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TV News Badly Embarrassed by Bad Calls


ATLANTA — They had said this was their Super Bowl, the biggest single planned event in the TV news world, and at 2:17 a.m., a group of bleary-eyed CNN news executives were staring into the end zone. The anchors had been covering the election for nine hours straight when a shout went out across the newsroom: "MSNBC's called it! MSNBC's called it!"

All eyes flashed to the nearest TV screen and tension rose in the glass-walled control room, where CNN's political director Tom Hannon and other executives bent over computers, furiously scanning voter projection data from Florida. Hannon, who had already called this race the wrong way once and changed his decision, hit the button on his mike.

"CNN's calling it for Bush," he said a minute after the MSNBC announcement. "CNN is calling the presidency for Bush." The earpiece chirped in Bernard Shaw's ear and the red "on air" light blinked on. "We have breaking news . . . ," the television anchor announced.

If there was one unforgettable image of election night 2000, it was the media's stumbling performance in projecting Al Gore to be the winner in Florida, then retracting the projection, then awarding the state--and the election--to George W. Bush and finally, amazingly, reversing itself yet again, saying the presidential race was too close to call.

Network executives, driven by intense pressures to be first with the crucial projection, said Wednesday that they were working with flawed data and did the best they could. Still, the TV news world was badly embarrassed by its performance, a feeling summed up by NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who said: "We don't just have egg on our faces. We have an omelet."

Indeed, a host of critics believes the media failed the public with their erratic predictions and also roiled the campaigns of Bush and Gore, causing them to schedule, delay and finally give up on election night appearances. Amid the confusion, Gore phoned Bush to concede the election, then withdrew his concession as the Florida vote got closer.

"This was not television's finest hour," said Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center for Media and Politics at Harvard University. "The networks were in a race to be first with projections, and they did not use common sense. When it came time to project Bush the winner, they were like lemmings cascading over the cliffs together."

The timing of the Bush victory projection was telling: Five networks made the call within four minutes of each other. Fox News Channel was first from the gate with a call at 2:16 a.m. EST. ABC was the last to do it at 2:20 a.m.

At the heart of the controversy was the network's reliance on exit polls and tabulated voting data provided by the Voter News Service, an organization that receives and then filters raw polling data from the National Election Service. The networks share these data, and in each case Tuesday night, executives say they made decisions about Florida based on numbers that, quite simply, were wrong; first giving Gore a seeming victory, and then awarding the state to Bush.

In the first instance, the networks made the faulty call based on a combination of three waves of VNS exit polling data and early returns suggesting that Gore was up by as many as 5 percentage points; in the call for Bush, news organizations relied on about 85% of the tabulated vote, which showed Bush leading in the state by a margin of about 50,000 votes.

At the time, both predictions "looked pretty solid," said Sheldon Gawiser, director of elections for NBC News. "But there's always a chance, albeit a small one, that we're going to be wrong." He explained that, in the projection for Gore, the data had too many Democratic voters to be an accurate sample. In the second case, returns indicated that Bush was piling up a hefty lead, but then the gap between him and Gore suddenly narrowed to fewer than 700 votes as ballots were tallied in some heavily Democratic areas.

In a statement, VNS officials said that, while exit polls and other data gave Gore the lead, the organization did not believe it was enough to call the race with confidence. As for the excessive numbers of Democratic voters in the VNS sample, officials said, "we will investigate why [the polling models] did not work properly in this specific situation."

"On both projections, as soon as we saw there was trouble with the data, we immediately pulled them back and told our viewers why we were doing this," said Al Ortiz, executive producer of CBS news special events. "And all of us in the news media, as it turned out, were in the same boat."

Should they have been more prudent? There were ample warning signs that the data used by the networks needed careful scrutiny, according to GOP pollster Frank Luntz. More than most states, he explained, Florida has had a huge influx of new residents since the last presidential election, and a large number of elderly people have died in that time.

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