that it could not grant an effective redress to the Reno Gazette-Journal, the Nevada Appeal and The Associated Press. They had sought to challenge a decision by District Judge Michael Griffin that excluded the media from a hearing involving three men accused of killing wild horses in the Virginia City area. Griffin would not let media representatives attend an April 14 hearing at which he discussed whether the men gave voluntary statements to police. More than 30 horses were found outside Virginia City in December 1998. After various hearings, the trio was charged in only one killing. The Storey County district attorney has appealed to have other charges reinstated. In the brief decision released Nov. 20, the court also denied the three press outlets' request that transcripts of the closed hearing be given to them and the public at no charge. Associated Press

Maryland: Banning anti-gay discrimination wouldn't violate First Amendment, official says

Gov. Parris Glendening's plan to add gays to Maryland's anti-discrimination law would probably not violate the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion, according to the state attorney general's office. Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe issued the four-page legal opinion last week at the request of Delegate Sandy I. Rosenberg, who is expected to use it to counter religious-based arguments against the proposed legislation. Rosenberg asked for the opinion after a representative of the Diocese of Wilmington testified against the governor's plan at a public hearing two weeks ago in Salisbury. The diocese includes Maryland's Eastern Shore. The hearing was conducted by a commission created by the governor to solicit testimony about discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals The diocese said in a position paper presented at the hearing that the proposed legislation “significantly and wrongfully encroaches (on) the First Amendment, free-exercise rights of religious institutions and of persons whose actions are driven by their religious beliefs.” In her opinion, Rowe said there was precedent for laws with “the incidental effect of burdening certain religious practices” — as long as the laws do not single out one religion. There is also precedent suggesting that the hiring of ministers would be exempt from the proposed bill, Rowe said. Associated Press

California: Appeals court upholds gag order on Vallejo kidnapping case

A state appeals court has upheld an earlier ruling imposing a gag order on attorneys, police and witnesses in a kidnapping case involving an 8-year-old Vallejo girl. The Court of Appeal in San Francisco said it would uphold Solano County Superior Court Judge Allan Carter's ruling to protect the rights of defendant Curtis Dean Anderson. That decision was contingent on Carter modifying his order to allow public statements by potential witnesses who have not been subpoenaed. Anderson is charged with molesting and kidnapping the girl as she was walking home from school. She escaped two days later from her abductor's car in Santa Clara after freeing herself from shackles. The San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee and the Vallejo Times-Herald all challenged the judge's restrictions, saying they interfered with news coverage. They also argued it was unnecessary to protect the defendant's rights. Anderson's attorney requested the gag order after police told the media they were investigating Anderson for possible connections to other kidnappings, including the disappearance of 7-year-old Xiana Fairchild last December. Associated Press

Arkansas: Sheriff, administrator sue several, claiming harm to reputations

The Benton county sheriff and an office administrator have sued an online magazine, a Springdale radio station, a lawyer and others that the pair say have harmed their reputation. Sheriff Andy Lee and Deputy Nelson Erdmann filed a defamation lawsuit against 16 people Nov. 21, saying their reputations have been damaged by repeated allegations of wrongdoing. Numerous state and federal lawsuits alleging criminal activity in Lee's office have been filed and dismissed — with new allegations levied when those attempts failed. Lee said the civil suit, seeking $4 million in damages, is the only sure method to put an end to the cycle. The lawsuit claims that attorney John Dodge, former Arkansas Chronicle Online publisher Sam Yates, Chronicle managing editor Jim Bolt and former KOFC radio personality Tim Brooker “engaged in a concentrated effort to defame the character and professional standing…by repeated publications of slander and libel with no basis in fact. In response, the Chronicle filed a countersuit Nov. 22 alleging malicious prosecution and claiming that Lee used his position as sheriff to attempt to discredit the news organization. Bolt said Lee's charges are without merit and that the sheriff's lawsuit was an attempt to stifle his First Amendment rights. Another defendant, Royce Nease, a justice of the peace-elect, said he has never been publicly critical of Lee, and does not understand why he was named in the lawsuit. Associated Press

Pennsylvania: GOP Convention Protesters Acquitted

Forty protesters arrested during the Republican National Convention for blocking a downtown Philadelphia intersection have been acquitted of criminal charges. The protesters acquitted Monday were among 43 activists charged as a group with causing a traffic-snarling blockade at an intersection on Aug. 1, a day marked by protests throughout downtown Philadelphia. They had been charged with conspiracy, obstructing a highway and obstruction of justice. Two protesters were convicted of obstructing a highway, a misdemeanor; another was convicted of a summary offense. They were fined and ordered to perform community service. Of 391 people arrested in demonstrations near the July 31-Aug. 3 convention, about 300 were charged with misdemeanors and 40 with felonies. In more than half of the felonies, charges had already been reduced or dropped. Associated Press

