There's a terrific election-night documentary to be made that CNN or Fox News should start filming tonight. Call it “The Back Room.”
How many people know how a network makes the early call or projection on a candidate winning a particular state in the presidential race? There is some process that involves exit polls, previous voting patterns and early returns, but how does it really work?
CNN or Fox News placing cameras in the room to capture the number crunchers and forecasters at work would go a long way to helping provide valuable information.
In addition to the insight, there would be plenty of drama, particularly as a network tries to walk the fine line between being first and being right. The scenes would be powerful as, say, the CNN crew notices that CBS has called Iowa for Obama. Yet it still has its doubts. Does that affect its decision-making -- perhaps giving it confidence to go ahead or more determination to hold off?
Such a documentary would seem to offer an important public service that might be 12 years late. If the public has a better idea how networks make the call, people would have a better idea how much faith to put in them. Too much faith may have hurt Al Gore's chances in 2000 when Fox News called the race for George W. Bush, giving Bush a frontrunner status as the Florida results were disputed over the ensuing weeks. Whether Gore ultimately had more votes or not (and there is some evidence he did not), the network “call” seemed to bring the burden of proof on him.
Of course, if a network really wanted to be bold and transparent, it wouldn't wait to produce a documentary, but offer a live online feed of its staff working feverishly on projections on Election Night. Then again, that might be a better show than what's on air.