TV Makes a Too-Close Call

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JEFF JACOBSON

ABC’s Jumbotron in Times Square elects Bush too hastily

In a week of general humiliation, there was some good news for the TV networks: They did accurately award Florida to the winner. The bad news: They also awarded it to the loser. Dan Rather assured viewers they could take CBS's election-night projections "to the bank"; then the networks had to make two costly withdrawals. It was, in the words of CBS and CNN election consultant Warren Mitofsky, "embarrassing as hell." Yet it also underscored TV's tremendous power, as the networks' blunders led to Al Gore's concession takeback. And as that wild night set up an acrimonious Florida soap opera played out for the cameras, it revealed the media's dual, contradictory roles: national laughingstock and de facto fourth branch of government.

In part, we in the media were made to look stupid by the same mechanisms we use to make ourselves seem smarter than we are. By midafternoon on Election Day, journalists receive exit-poll data, diced into a zillion demographic categories on whom people voted for and why. Networks use those figures to call states seconds after the polls close (and hint not so subtly at outcomes earlier in the day); print journalists use it to plan election coverage; we all use it to lord our insiderdom over less-well-connected pals. The monopolistic source of the data is the Voter News Service, an exit-polling and vote-counting consortium of the major TV networks plus the Associated Press. (TIME, like many print publications, pays a fee to share in some of the information.) Since the networks set up VNS in 1990 — saving themselves a bundle on their own polling operations — the system has worked fairly well, save for miscalling a New Hampshire Senate election in 1996.

But Tuesday night, a piece of bad VNS data came up on the network swamis like a bite of tainted flounder. Exit-poll data showed Gore with a lead in Florida, and after most polls there closed at 7 p.m., early returns, in combination with mathematical "models" of Florida voting, bolstered the data. The networks, led by NBC, called the state for Gore, and pundits all but declared it was time to stick a fork in Bush; he was done. The call infuriated the Bush camp because voters in the conservative Florida panhandle, which is in the Central time zone, still had eight minutes to vote.

An hour and a half later, though, VNS alerted the networks that some of its exit-poll and vote-count information was wrong, and the actual vote started showing a trend for Bush. (VNS declined to answer questions last week, but in a statement said the "small lead" its poll gave Gore was insufficient to call the race alone.) Around 10 p.m., the shamefaced networks declared Florida "too close to call."

By early morning, it was clear Florida would probably decide the election. Network analysts saw Bush's lead in the vote count stretch upward of 50,000 votes, a lead that, given the apparently small number of votes left and the voting history of the districts left to report, seemed increasingly insurmountable. At 2:16 a.m., Fox News called Florida, and thus the presidency, for Bush. Soon every network rolled the President Bush graphics; the crowd whooped in Austin; and Gore called Bush to concede. Newspapers prepared BUSH WINS! front pages that would leave them black, white and red-faced all over. And the error traveled across news web sites like a virus (including, for a while, TIME's). "Unless there is a terrible calamity," ABC's Peter Jennings called it, "George W. Bush, by our projections, is going to be the next president."

Ahem: terrible calamity, anyone? For reasons the networks say they have yet to clear up, far more votes than expected quickly came in, including a flood for Gore that closed the gap at one point to around 200 votes. By 4 a.m., punch-drunk anchors reversed themselves a second humiliating time. (In fact, the networks were shown up by new technology: Gore retracted after aides noticed the narrower margin on the Web.) Says Fox News vice president John Moody, "The call of Florida for Gore was not a mistake, it was a miscalculation" — a matter of incorrect data. "The call for Bush was not a miscalculation, it was a mistake. We did it without being sure." On top of all this, New Mexico, which some networks had given to Gore, was declared too close to call on Friday.

Some news veterans blame the blunders on competition. "Making the first call is all a question of network ego," says Martin Plissner, former executive political director of CBS News. "It's a question of whose is bigger." Another problem is noncompetition. Networks share VNS data and then hire analysts, who race to crunch the same numbers. Competing operations might have more incentive to avoid errors — or at least wouldn't multiply them.

The media had not spoken their last on campaign 2000. The morning after the Great Panhandle Mishandle, instead of doing election postmortems, the news industry received a spectacular lagniappe: a fractious postelection campaign, made and played for TV. It was Monica with a side of Elián and a glass of O.J., polarizing and interminable, with disputed facts and plenty of lawyers. Elder statesmen James Baker and Warren Christopher, brought in as recount "observers," held dueling press conferences, like Cochrans and Ramsays. In battles like this, television news is a better divider than uniter: its formats, from "Hardball" to "Burden of Proof," are about opposition. A constitutional crisis became electotainment.

But under the circumstances, electotainment may not be so bad. An electoral crisis like this inevitably leads to anger and feelings of disenfranchisement. A sober, reasoned settlement, theorized on the New York Times editorial page and worked out behind closed doors, may be the quickest route to stability. Or it may leave people reasonably suspecting that they've been sold out by secretive mandarins. Say what you will about the bile-spewing cable culture of call-in shows and town halls, it's all about enfranchisement: zapping your e-mail to CNN or MSNBC, hustling down to a live camera shoot with a homemade picket sign.

In a sense, the media have done with their business what Bill Clinton did with the presidency: tarnished it with transgressions but in the process also demythologized it. Even the election-night debacle may have, perversely, done a public service by undermining the credibility of exit polls and electoral projections. Media critics have long argued that networks should not call races until all polls have closed to avoid affecting turnout. It's a moot argument: information will out, not least because people want it. Tuesday afternoon, web surfers overwhelmed the Drudge Report, where Matt Drudge had posted exit-poll results.

But if nothing else, future voters should recall Florida 2000 as a caution that no prediction from a blow-dried anchor or Internet gossip is reason not to vote. As long as the media keep playing that game, the least they can do is make clear that their word isn't always gospel. Early Wednesday morning, they did exactly that. As George and Al continue playing for the cameras on "Survivor II: the Florida Swamp," there is no better lesson to remember.

— With reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington