“WHOOPS”- How the Networks Got it Wrong



                                                                                                            by    Michael Hammerschlag



The word  spread through the Democratic election headquarters like a wafting foul odor, “they’re giving Florida back”.  The celebration had already begun after stunning early news had given the monstrously important state of Florida to Gore at 7:50pm EST. Within another hour the giant key states Michigan and Pennsylvania had followed into the Gore column and the election was considered all but over. Gore needed only 1 more small undecided state to sew it up. Previously, CBS’s Dan Rather had promised to hold off till they were sure, “We would rather be last, than be wrong… if we say somebody’s carried a state you can pretty much take it to the bank.”


Well, the deposit bounced…. TWICE. First, at 10pm, after GOP strategist Karl Rove called several networks and excoriated them for calling the state early  (before the polls even closed in the Central Time Zone part of the panhandle), the networks took it back, returning FL to the undecided column, to the assembled Democrats’ horror, and returning the entire contest to a crap shoot.


What happened was a simple error in translating the exit poll data by Voters News Service, the sole company that provides instant polling data to all the networks + CNN, according to a top Democratic operative:     “What happened was that the data in from one of these larger counties was put in in reverse. When they got the data from one of these larger counties, they put Bush’s numbers in for Gore and Gore’s numbers in for Bush, so if it was a Republican county and they had Gore winning big, they said, ‘That’s it. It’s over. He won.      The VNS people got the exit polls from the county (precincts) and someone inputted it into their data base switched.” 


“That is not true,” said Lee C Shapiro, spokesperson for VNS. “There was a data entry error that was made and corrected after the time of the Gore projection and well before the time of  the second call.


VNS, in NYC,  “is a pool owned and operated by 5 networks and AP- it was formed 35 years ago to cooperate instead of compete in getting broad election info”, said Joel Albert, their DC  manager.


But wouldn’t they double check these things on such a crucial state in this crucial election? “You would think they would,” the operative (Deep Sleep) said,     “When you look at something like that and say ‘wait a minute, this is kind of weird.’ 4 people sit (at VNS) and put data in spreadsheets and it’s their job to call races: 1 person for the House- east, 1 for House- west, 1  Senate, and 1 for the President.”        The networks (CNN first) also accepted this data without question, presuming as the VNS did that a huge Gore turnout in a Republican district meant a blowout- and called Florida, (the linchpin of the whole contest) for the Veep at 7:49pm.


CBS News Communications Veep Sandy Genelius contradicted Shapiro: “In the first call (FL for Gore) we believe it was a data entry error so some incorrect data got entered in the computer (at VNS). It seemed like a safe call to make. As more data came in a small sample of the data didn’t really look like it matched up.” After Rove blasted the networks, they took a closer look at their data, and forced VNS to double check the raw data- and their screw-up was revealed. “We alerted VNS and they fixed it.”

The donkeys were sent back down into the canyon. Since it was virtually impossible for either candidate to win without Florida, it was now anybody’s contest.


At 2:17 AM, with Bush allegedly leading by 47,000 votes in FL, again shockingly early, the networks committed the second outrage: calling the state and the election for Bush. He was president. “BUSH WINS ELECTION  flashed decisively on the screen. The Gore supporters in Nashville lapsed into a morose funk, tears streaming down some’s faces, while the throngs of Bushman went berserk in front of the colored light of the Austin capital. That was the way it went as Al Gore motored to the outside rally an hour + half later in a funeral cortège for his political ambitions, called Bush and conceded, and was 1-2 minutes from taking the stage and conceding before his crushed supporters. Had that happened, it would have been morally impossible to rescind it: Bush could have screamed Gore was being dishonorable and unmanly, feeding into the endless erroneous stories about Gore’s honesty.


Then the word came in: the FL Secretary of State’s web page was showing a difference of only 2100 votes. The projections, the holy polls, taken from a small poll of exit voters, were wrong.  Still, Dan fussed and futzed, “well, we changed it once, and we’re not going to do it again”. Minutes passed as their amazement grew. Mind you, they were refusing to concede that their PROJECTIONS were less accurate than the officials state returns. Dan’s Texas roots got the best of him as he suggested Jeb might want to send in Texas Marshals to impound the ballots, “There’s got to be suggestions beginning to build that maybe somebody out there is trying to steal an election.” He instantly backtracked, “I’m not trying to suggest that it’s been stolen.” The numbers narrowed: 1700, 1500, 700, 200 !  At 4 am Rather gave up: “Somebody needs to begin explaining to me why FL has not been pulled back to the undecided category.” It was a new ball game. On ABC, normally dapper Peter Jennings was punch drunk, weaving too close to the cameras and sporadically incoherently,  “We don’t just have egg on our face, we have omelet all over our suit”.  Something stronger, Peter.


