Networks Try To Explain Blown Call
By David Bauder
AP Television Writer
Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2000; 6:39 p.m. EST NEW YORK Television networks tried to explain Wednesday how they blew a call on the Florida election results not once but twice the second time prematurely declaring George W. Bush the next president.
The networks were forced to take back that call after 4 a.m. EST when it became clear that the close Florida count would be contested.
"We don't just have egg on our face," NBC's Tom Brokaw said. "We have an omelette."
NBC had been first to declare a winner in Florida on Tuesday, saying Al Gore won at 7:50 p.m EST. Its rivals quickly followed suit, basing their information largely on polling data provided by Voter News Service, a consortium created by The Associated Press, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC.
The networks take their victory projections seriously and promised before Election Day to be cautious if the race was close.
"Let's get one thing straight right from the get-go: We would rather be last in reporting returns than be wrong," Dan Rather said on CBS at the outset of coverage. "If we say somebody's carried the state, you can take that to the bank."
But at 9:55, CNN took back its projection, saying Florida was now too close to call. CNN election experts had noticed a discrepancy between a VNS estimate and the actual vote, a network spokeswoman said.
Other networks, VNS and the AP quickly took back their predictions of a Gore victory in Florida. As the evening wore on, TV analysts increasingly gave Bush the edge. After polls closed on the West Coast, it became clear that Florida would decide things.
At 2:16 a.m., Fox News Channel declared Bush the winner in Florida. Within four minutes, NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC did the same. The AP said the race was still too close to name a winner.
Fox made the call based on its analysis of the vote count it believed Bush's lead was so large there was no way Gore could overcome it given what experts knew about ballots left uncounted, said John Moody, Fox News Channel's vice president of news and editorial quality.
He said Fox did not make its call based on any advice from VNS. In fact, because of the earlier mistake on Gore, "we were all aware that their model was not perfect," he said.
Why were the other networks so quick to follow?
"It's competitive," pollster John Zogby said on Fox News Channel. "One network does it and it creates a panic among the other networks."
Executives at CBS and NBC denied they took their cues from a rival. Each said their experts reached essentially the same conclusion as Moody.
"There's always competitive juices flowing on this, but people spent hours looking at Florida," said Al Ortiz, executive producer of the CBS election coverage. "When we made this call, we really felt it was solid."
CBS blamed VNS, saying the consortium provided incorrect information on uncounted votes. As a result, Ortiz said, the networks were taken by surprise when the vote count later tightened at one point bringing Gore to within 224 votes.
In a statement issued Wednesday, VNS said it had based its Florida-for-Gore call on exit polls, augmented by actual votes from model precincts. "These models, based on sampling precincts, have served us well through many elections. However, we will investigate why they did not work properly in this specific situation," the service said.
The later Florida-for-Bush declaration was based on actual votes indicating Bush had a sufficient lead to take the state, VNS said. After Bush's lead dropped dramatically with the tabulation of the remaining votes, "the responsible thing to do was to withdraw the call," it said.
CNN said in a statement that it has "initiated an immediate review of all procedures involved and has already begun consultations with other news organizations." ABC also said it was looking into what happened.
"We made mistakes," said Jeff Zucker, a producer of NBC's coverage. "But we made mistakes based on bad information. If you make a mistake and own up to it, that's fine."
Despite the network projections, the AP did not declare Bush the winner.
"By midnight we knew Florida was going to deliver the presidency to one candidate or the other, and when our TV partners called the state for Bush, the vote was in his favor," said AP Executive Editor Jon Wolman. "We saw that, too, but we also saw that some significant Democratic precincts were still being tallied, and our vote-count experts felt strongly that it was too close to call."
About an hour after declaring Bush the winner, the networks began to get queasy. Ed Bradley read an advisory explaining the AP's non-call on the air. "A very reliable news service," Rather said.
The networks all took the Bush projection back around 4 a.m. "We're not absolutely sure quite what to do next," ABC anchor Peter Jennings confessed at 4 a.m. EST.
It made for gripping television, and early indications are many Americans stayed up to watch. Between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. EST, Nielsen Media Research reported that 22 percent of American homes with TVs had their sets on. The audience for ABC, CBS and NBC was 225 percent higher than usual at that hour.
An audience in Austin, standing in the rain waiting to celebrate a Bush victory and watching large-screen TVs, cheered at the network projections. A Nashville audience was glum.
Newspapers across the country made decisions based on what they heard on TV. The final edition headline in the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, N.Y., blared: "Networks: Bush Wins." There were reports of editors shouting "stop the presses" in newsrooms when the calls were reversed just like in the movies.
"I'm not sure television's had as bad a night as this," Tom Rosensteil, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said on CNN.
Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics at Harvard University, said he feared repercussions from this "very major goof."
"Television news is supposed to cover the news," Kalb said. "It is not supposed to be a player, certainly not a player on the scale that was demonstrated last night. My concern is there may be calls for legislative or executive control over the way television news calls elections in the future, and that will get us into a fundamental constitutional fight."
CBS' Ortiz said in the network's defense: "We leveled with our viewers all night long about where we stood."
And Fox's Moody said he doesn't regret the decision. "When that recount is completed, I feel that our call will be correct."
© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press