John Armitage on 14 Dec 2000 09:13:29 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] When information travels at 'internet speed'

_Le Monde Diplomatique_, December 2000.


When information travels at
"internet speed"

S.H. and L.W.

A few months ago, rather than invoking the peculiarities of the US electoral
system and its fundamentally unrepresentative character, the major
newspapers, even those reputed to be serious, preferred to analyse the
personal traits of the two main candidates, the one "uptight" or "relaxed",
other "moronic" or "haughty".

This September most of the media were ecstatic: "Now even politics in the
US is moving at internet speed" (1). Three weeks after the polling stations
closed we still did not know who the next US president would be. But at
"internet speed" the US media proclaimed a victor, then denied it, then had
posted another winner, only to contradict themselves again.

According to Howard Kurtz, a journalist at The Washington Post, "this
whole system of calling a state first may have a lot to do with the media's
appetite to be first, to be sensational. After all, we could wait until all
the votes
are counted. Might be less dramatic, but we'd certainly get it right." Sam
Donaldson, a star newscaster on ABC, disagreed: "I think it has to do with
being competitive. I mean, competition is what drives our capitalistic
If you can come up with a better system, since communism doesn't work, I
want to listen. But, at the moment, we are competitors. And my friend Dan
Rather [CBS news anchor], I love him, I think he is a great man, but on the
few occasions when I have had the privilege of being out in the field with
I tried to bash his head in because we are competitors. And that's what
us. And if we at ABC said ... 'We are going to pledge that we will never
project again, we will wait until all of the votes in any state has reached
point when it is mathematically impossible' ... the next time around no one
would watch us."

Donaldson expresses the root of the matter. When journalists subordinate
their mission to provide accurate information to being concerned with
boosting audience ratings - and thus to increase profits earned for the
of their companies (2) - everything else follows. And follow it did. Between
2.16 and 2.20 a.m., fed by the same provider of voting estimates, the top
news networks - with Fox first and ABC last - announced that Bush had been
elected president. Gore immediately called Bush to concede, only to retract
later. The victor for the seat of senator for the state of Washington will
determine the political balance of the Senate. It was also called
on election night; indeed, it is still undetermined three weeks later.

These are also errors that cannot be corrected. In a close election,
projections made public while voting is still underway can affect the
and thus the result. In Florida, for instance, the most staunchly Republican
counties to the west are in a different time zone from the eastern counties.
They were still voting when one television channel, then another, then
"projected" a Gore victory in the state. A scoop of this sort could have
Bush thousands of votes.

When, a few hours later, Fox News announced this time that Bush had been
elected, it was thanks to another estimate of the Florida vote. An estimate
issued prematurely by one John Ellis Bush, who explained last year: "I am
loyal to my cousin." The said cousin is impatient to move into the White

(1) Headline in The Wall Street Journal Europe, Brussels, 21 September

(2) In the US the main media companies belong to General Electric (NBC),
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp (Fox), Walt Disney (ABC), Viacom Inc
(CBS) and Time Warner Inc (CNN). Whereas in the 1970s 50 companies
controlled half of the US media, they are now in the hands of only six

Translated by Harry Forster

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