Television networks, newspaper headlines and Web sites declared George W. Bush the 43rd president of the United States on Tuesday. Then they took it back early today.
The tight race in Florida wreaked havoc with presidential projections Tuesday, prompting one of the national media's most embarrassing moments in history.
"If you're disgusted with us, frankly, I don't blame you," Dan Rather told CBS viewers at one point in the evening.
Media outlets first called Florida for Al Gore early Tuesday evening, leading most to say the vice president was a favorite to win the presidential race. But barely two hours later they changed Florida back to undecided, blaming the error on faulty exit polls.
Television news executives said the episode is evidence of the competitive pressure on media outlets to call a winner in the closest presidential contest in decades. But it also showed the fallibility of the rapid-response research that supports early projections for much of the media.
In the case of Florida, whose 25 electoral votes were considered pivotal for the tightly contested race, the networks and cable channels, led by MSNBC, dealt an early blow to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush's hopes at 4:49 p.m. PST.
The other networks quickly fell into line with that prediction as well as Associated Press and Web pages, including the site for the Miami Herald.
But the roller-coaster was just getting underway.
Bush campaign officials called the networks to blast the exit polls as suspect, saying the projection was being made too early.
Even Bush, who chose to watch the returns in private after Florida and Michigan were slated as Gore win, later couldn't help taking a whack at the networks' eagerness to call the critical state.
"There are a lot of votes still outstanding," Bush said, sitting with his parents and his wife, Laura, in Austin, Texas. "The networks called this awful early. . . . In a state like Florida, I'm going to wait until they count all the votes."
But the national press didn't.
Indeed, shortly before 7 p.m., CNN reversed itself, listing Florida as too close to call. Other networks and media outlets followed soon after.
For several hours, the results pouring in showed a razor-thin margin separating the two candidates in the Electoral College. At 11:16 p.m., the networks began calling the state for Bush, tilting the race his way, and shortly thereafter named him the president-elect.
Gore even called Bush to concede.
But for reporters paying close attention to the Web site of the Florida Secretary of State, that projection came too early. As midnight became 12:30, the networks began wavering once again.
At 12:59 a.m., CBS and NBC reversed themselves for the second time, labeling the Sunshine State "too close to call." ABC even put its top political editor on the air to explain.
Most of the television networks' projections were based on exit polls conducted by Voter News Service, a consortium of media outlets that provides the same data to subscribers.
Early on, it appeared the networks would be able to continue their record of declaring a new president before the polls in California closed. Some West Coast politicians have protested that the early projections discourage voters in their states from voting. But with the race so close, Tuesday night marked the first time since 1976 the networks couldn't name a winner by 8 p.m. PST.
The Florida flip-flop was to blame.
Sid Bedingfield, the executive vice president of CNN/US, made the decision--amid much shouting in the network's Atlanta control room--to move Florida back into the too-close-to-call category for the first time at 6:55 p.m. PST, some two hours after the networks had handed it to Gore.
Sue Binford, a spokeswoman for CNN, said that the network had called Florida prematurely because it had relied on inaccurate exit poll data. She said the initial data showed a strong Gore victory in Duval County. But when the precinct samples came in, Binford said, they didn't live up to the projection.
"That triggered us to reexamine all the data," she said. "And at that point, we didn't feel comfortable saying that Gore had won."
But later, as more precinct results trickled in, Bush's margin of victory eroded sharply. And suddenly, it was "Dewey Defeats Truman" playing out on the nation's airwaves.
The nation's TV networks and other large news organizations form an election day consortium called Voter News Service, which interviews voters nationwide as they walk out of polling booths. Beginning at 10 a.m. PST, VNS provides them with survey data.
But the networks decide among themselves how much information--from VNS and other sources--is enough to safely predict a winner. Some require more precincts to report before making a call. Others demand a candidate's lead be outside a 3-percentage-point margin of error.
The earliest release of exit poll data--hours before the polls had closed anywhere--came on the Web site of cyber-gossip Matt Drudge, who cited "campaign sources" in reporting that Gore was ahead in Michigan by 3 percentage points and that Bush was leading in Tennessee and Arkansas. Drudge's data were available before noon Pacific time, before coverage had even begun on the four major TV networks.
When the networks' marathon coverage finally began at 4 p.m. PST, it was with the anchors swearing off hasty calls and wild speculation.
"We would rather be last," Rather proclaimed on CBS, "than be wrong . . . if we say somebody's carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank."
Indeed, in an industry where edges are measured in seconds, the broadcast networks were far slower to predict state-by-state winners than their cable counterparts, particularly on the major electoral prizes.