Wyoming: Laramie County argues against release of jail suicides report

Laramie County officials are asking the Wyoming Supreme Court to block release of a report on jail suicides. In a brief filed Nov. 20, County Attorney Peter Froelicher said 8th District Judge Keith Kautz was wrong to order that most of the report be released to the public. The legal squabble stems from a series of inmate suicide attempts at the Laramie County Jail in 1998 and 1999. After the attempts, two of which were successful, Sheriff Roger Allsop asked for an independent review of jail security procedures. When Allsop refused to release the full report of the investigation, the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle filed suit, and Kautz ordered the release of most of the report, pending resolution of any appeal. The county argues that release would compromise jail security and give inmates knowledge of ways to hide their suicide attempts. In his 37-page brief, Froelicher argues that Allsop can deny release based on Wyoming's Public Records Act, which allows records to be held if releasing them is contrary to the public interest. An attorney for the newspaper, Bruce Moats, has said he would file an answer to the county's brief. Associated Press

Ohio: City must allow Klan cross in downtown square, attorneys say

Officials have to approve a permit allowing the Ku Klux Klan to erect a cross on downtown's Fountain Square because it is their First Amendment right to free speech, city attorneys told the City Council. After weeks of attempting to find legal grounds to deny the Klan's permit for Dec. 2, city attorneys told the City Council yesterday it has no choice but to issue the permit. If not, they cautioned, each council member who agreed to deny the permit could lose protection provided to legislators and be held liable for punitive damages if a lawsuit were filed. Attorneys say the city is bound by a permanent court injunction from preventing the Klan or anybody else from erecting a cross on Fountain Square. Council members and the city manager are urging the media to ignore the Klan in news reports. Some groups are planning alternative, peaceful protests to draw attention away from the Klan's cross. The Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, along with other churches and organizations involved in social justice causes, will hold a prayer vigil in shifts starting Dec. 2 at the square. Associated Press

Colorado: Sheriff changes policy on inmates' names after news series

Prowers County Sheriff Jim Faull has changed his policy on releasing inmates' names after reading a series of news articles on the state open-records law. The series, produced by members of the Associated Press and the Colorado Press Association, surveyed about three-quarters of the state's 63 counties to see which make information available to the public as required by the law. After reading the series, Faull began posting a complete list of inmates in the county jail. The list is in the sheriff's office and in the jail on weekends. Last fall, the sheriff told a reporter he would release inmates' names only if the person asking had a good reason. Faull said he believed he could be held responsible if the information was misused, but learned that wasn't true. Associated Press

North Carolina: Wilkes County reaches settlement on Ten Commandments display

Wilkes County and the American Civil Liberties Union have reached a settlement over the display of the Ten Commandments in the county courthouse, attorneys said. County attorney Tony Triplett told Wilkes Superior Court officials that attorneys representing the ACLU had agreed to resolve the issue without a trial. Triplett also said he expected an agreement to drop the lawsuit to be worked out and presented to commissioners for approval by Jan. 1. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU in April on behalf of Lance Teague of Moravian Falls. It asked that plaques containing the Ten Commandants that had hung in the courthouse foyer, three courtrooms and the commissioners' meeting room since September 1999 be removed on constitutional grounds. Commissioners voted in May to replace the plaques with two historical displays containing documents that were important influences on the Constitution. The new displays, containing the Ten Commandments as well as other historic documents including the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta, were put up in June in the courthouse lobby and the commissioners' meeting room. Deborah Ross, the executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said the new display made the agreement possible because it does not emphasize the Ten Commandments or suggest governmental endorsement. Associated Press

Iowa: Law enforcement receives training on public-records laws

More than 900 Iowans have registered for training sessions on Iowa's public-records laws, which were to be held today by the Iowa Attorney General's office. Attorney General Tom Miller said the training, offered at 65 remote sites via the Iowa Communications Network, is designed for law enforcement officials. Miller says there are complicated issues for law enforcement agencies, “which have to consider the public's right to know and the requirements of confidentiality.” Miller says the sessions will help trainees handle questions properly. Last spring 13 Iowa newspapers conducted a joint investigation into the number of times local officials honored the state's public-records law. The investigation reported that 58% of the sheriff departments denied access to information about people who received permits to carry concealed guns. It also found that 42% of police departments in the largest city in each county denied access to routine incident reports, which the state considers public. Associated Press

Colorado: Sheriff releasing Columbine investigation files

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office planned to release 11,000 pages of investigative files last week on the attack at Columbine High School, after a judge ordered that the files be made public. Excluded from the files are details about the bombs made by gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and why some malfunctioned. Also missing is identifying information about victims, their families, other suspects and persons included in a “hit list” prepared by Harris and Klebold. Harris and Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine before killing themselves on April 20, 1999. County spokesman John Masson said much of the information has been released previously in reports, videotapes, 911 tapes and ballistics reports, though some information may be new. The county is charging $602 for the documents under the Colorado Open Records statutes. Associated Press

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