Gore, seconds from conceding his dreams on rotten information, never appeared, and waited for the mess of a mandatory recount. At that point he was behind in the total popular vote, he would go on to win it by 220,000? (10/10 3am).


I think the incredible second bad call, after the outrage of the first, was more predicated on the networks’ desire to wrap it up, to go home to sleep, to stop expensive coverage for a negligible audience;  rather than a firm belief it was the truth. It was simply too early, too close, too important. “I think that’s just they’re desire to be first”, said Deep Sleep (what happened to many after this election). Maybe, but I didn’t get that urgency- just exhaustion. Maybe they should be penalized- big time: $3 million apiece for almost hijacking the American Presidency. They called it wrong 4 times. After the first error they should have been extremely cautious- but Dan’s assurance was that of a drunk before he grabs the keys.  Even afterwards, their behavior was one of mild chagrin, not groveling humiliation or abject apology. Can’t touch us. With all the mergers, TV networks are America.


CBS Veep Genelius conceded nothing in the blown second call: “Many newspapers did the same thing…. It looked as if Bush had a very safe lead…  that margin became smaller and smaller. The data coming in took a very bizarre turn in that the gap narrowed so dramatically, so quickly. That’s highly unusual.”  What was unusual was that they apparently put more stock in their partial projections than the actual numbers. “We want to see if some of the models that have served us so well…, if they didn’t work this time around. It’s safe to say, ‘We haven’t seen anything like this before.’” No one has.


Polls have been so squirrelly, so erratic, so erroneous this election, that they threaten the very foundations of democracy. Last Fri., one poll had WA Senator Gorton ahead 50: 42%, 2 days later his opponent (RealNetworks Maria Cantwell, who had spent $10 mil of her own money) was ahead 50: 43%*  Huge shift. No, baloney. Lousy procedures, extreme extrapolation, false assumptions. In the Presidential race Gore and Bush’s respective numbers whipsawed 16-19 points in a week, two times. The truth was Bush and Gore were never more than 2 points apart in the last week, and probably never more than 6 points apart, EVER.


In fact, from the extreme daily variations in polls, it seems pollsters were deliberately accentuating shifts to make them more marketable. If the numbers changed radically every day, they could sell them again- “You have to get these new numbers”. The Gallup USA Today/CNN/et al poll was notorious for this: it was consistently way off of the others, changed radically daily; and each participant, applying their own statistical analysis (often twisted by their biases) would get numbers 4-5 points apart from the same raw numbers. They were also skewed by the small sample in doing 1-2 day polls instead of the far more reliable 5-day polls that didn’t show such absurd variations. These worthless polls became THE story, bandied about like competing Macy Day balloons, while the comically unqualified Bush’s mistakes were left unchallenged.


* Incredible, twice was not enough: in WA state, Cantwell was given the TV Sen victory Tues evening, although she was 3000 votes behind and there were 900,000 votes uncounted (half all votes are absentee) in a state with 5.8 mil total pop. At 3:18pm Wed,  MSNBC fools returned the contest to undecided, where it should have always been. They now (Thur.) say it might take 1 week to count the 600,000 ballots left (in a dead heat)- on it swings the fate of the Senate:   50/50 or 49/51 (though Lieberman’s loss or Cheney would swing it to Repub).


It’s time to pull back from this pathological reliance on polls and destructive urge to tell the news before it happens. We shouldn’t kill the messenger, unless he’s carrying lies.




Michael Hammerschlag has written media criticism for Columbia Journalism Review; commentaries for Providence Journal, Seattle Times, Honolulu Advertiser, Moscow News, Tribune, +Guardian;  and was a TV reporter and produced an 8hr documentary series on Presidential primary campaign.  His web page is at  http://mikehammer.tripod.com.