Where is Regis when you really need him? At around 2:18 a.m. last Wednesday, the networks gave the election to Gov. George W. Bush, having taken Florida away from Vice President Al Gore a few hours earlier. Viewers must have been asking if that was their final answer.
Of course, a short time later, the nation found out, to the networks' profound embarrassment, that it wasn't. And the news divisions might be paying for those errors until, well, until the next election.
What happened last Tuesday, early Wednesday and then through the rest of the week, was unprecedented on many levels.
For network news people, the night was full of irony. The coverage-99% of it any way-was riveting and fascinating. It was the kind of race-this close-that journalists dream of covering, and they knew it would be. Early in the evening-and long before Dan Rather reached cruising speed-he observed, "The race for president is jar-lid tight."
But the networks blew it making an errant call, twice, for
state that will determine the outcome of presidential election. Not only did ABC, CBS, NBC FOX and CNN give Florida to Gore, then withdraw it and then later hand it to Bush, they also called Florida before the polls closed in the Western Panhandle region of the state, the only section situated in the Central Time Zone
The networks' policy, politically hammered out in 1980 after complaints in the Carter-Reagan race, is that a winner can't be called until a "vast majority" of the polls close in a state, says Bill Wheatley, senior vice president, NBC News. At that time the Florida call was made, 95% of the polls were closed.
Still the 5% of the polls that were still open in the Central Time zone accounted for hundreds of thousands of voters, some portion of whom had not yet voted.
What went wrong? The short answer: Nobody really knows yet, but no doubt it was some combination of leaky data and red-hot competition. And one more thing: The networks were all using data collected by one source, Voter News Service, the exit-poll and vote-tabulating consortium funded by the TV news networks and the Associated Press.
And clearly there was something to that. VNS officials were in full butt-covering mode last week. Lee C. Shapiro, the spokeswoman for VNS, said no officials would be made available to discuss the botched Florida projection. VNS is based in New York and run by Bill Headline, the former CNN veteran.
A prepared statement said VNS was looking into what went wrong.
David Westin, president of ABC News, admitted: "This year we failed. The day after the election, we began a thorough review of our process and what went wrong. We will take appropriate steps to ensure it does not happen again."
At NBC, which had the most election-night viewers, news chief Andrew Lack said, "Of course we feel terrible about what happened, and I can tell you that every one involved here at NBC News will work hard to make sure it never happens again. We made a mistake based on bad numbers, and we're conducting a thorough review that will drill down to the exact problem."
But despite whatever flaws there were in the VNS data, nobody was letting the networks off the hook.
"What's the first rule of journalism?" asked Sanford Bernstein media analyst Tom Wolzien, a former NBC News executive. "You've got to have two sources. They had one source." Wolzien blames the very existence of VNS on Larry Tisch, the former chairman of CBS who led all networks toward massive cost cuts in the mid-80s and early 90s. Before that, the major networks all had their own vote-projection systems. (See Wolzien's commentary, page 20.)
Sam Roberts, former longtime CBS news reporter and special-events producer, now a professor of communications at the University of Miami, agreed with Wolzien. "This is a disaster. I don't think they understand the magnitude of the disaster they've perpetrated on themselves. They all destroyed their credibility last night."
There were a few television voices who were skeptical as the night wore on. On MSNBC at about 11:45 p.m., political strategist Ed Rollins predicted, "We're not going to get a winner tonight." Retorted the network's Chris Matthews, "Then what the hell are we sitting here for?"
Later, lots of others were equally hard on the networks. Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's
media critic, said, "This is a humiliation for the networks that occurred when the whole country was watching. And it has reinforced the popular view that the media rush to judgment and act irresponsibly."
Kurtz said the networks "handed some live ammunition" to those on Capitol Hill; sure enough, by the end of the week, Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, said he would hold hearings early next year. (See story, page 10.)
Marvin Kalb, former network correspondent, and executive director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said Election Day "was a very bad day for the media, with two huge blunders. What one sees is the tremendous power of competitive pressures that operate in the newsroom today."
Those pressures were evident in the newsrooms on election night, despite proclamations from some news executives that getting it right was more critical than getting it first.
The pressure to call races was intense. At FOX, John Moody, director of election coverage, fielded calls from "upstairs" complaining that CNN was running more aggressively with certain VNS results. "We want to be cautious," Moody said. But caution might mean a number went on FOX News' screen just a few minutes behind one of the other networks.
FOX News President Roger Ailes remained mostly hands-off. "The thing you do is hire the best people then let them do their jobs," he said. That didn't stop him from phoning the control room about how quickly vote and exit-poll tallies were getting on the air of competitors.
"We want to get it right first," said CBS News President Andrew Heyward in a quick election-night interview. Still, a short while later, there was an undercurrent of alarm in the network's newsroom when a competitor put up a state in the Gore column that was uncalled by CBS.
The most thankless job at CNN's Washington office fell upon Deputy Bureau Chief John Towriss, who oversaw the night's newsroom operation. With uncanny foreboding about coming problems, Towriss insisted that accuracy, rather than a rush to call states for a candidate, was the top priority. "Credibility is the only issue at CNN."
But the best of intentions didn't prevent CNN from blundering twice with the rest of the pack-and by early morning, bluntly assessing television's performance. "I have a hunch there's going to be enormous scrutiny about a system that calls a state for both candidates and then winds up with neither," said CNN commentator Jeff Greenfield, in the wee and woeful early hours last Wednesday.
Network journalists making the calls admitted they blew it big time. After CBS took back its Florida call for Gore, Rather told viewers, "If you're disgusted with us, frankly, I don't blame you." Of course, that wasn't too long after he told viewers they could "take to the bank" CBS' projections.
NBC's Katie Couric, who co-anchored NBC's coverage with Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, said the networks belonged in the "loser's column" for their bad calls, while colleague Russert chimed in that the networks blew it "not once but twice." FOX News Channel's Bill O'Reilly called on his network to quit exit polling altogether.
Some clung to pride over what they didn't do. The Associated Press reminded reporters last week that it only erred once-it initially gave Florida to Gore-but never gave it to Bush. But that's a thin silver lining. "The entire process is under review," said Kathy Frankovic, who heads CBS News research. And you can take
to the bank.