THE 2000 ELECTIONS: THE NETWORK PREDICTIONS; Media Rethink an Urge to Say Who’s First
Published: November 09, 2000
Having misread a contest that took stunningly unpredicted turns, some network officials conceded yesterday they had committed critical blunders Tuesday night and early yesterday, errors that compelled a presidential candidate to mistakenly concede the election and prompted some networks to re-examine how they predict winners.
The network executives, acknowledging that they had been off base twice in declaring a victor in Florida, said they were examining how the errors could have occurred. The mistakes were characterized by many in academia, politics and the news media as perhaps the most egregious election-night gaffes in the modern television era.
ABC News was one of the networks that was looking into its election-night coverage. Kerry Marash, vice president of editorial quality for the network, said: ”We’re having a very intensive post-mortem that includes a top-to-bottom review. The first thing we have to do is determine what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
A CNN executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added, ”We’re trying to find out exactly what happened, what went so wrong.”
The effect of the mistakes — first in interpreting voter survey data that declared the crucial state of Florida early in the evening for Vice President Al Gore, and later, in concluding that the raw vote totals gave the state to Gov. George W. Bush — had seismic impacts on how political analysts, television viewers and newspaper readers initially perceived the returns.
The second Florida projection, made in favor of Mr. Bush at 2:15 a.m. Eastern time yesterday, set in motion a chain of events that spread the error like a virus into the Gore campaign’s inner sanctum and onto the front pages of many of the nation’s newspapers. It led the networks to call the national election for Mr. Bush, which in turn, the Gore campaign said, prompted Mr. Gore to place the concession call to the governor that he would later withdraw.
And it was that concession, newspaper editors said, that persuaded many of them to put news of Mr. Bush’s apparent win on their front pages and Web sites.
The New York Times was one of those papers. ”Bush Appears to Defeat Gore,” was part of the front-page headline in about 115,000 copies distributed in New York City out of a total of 1.1 million. The Miami Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today and The Austin American-Statesman in Texas — Mr. Bush’s hometown paper — were among others reporting the phantom victory, although many were able to stop the presses and limit the number of copies after Mr. Gore took back his concession.
But several news organizations, most notably The Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, Sun-Sentinel of South Florida in Fort Lauderdale, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, did not call the election for Governor Bush. (The Web site washingtonpost.com, however, briefly carried a report indicating that Mr. Bush had won.)
Bill Keller, managing editor of The New York Times, said that what tipped the balance in the paper’s decision to report that Mr. Bush had apparently won was the news that Mr. Gore was about to address his supporters in Nashville.
”Usually the first one to come out is the one conceding,” Mr. Keller said.
He added: ”We decided that we would be comfortable going with a guarded headline that Bush ‘appeared to’ win the election. Unfortunately, the story didn’t include the qualifier. It slipped through the cracks. Somebody pushed the button on a lead that wasn’t qualified: the lead should have said something along the lines of ‘Gore calls Bush to concede.’ ”
The headline was later changed to ”Bush and Gore Vie for an Edge With Narrow Electoral Split.”
The Times’s Web site posted about 20 versions of the presidential election story through the night. One that appeared from 2:36 a.m. to 2:48 a.m. began, ”Bush Apparent Victor Over Gore.” Another, ”Bush Captures the White House,” appeared from 2:48 a.m. to 3:35 a.m. Minutes later, the story was revised to reflect the uncertainty in the outcome.
The Web site’s declaration of a Bush triumph was echoed in an e-mail message that The Times on the Web sent to users who have registered for such alerts online; the e-mails, like newspapers already deposited on doorsteps, could not be recalled.
The projection of a Bush victory, based on Florida returns that would prove inconclusive, had members of the news media pointing fingers and vowing to not let it happen again. The major broadcast and cable news channels — ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel — all made and withdrew the projections of Florida for Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush.
Predicting election-night winners based on surveys of voters as they leave the polls and on analyses of returns from selected precincts is a longstanding tradition in the television news business — and an intensely competitive part of every election night. Newspapers use the so-called exit polls as well, to get an early sense of how races are shaping up and to provide context in follow-up stories assessing the returns.
Though the various networks used to do their own Election Day polling, they now coordinate the surveying through the Voter News Service, an organization they administer jointly with The Associated Press. The service collects data at the polls across the country and feeds it to the networks and the wire service. Each news organization performs its own analysis of the data, and calls races independently. The New York Times, like other Voter News Service clients, uses the data as well.
Partly because polls had shown so many races to be very close, the networks say they had advised the analysts on their ”decision desks” to be especially careful with the calls on the races. Also fresh in the minds of many was a race that was inaccurately called in 1996, a Senate contest in New Hampshire in which the networks declared the Democrat the winner, when in fact the victory went to the Republican, Robert C. Smith. Nobody wanted a repeat, said several analysts who worked for the networks on election night.
Jeff Zucker, executive producer of NBC’s election-night coverage, denied that the network was under any pressure to call Florida or any other race. Mr. Zucker said that in the initial projections that showed Mr. Gore winning Florida, the outcome still looked as if it would be ”extremely close.”
The network made the projection anyway, he explained, because ”our election analysts told us they were confident to make the call.”
Mr. Zucker added, ”In the case of Florida, they made a mistake.”
While all the networks called the state for Mr. Gore between about 7:50 p.m. and 8 p.m., some now say they had misgivings. Fox executives said they made the projection reluctantly, because they had expected Mr. Bush to carry the state.
”Everybody thought V.N.S. had it wrong,” said Marty Ryan, the executive producer of Fox News’s election night coverage. ”It didn’t fit with the way we had analyzed that state.”
Nevertheless, Fox proceeded because ”all the models seemed to be pointing to Gore.”
Later, when Fox and the other networks gave the state to Mr. Bush, ”We felt confident because that was the way we had the state analyzed,” Mr. Ryan added.
Other networks’ operations had been less certain which way Florida might go. ”The polls had been all over the place,” said a CNN executive. ”We thought anything was possible.”
The Voter News Service, in a statement, said the polling on Tuesday ”gave Gore a small lead but no member, nor V.N.S., thought that it was enough to call the race with confidence.”
”However, when reports of actual vote from sample or model precincts came in,” it said, ”they supported the survey results and allowed the race to be called.”
The service said that the models ”have served us well through many elections,” but added, ”we will investigate why they did not work properly in this specific situation.”
The networks’ mistaken decision to call Florida so quickly came under fire from officials of the Bush campaign and some who analyze the news media.
”I was appalled,” said Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. ”These institutions have a huge responsibility; people count on them, and they made a terrible blunder.”
And some who worked on analyzing the data for the networks on election night said they had argued against calling Florida.
Christopher Achen, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, worked as a consultant on Tuesday for ABC News in its decision unit, one of those assigned the job of examining close, prominent races. Mr. Achen said he advised against calling Florida for Mr. Gore, saying that ”it had a 10- to 15-percent chance of being wrong.”
”It looked funny in a variety of ways,” he continued. ”None of us wanted to call it.”
But when other networks began calling the race, Mr. Achen said, the urgency built. ”At that point, we are under tremendous pressure,” he said. ”It’s, ‘What’s the matter with you guys? Why can’t you call this?’ ”
CNN, in the meantime, said, ”Because of problems in reporting results of the presidential race in Florida, CNN has initiated an immediate review of all procedures involved and has already begun consultation with the other news organizations.”
Truman, traveling by rail to Washington, stepped to the rear platform of the train and was handed a copy of the Tribune early edition. He had as low an opinion of the Tribune as it did of him. Truman held the paper up, and photographers preserved the moment for history.