Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Jumping the Gun

Election projections raise the difference between rights and the right thing to do.

By Newton Minnow

When I served on the board of CBS, I was very upset by the television networks' practice of projecting election results before the polls closed, and I asked that we have a discussion of the issue. The CBS News president and his team came in with all their computer printouts, their exit polls, their databases, their prior election results, and they showed us the methodology by which they make election projections.

I asked the president, "Why do we do this?" and he looked at me and said, "Well, we have a right to do this under the First Amendment." I said, "My question is, Why do we do this?" and he said, "We have a right to do this under the First Amendment."

"Maybe I'm not making myself clear," I said. "Why do we do this? Are we afraid that NBC or ABC will call the election results before we do?" And he said, "No, we have a right to do this under the First Amendment."

Finally, I was losing my patience. I said, "Acknowledging that we have a right to do this under the First Amendment, tell me why we do it." He said, "Well, we know who won the election. We cannot sit on that information. We must share it immediately with the American people."

"If that's the case," I said, "why don't you say, 'We will give you our projection right now,' instead of 'We will give you our projection after the next commercial'"?

I never got an answer to that question, but I know what it would have been: "We have a right to do it that way under the First Amendment."

In our current level of debate, we believe that if we say we have a right to do something, that is the end of the discussion-particularly if we say, "I have a right to do this under the First Amendment." Who wants to be against the First Amendment? Freedom of speech is the most important value in this country.

But we've got to get beyond talking about whether we have a right to do something and, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, ask whether it is the right thing to do.