Suddenly last week, election coverage was less about psychology and social science and more about simple math.
The Election Day failure of Voter News Service to provide the extensive exit- polling data intended to avoid a repeat of the 2000 debacle left the nets shifting into their panic modes and their myriad journalists and analysts talking about real results and real numbers.
But there was a bright side to all of that. The lack of VNS's data probably made it easier for the networks to exercise the caution and restraint they'd been promising since they blew the call during the 2000 presidential election.
By 2004, Voter News Service, funded by the networks and the Associated Press, will, supposedly, be fixed. But 2002 was supposed to be the dry run for the presidential race in 2004, and VNS failed.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward could have been speaking for all the networks when he told BROADCASTING CABLE on Election Night last week, "We are determined not to make mistakes. We'll report it when we have it, if that's a few days or a few weeks."
Dan Rather, whose remarks on the certainty of CBS's election calls were fodder for jokes in 2000, this time said, "We'd rather be last than be wrong."
Each net had developed its own backups. ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin said it got data from VNS computers, from the always solid AP and from various Web sites operated by state offices.
The developing Republican victory provided an Election Night theme for the pundits. "We kidded ourselves that this election was Seinfeld-like: an election about nothing," says Marty Ryan, executive producer for Fox News. "There are issues like terrorism, war and the economy, but the election had no overwhelming theme.
"As the night went on, it became apparent that the election was about the Republicans winning."
The coverage was generally well received. The New York Times
said it was "a great night for Luddites." Indeed, at one point, Rather eschewed the available modern technology and used a time-honored accounting tool—his fingers—to highlight his points. And when NBC's Tim Russert brought out his low-tech eraserboard, a CNN analyst watching off-air commented, "That's the only thing that's working."
VNS Director Ted Savaglio, who took over in 2001, is respected and well-liked by network executives. But most network executives contacted acknowledged that questions about his future are legitimate.
"VNS has to present us with an explanation of what happened," said Linda Mason, vice president of public affairs at CBS and a VNS board member. "It's frustrating, but VNS is made up of people who make things happen."
Added another news executive: "Maybe it was too ambitious to think this could be developed, installed and tested. There's been no lack of commitment and no lack of funds, but it's a big, big job."
Savaglio said the problems were not so much in gathering information but in using and disseminating it. Much of the exit polling was, in fact, done, he said. But there were problems in entering the data into the system and in using it. Compiled and analyzed data may be released in the future.
"There just wasn't enough time to do a real dry run and work out the bugs," Savaglio said after the election. "The processing program [from Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute] wasn't finished. Now we'll need time to assess the damage to our four-year schedule."
And, although Savaglio had been optimistic that the programs would be ready by Election Day, clearly the VNS partners were not totally taken by surprise when they weren't.
Savaglio, who spent years as a network news producer, knew that time in the spotlight during the election—a New York Times
profile called him "the Bill Buckner of American politics"—was "part of the territory. It reaffirms for me how valuable the exit poll is to our members."
Additional reporting by Allison Romano and John M. Higgins