It was Election Night 2000. Fox News had just called Florida for George W. Bush. And, according to allegations that were later investigated by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, General Electric chairman Jack Welch put his arm around NBC News’ director of elections, Sheldon Gawiser, and asked him why NBC was not doing the same.
Welch, of course, was both a major contributor to the Republican Party as well as Gawiser’s überboss, since GE owned NBC. The behavior described by Waxman is the very definition of inappropriate interference in the news operation by a meddlesome owner.
The Waxman investigation came to a head on Sept. 10, 2001, when the California Democrat released an eight-page letter detailing efforts that Welch had allegedly made to influence NBC’s election coverage. We all know what happened the next day; the investigation was quietly shelved.
But the allegations raise more questions as to whether Welch would respect the traditional dividing line between the newsroom and the publisher’s suite should he be successful in putting together a deal to buy the Boston Globe from the New York Times Co.
I learned about the allegations regarding Welch’s behavior that night from Phil Rosenthal’s column in today’s Chicago Tribune. Digging deeper, I found this Los Angeles Times story on Waxman’s Web site. Here’s the heart of it:
According to Waxman’s sources, Welch spent much of the night at NBC’s decision desk, where election returns were projected.
Among their allegations:
- Welch and other visitors “distracted” NBC News Director of Elections Sheldon R. Gawiser with repeated questions about how his projection decisions were made.
- Welch had access to raw election data that weren’t available to news anchors, writers, producers or other on-air reporters.
- After instruction about reading the data, Welch later concluded that Bush had won Florida, and shared his analysis with Gawiser. Witnesses told Waxman that “at almost the same time, John Ellis — George W. Bush’s cousin and Fox News’ senior decision desk official — called both the Florida and the national election for George W. Bush. Immediately after this announcement, Mr. Welch was observed standing behind Dr. Gawiser with his hand on his shoulder, asking why NBC was not also calling the election for Bush.”
According to Waxman’s sources, “shortly after this,” Gawiser called the election for Bush. A similar call was made by all major television news outlets within minutes.
Unfortunately, Waxman’s investigation was a mess, marred by his insistence that NBC turn over a videotape — by subpoena, if necessary — that might have shed light on Welch’s behavior. Waxman’s attempted assault on the First Amendment was the subject of a contentious interview with Waxman by NPR’s “On the Media” and in a letter by the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
And even Waxman conceded that Welch may have been joking when he reportedly said to Gawiser, “How much would I have to pay you to call the race for Bush?”
Nevertheless, as Waxman wrote in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in August 2001, “I don’t know if Jack Welch acted inappropriately on election night, but it’s a question that’s both easily answered and worth answering.”
Now more than ever.