GE’s Welch in jam over election

Waxman asks Peacock to provide account of coverage

NEW YORK — Former GE topper Jack Welch most certainly influenced NBC News coverage on Election Night 2000 by allegedly distracting editorial staff, doing his own computer analysis of sensitive voter data and, ultimately, insisting the race be called for fellow Republican George W. Bush, a Democratic politico said Sept. 10.

Stepping up his campaign against the Peacock and parent company GE, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) outlined his findings in an eight-page letter sent to NBC chair-CEO Bob Wright. Throughout, Waxman reminded Wright that broadcasters have a duty to serve the public — over and above their corporate owners.

Once again, Waxman said he was dismayed that the GE-owned Peacock is trying to protect both itself and Welch, who coincidentally retired Friday, by refusing to turn over an inhouse tape of Election Night despite repeated requests by the lawmaker.

An NBC spokeswoman said the decisions made on Election Night were in “no way, shape or form” influenced or directed by Welch.

“In an eight-page tome, Congressman Waxman comes up with a shocking revelation that Jack Welch was interested in the results of what was perhaps the most riveting night in the history of presidential elections and that he supported George Bush. Not exactly a news flash,” the net spokeswoman said.

Line ‘breached’

Waxman disagreed, ordering that the Peacock provide a full accounting of Welch’s conduct and devise steps to “ensure that the bright line” between corporate and news activities is not “breached” again.

“Understandably, NBC may find it awkward to investigate the former CEO of its parent company,” Waxman wrote. “But as a news network, you know better than anyone that protecting Mr. Welch from scrutiny does not serve the public interest.”

“If this summary of election night is accurate, as I believe it is, this issue needs to be examined and aired publicly, not swept under the rug. Mr. Welch and your organization are not entitled to immunity from scrutiny,” he continued.

Waxman’s account was based on a “series of first-hand observations of Mr. Welch by credible individuals” present at the NBC Decision Desk on Election Night. The politico did not name his sources.

Peacock execs didn’t deny some of the general details set forth by Waxman, including that Welch did indeed spend a couple of hours at the “Decision Desk,” where NBC News director of elections Sheldon Gawiser analyzed incoming data from Voter News Service (VNS).

According to Waxman’s investigation, Welch repeatedly distracted Gawiser by asking how the desk worked. He allegedly also secured direct access to VNS data.

“Efforts were reportedly made during this time period to escort Mr. Welch away from the Decision Desk. These efforts did not succeed,” Waxman said in his letter to Wright.

Called the race

Ultimately, after studying raw data for himself, Welch questioned Gawiser about calling the race for Bush, Waxman said. Around the same time, Fox News Channel predicted Bush the winner. Within a few minutes, Gawiser let the control room know that the Peacock would declare Bush the winner as well.

All the while, an inhouse camera was rolling, Waxman said.

Initially, NBC prexy Andrew Lack told Waxman he was welcome to any such tapes, if any indeed existed. In later correspondence, Lack backed off, with the Peacock changing its position to say that giving Waxman the inhouse footage would intrude on the editorial process.

Waxman said he is not talking about NBC journalists, but about Welch, a corporate exec.

“Mr. Welch is not a journalist, a news analyst, or a part of the NBC news division,” Waxman said. “His actions have little, if any, entitlement to the First Amendment protections belonging to the news media.”

While Waxman is hardly seen as a loose cannon, some Washington insiders say his judgment may be clouded in this situation by partisan politics. Many doubt Waxman would be allowed by House leadership to use congressional subpoena power to gain access to the inhouse footage in question.

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