Americans woke up to parallel media universes yesterday, with President Bush having been reelected in the New York Post, one tantalizing vote from victory on NBC and Fox News, and still struggling to win Ohio on CBS, ABC and CNN.
From the moment that Fox broke ranks with the other networks at 12:41 a.m. and projected Bush as the winner in the all-important Buckeye State, the race seemed to slip into a state of suspended animation. Everyone knew the president would probably edge John Kerry, but no one was quite willing to say so.
In fact, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said on "Today," his network decided not to declare any more states after awarding Ohio to Bush so as not to "make a judgment about who the president-elect is."
Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody said his three election analysts recommended that he call Ohio 10 minutes before he did, but he "sat on it" and pressed each one. "I said, 'Show me how this can't be wrong.' "
Moody then hit a button that boosted Bush to 269 electoral votes and called a producer who relayed the information to anchor Brit Hume -- which, Moody admitted, was "eerily similar to 2000," when Fox was the first to call Florida, and the race, for the governor of Texas.
This time, however, Fox never got Bush to the magic 270. (Moody blames reservations about the data from New Mexico and Nevada, not a failure of nerve.) This time, although NBC called Ohio 20 minutes after Fox did, the other networks stuck to their "too close to call" guns. And this time, Kerry conceded in late morning, allowing Moody what he called "the big exhale."
"The safeguards we put in place really worked, and we stuck to what we said we were going to do," said CBS News President Andrew Heyward, who, like some other network executives, isolated his decision team so they couldn't watch the rival networks. "The very trap we got into last time was jumping the gun. We went out of our way to explain every decision we made. No more Wizard of Oz." Dan Rather "said a number of times, other organizations have projected Ohio, we haven't."
When Heyward saw that NBC had called Ohio, he said, he was not agitated. "In 2000 it would have been, 'Oh my God, are you sure we can't do it?' "
Dan Merkle, ABC's decision desk director, said holding back on Ohio was not a tough call. "We didn't feel any pressure to call it," he said. "Our instructions were to get it right and don't worry about being first."
But while network anchors and pundits told viewers again and again that they were being cautious in their projections, some were clearly misled by early exit polling that seemed to point to a Kerry victory. "Either the exit polls, by and large, are completely wrong or George Bush loses," Fox commentator Susan Estrich said early in the evening.
The exit surveys "confirmed what a lot of people suspected already, that Kerry was going to win," said CNN commentator Tucker Carlson. He said he was "shocked" when he heard from a Democratic operative about 10 p.m. that the Kerry camp was preparing for the possibility of losing Florida and Ohio.
The exit polls were "totally useless," Carlson said. "In fact, they may be counterproductive."
These are hardly great reviews for the new polling operation put together by the networks and the Associated Press, which abolished the Voter News Service after the 2000 debacle. They hired two firms, Edison Research and Mitofsky International, which spent months testing upgraded computer equipment and boosted the number of exit surveys in key states.
NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley said any problems -- including a computer system crash that lasted an hour -- would be examined. But, he said, "it's a fact of life that early exit polling is taken with a grain of salt. We get all sorts of cautions on it. What's unfortunate is that it ends up out on the Internet, and people who have no idea how to interpret data are passing it around."
Heyward agreed: "Washington was buzzing with rumors that it's great for Kerry. Our analysts said, 'Pay no attention, it's just the first wave.' "
Moody said he lost confidence in the exit-poll samples when such strong Bush states as South Carolina and Mississippi were initially deemed too close to call. "Then we began to look a lot more skeptically at this supposed Kerry walkover," he said.
Wheatley said NBC's Ohio projection was based not on exit polls but on the president's 120,000-vote lead and the network's own mathematical models. "The only thing that gave us pause was the virulence with which the Kerry people came back" with claims that they could still win Ohio, he said. But between 3:44 and 4:39 a.m., when ABC, CBS and CNN were putting Nevada in the Bush column, Wheatley said he was "not entirely comfortable" in making the call -- in part because that would have made NBC the only network to push Bush past the 270 mark.
Newspaper editors, meanwhile, were struggling with how far they could go as final deadlines approached and the networks were splitting on Ohio, which was pretty much the electoral ballgame.
In later editions, the New York Times ran with: "Bush Holds Lead / Kerry Refuses to Concede Tight Race." The Washington Post: "Bush Appears Close to Victory." Los Angeles Times: "It May Hang on Ohio." USA Today: "Bush nears victory but Ohio count is in dispute."
"It was tough for about 30 seconds," said Amanda Bennett, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who went with "Bush Closes In." The NBC projection on Ohio "kind of caused the hair on the back of our necks to stand up," Bennett said. But, she recalled, "we were looking at Ohio and realized there was still a lot of dispute at the time of our final deadline about exactly how many provisional ballots were out."
The Miami Herald used "Florida Says Bush / Nation Awaits Ohio Tally," followed by "Bush Closes In." "We tried to be as authoritative as the information we had allowed us to be," Editor Tom Fiedler said. On Ohio, "we left open the possibility that there was going to be a challenge and provisional ballots could make the difference." The bottom line: "We ended up in much better shape than we did four years ago."
Now a press corps that might have been expecting a Kerry administration is grappling with the prospect of four more years of Bush.
"I don't know a single journalist who voted for Bush, not one," said Carlson, a conservative commentator. "The consensus in journalism is that he is not a good president." But ideology aside, Carlson said, "new is always better -- new story, new sources. Maybe an easier time getting through to significant people in the White House."
USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro sees a more fundamental problem. "We're really worried that the message will be that total lack of access, message discipline and information processed through the blandest possible official spokesmen is the way to get reelected and succeed in American politics. I worry about a second-term climate of even more secrecy."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.