We've figured out how the Florida race got called so early. It was a plot by the slumping CNN to create the perfect programming for a 24-hour news channel: the breaking story that never ends. OK, we're obviously not serious about CNN's role. But all networks that called it early have to wonder how much their gaffe contributed to the escalation of the ensuing recount battle. Consider two scenarios. 1) Florida is too close to call, so the networks leave it in the undecided column until the wee hours of the morning, when it becomes evident an automatic recount will be required and bring the absentee ballots into play, extending the election for a week and a half. 2) Florida is called for Gore, seemingly sending him on his way to victory. Florida is snatched back by the networks and eventually given to Bush, which prompts Gore, who is watching TV just like Bush and sees all those impressive graphics of our new 43rd president, to concede and Bush to prepare to deliver his acceptance speech. Oops, too close to call again. Un-concession. Which one wrenches the gut and fires up the belly?
Journalism's first duty is to get it right. By that measure, the networks failed spectacularly. By calling the Florida race too early not once but twice, television left itself open to a barrage of criticism ranging from reckless overzealousness to influencing the outcome of the race. Hunkered and bunkered, news executives last week were all pointing fingers at their collective polling service, but they would have been better off using those fingers to remove some of the egg from their own faces.
If Wall Street media analyst and former network newsman Tom Wolzien is correct (see page 20), it may have been an avoidable mistake. Wolzien traces it to cost-cutting measures that saw networks give up their individual polling operations for a collective one in which they all hang, or are hanged, together. Perhaps it's time for the networks to invest a bit to recover some of their independence.
We see an upside to this. Exit polls have never been more than a snapshot of a moving train, and only one car of many. They are predictions; best guesses. Educated guesses, yes. Usually right, yes. But guesses just the same. And network calls are their best guesses on top of the pollsters' best guesses. This guessing gone awry should give the voters some needed skepticism and greater incentive to cast a vote no matter how the pollsters are calling a race. And in an era when the Internet was bouncing exit polls around the Web before some Washington state voters had quaffed their morning lattes, expecting broadcasters not to try and get the information out as soon as they can is unrealistic.
So, the networks now have their own Dewey Defeats Truman. We say live with it, learn from it, but don't hang your heads. We don't think the blown calls should obscure what was right about the coverage. The media found itself in the middle of what was (with apologies to Hayes and Tilden, Jackson and Adams) the most "breathtaking, heart-stopping, jaw-dropping, nightmarish, unprecedented" political drama in American history. As such, theirs was clearly a flawed but still impressive effort. What they got exactly right were the resources they threw at the story, from the researchers and technicians behind the scenes to the anchors and commentators in front of the cameras to the reporters in Nashville and Austin and elsewhere as sleep cycles were sacrificed to news cycles. No government body had to tell them when and what to cover, and despite their mistakes (and with apologies to the grandstanding Commerce Committee Chairman hopeful Billy Tauzin), no one in government should.