Media maverick Ted Turner opposes setting a uniform national closing time for election places because it is unreasonable for the federal government or the states "to conform their election laws to the dictates or interests of the three New York networks," a spokesman for Turner said Thursday.
Robert Wussler, executive vice president of the Turner Broadcasting System, told the House Administration elections subcommittee that television networks should not use projections based on exit polls at all. Turner's Cable News Network does not do any exit polling.
Turner, a Southerner who owns Cable News Network, has launched a hostile takeover attempt against CBS Inc. The subcommittee is considering proposals to change election procedures to counteract the effect of network election projections.
"When the networks project elections results based on their own computer manipulation of exit polling data they have collected, they cross the line of responsible journalism, in our opinion," said Wussler, a former president of CBS-TV.
"They are reporting on information of their own manufacture. . . . There is a significant risk that their actions may influence the electoral process itself."
Executives of ABC, CBS and NBC all told the subcommittee that they supported the uniform poll closing idea and reaffirmed earlier pledges not to use exit polls to make projections in any state until voting places in that state are closed. Exit polling consists of interviews with voters after they have cast their ballots.
Outcry against the TV networks' practice of using exit polls to project winners in presidential elections before voting had ended in all states has prompted a number of proposed legislative remedies.
In 1980, all three networks projected Ronald Reagan's victory over President Jimmy Carter before polls had closed in many states. Officials in California and other Western states argued that the early projections dissuaded many from voting and thus influenced local elections.
Studies conducted after the 1984 presidential election by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate and by the University of Michigan confirmed that voter turnout in Western states was lower because of the projections.
Cable News Network has a longstanding policy of not announcing a winner until all polls in all states are closed, Wussler told the subcommittee. As a result, CNN did not announce Reagan's victory over Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale in 1984 until 8:07 p.m. PST. CBS had declared Reagan the winner at 5:02 p.m.
A CNN spokesman said its election-night announcement was based on wire-service reports of actual returns.
The networks have responded to criticism of the projections by saying that "our fundamental principle has always been to report responsibly what we know," as George Watson, ABC News' Washington bureau chief, told the subcommittee. They contend that a law forbidding exit-poll projections would violate the First Amendment.
Noting the constitutional conflict, Wussler concluded that self-restraint by broadcasters is the best approach, although he was pessimistic that agreements would survive competition among news organizations.
Among the proposals being considered is one to stretch elections over a 24-hour or even two-day period. But Edward Joyce, president of CBS News, said that approach could widen the problem by giving daily newspapers time to use their own exit polls to make projections.
NBC News President Lawrence Grossman testified for that network.