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    Michael Hammerschlag                        W R I T I N G S                    401-884-1311     

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“WHOOPS”- How the Networks Got it Wrong

                                                                     Vers. 14  3300 wd

          PROBLEM   POLLING   POLICY                       

                                                                                                            by    Michael Hammerschlag

 

 

The word  wafted through the Democratic election night party like a 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 key states Michigan and Pennsylvania had followed into the Gore column and the election was considered all but over. Gore needed only 1 or 2 more small undecided states 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 excoriated the networks 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.

 

The first problem 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 who knows their operations intimately:   “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 (Tampa probably), 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. However, she also implied there were more errors.

 

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. Wasn’t it dangerous to have only 1 source? “That allows them to concentrate their efforts,” Joel says, by way of circular reasoning. “There are no checks and balances.. it means they all make the same mistakes,” says Americans for Democratic Action head Amy Issacs (the oldest liberal org.). A similar error had allegedly miscalled the 1996 NH Senate race for Democrat Dick Sweat, when Bob Smith was the ultimate winner. “The TV station (Ch 9, the only NH station) never recovered (it’s credibility),” said a NH reporter.

 

But wouldn’t they double-check these things on such a crucial state in this crucial election? “You would think they would,” the operative 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 for Senate, and 1 for the President.”    The networks (Fox first) also accepted this data without question, presuming as the VNS did, that a Gore majority in a Republican district meant a blowout- and called Florida, (the linchpin of the whole contest) for the Veep at 7:49pm. The early call could have caused some Bush or Gore voters in Western states to not vote or  make a ‘safe’ vote for Nader, thinking the contest was already decided (though I’m skeptical of that theory). “We can eliminate the possibility of such errors and give the West Coast a fair shot, free of the knowledge of how the rest of the country went,” says broadcasting eminence Walter Cronkite, “by a change in the election reporting laws to limit the announcement of how any state goes until all states have voted.”

 

CBS News Communications Veep Sandy Genelius confirmed the swapped numbers scenario and 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.”

 

“Duval County (Jacksonville)  was the county that there was trouble with- data coming over and not being right,” claimed CBS polling surveyor Jennifer Depinto.  Duval Elections Operations Mngr Robert Phillips explains: “I called in my first report (to VNS)  at 9pm: Bush 1026, Gore 4302… and I think what they did was add another 3 on the end so they had 43,023,”  a 39,000 vote error. No one at VNS noticed the 42-fold difference until Phillips made his next report. “It wouldn’t accept my report because it said I had a vote drop!” This all happened after the bad call for Gore, but it reinforced their error.

 

Republican controlled Duval Co. had huge anomalies: 22,000 overvotes (punched 2 candidates + invalidated), more than Palm Beach (which had 69% more voters), but they didn’t have the butterfly ballot.  They did have a 2-page ballot for Pres. and a different 1-page sample ballot that said “VOTE EVERY PAGE”, which Dem “get out the vote” workers dutifully repeated to new voters.  Half the 27,000 voided ballots (9% of total) were in black districts voting +90% for Gore. In the 1996 election only 2-4000 were tossed for overvoting (est.), so the overvote increase was  6 ½ fold, the total voided increase 3 ½ times. “Statewide there were 184,000 (rejected) overvotes and undervotes (no vote)- which is an astronomical #- some of them went outside and were interviewed by VNS (who questioned 1800 at 45 exit polling stations), and that’s what skewed ..their data”, theorized NE Florida Gore chairman Mike Langton. With the 9:20 Duval report the mistake was discovered and an urgent e-mail flashed from VNS to the networks: “We’re canceling the vote from county 16. The vote is strange.  With that shock added to the swapped totals, VNS had lost confidence in their Gore prediction. Starting at 9:50, the networks threw Florida back into the undecided pool.

 

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

 

At 2:16 AM, with Bush leading by a supposed 47,000 votes in FL, again shockingly early, Fox TV (whose election coverage mngr, John Ellis, is George Bush’s cousin), followed within 4 minutes by the other 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 Bushmen went wild in front of the swirling colored lights of the Austin capital. That was the way it went as Al Gore called Bush and conceded, motored to the outside rally an hour + half later in a funeral cortège for his political ambitions, 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. “It would have been exceedingly difficult (for Gore to retract a public concession),” says  Cronkite. [[Even now that blown call, those 2 anointed hours, is what allows George W Bush to act President-elect being briefed by his cabinet; it has hardened his resistance to the possibility of losing, and generates the TV questions about when Gore will concede; although with an electoral (16), popular (~240,000), and likely real lead (>2000, if a full hand recount is done) in Florida- Gore should wear the mantle of inevitability.]]

 

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”. WHAT! Minutes passed as their amazement grew. Mind you, they were refusing to concede that their PROJECTIONS were less accurate than the official 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. The numbers narrowed: 1700, 1500, 700, 270 !  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 well behind in the total popular vote, he would go on to win it by ~290,000?

 

Meanwhile, hard by the lush Ocala Nat. Forest, 20 mi. W of Daytona in Deland, a silver battery-powered credit-card sized memory card in an Election System AccuVote 2000 optical ballot scanning machine had lost its mind, recording negative 16,022 Gore votes, 8642 extra Bush votes, and ~9888 for the Socialist Workers candidate in one Volusia Co. precinct (216)  that had only 585 voters (the SW, James Harris, got only 11,000 votes nationwide). Volusia election supervisor Deannie Lowe recited, “Our county attorney came to me and said, ‘I just saw the craziest thing: Gore’s total went backward!I said ‘You’re tired, you’re not seeing it right, that’s impossible’.”  The Deland machine  “didn’t upload (over phone lines) so they brought the whole machine into the office + we directly uploaded into the computer.” Around 10:10pm, the machine dumped its corrupted contents: +25,000 net erroneous votes for Bush into the Florida total. “We discovered what the problem was; after they (the manufacturers in Dallas) walked us through the process, we fed the ballots through a different machine, we then hand counted them.. we backed out the bad figures..and.. put in the good figures” and transmitted the corrected results around 3:15 am, too late to stop the greatest broadcast error in history.

Washington Post reports:  Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said: "The notion that you'd have the (first) cousin of one presidential candidate . . . in a position to call a state is unthinkable. Fox's call precipitated all the other networks' calls. That call--wrong, unnecessary, misguided, foolish--has helped create a sense that this election went to Bush, was pulled back and he is waiting to be restored." The monkey see--monkey do style of pack press coverage had finally provoked a disaster. John W. Ellis IV hadn’t just called it early; he was in constant phone contact with Jeb (Ellis Bush) and George W. discussing developments. He was so partisan in his distaste for Clinton/Gore that he’d resigned from writing columns for the Boston Globe, stating “I am loyal to my cousin, Gov. George Bush. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone outside my immediate family.”  The president of  Fox News, Roger Ailes, is a longtime Bush and Republican political strategist: Fox  reportedly has a distinctly right-wing bent. It was as if CNN had sent Mussolini to cover WW2. Cronkite is distressed by the conflict of interest, “I find it hard to understand. ..We have to recognize that the (Rupert) Murdoch interests were particularly strong for Bush.” Incredibly, Murdoch defended Ellis, even his chat line antics with his cousins.

I think the incredible second bad call, after the outrage of the first, was almost more predicated on the networks’ desire to wrap it up, to go home to sleep, to stop expensive coverage for a small audience;  rather than an absolute belief it was the truth. It was simply too early, too close, too important, too uncertain. After Fox jumped the gun, the lemmings roared over the cliff, an ultimate example of the risks of pack reporting. “I think that’s just their desire to be first”, said the Dem operative.  Cronkite explained: “When any one of the competing networks makes a call,.. there is considerable pressure on decision desks to do something, do something, and they’re inclined to yield to others’ opinions…They’ve been sitting there biting their nails, just about to make that call --when the other person makes it, they pile on.”  VNS never called the election for Bush, that was the networks’ call, according to Cronkite. “The networks are trying to put the onus on VNS, which is a mistake.”  Dan Rather did say on Imus, with breathtaking hypocrisy, that “VNS should be plowed under with salt.” VNS is the networks’ baby. Only Associated Press, concerned by the large unreported vote in Democratic precincts, never called the election for Bush. Reportedly, when the networks did, the actual votes showed Bush had an almost insurmountable lead- but the numbers were all wrong, including an overestimated remaining vote.

 

CBS Veep Genelius Friday conceded nothing in the blown second call: “Many newspapers did the same thing (blaming the cart for the horse)…. 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.

 

 Maybe they should be penalized- big time: $3 million apiece for almost hijacking the American Presidency ($10 mil for Fox). They called it wrong 3 times. After the first error they should have been extremely cautious- but Dan’s early assurance was that of a drunk before he grabs the keys and peels out.  “Most children learn the stove is hot the first time they touch it,” says ADA’s Issacs acidly. Even afterwards, their behavior was one of mild chagrin, not groveling humiliation or abject apology. Rather even said that the candidates had to be tough to play in this league. Can’t touch us. With all the mergers, TV networks are America. Louisiana GOP Rep. Billy Tauzin plans investigating network malfeasance in the election night debacle, though his focus is a bizarre conspiracy to delay reporting Bush wins, when the most striking thing about the election map was the vast sea of red. Most networks have announced investigations; to their credit, CBS included Annenberg School of Communication head Kathleen Hall Jamison.

 

But there was another egregious error the networks made. In a careful reading of news accounts it was obvious that Gore was surging 2-6% points across the board by Monday morning, and the last Zogby poll, consistently the most accurate- had Gore ahead by 1-2 points Nov 6th and 7th. Neither enormously pertinent facts were mentioned on any broadcast I saw (3-4 networks) - the candidates went into election night with Bush ahead by 3-5% points on the networks, creating an expectation- a pressure for his victory that may have played a part in the 2nd blown call. It’s likely this “shift” was the numbers returning to where they always really were… or it may have been reaction to Bush’s drunk driving conviction and attempts to hide it. “Anything that flew in the face of conventional wisdom.. they ignored,” criticized Issacs. CBS’s poll had Gore ahead 1% Nov 7, according to their Web site and pollsters, but I never saw it mentioned on the air.

 

Polls have been so squirrelly, so erratic, so erroneous this election, that they threaten the electoral process. Nov 3-4th, 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, bad numbers. 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!!  Issacs thinks flaky coverage drove the polls: (The networks said) “Bush was up, we had to knock him down, Gore went up, we knocked him down, we got them even… let’s play up Nader.” Cronkite is more forgiving: “This race… is so close that I don’t doubt that there was shifting back and forth.. within a day or 2, with every development of the campaign.”

 

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 2-5 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 Bush’s mistakes were left unchallenged. “All of them are looking into a very foggy crystal ball,” Issacs says.

 

* Incredible, two historic mistakes were not enough - the damage was non-partisan: in Wa state, Cantwell was given the TV  Senate victory election night, although she was 3000 votes behind and there were 900,000 votes uncounted (half all votes are absentee) out of 2.4 million total. At 3:18pm Nov 8,  MSNBC wizards returned the contest to undecided, where it should have always been. “It was clearly a rush to judgment,” griped Gorton spokeswoman Heidi Kelly. “Our NBC affiliate (KING-5 Seattle) pushed hard not to call it… and never did.”- a local station wiser and more cautious than it’s parent. Until Nov 21 Gorton led,  but Cantwell finished with a 1953 vote lead- after a mandatory recount Cantwell won by 2250, leaving the Senate 50/50 or 49/51 (Lieberman’s loss or Cheney Veepship would swing it to Repub, but 2 elderly Republican Senators could retire or die this term in states with Dem Gov.).

 

Mistakes can and will happen- VNS wasn’t really at fault here (they actually have a stellar record of accuracy), but the networks’ pathological reliance on polls and destructive urge to tell the news before it happens. Television networks have a moral, journalistic, and perhaps legal obligation to wait and get it right when it comes to changing the will of the people. “Let’s get off this unseemly haste,” implores Cronkite. This insidious policy of hiring hard-core partisans as reporters, analysts or hosts (or election night supervisors) should be curtailed. We shouldn’t kill the messenger, unless he’s carrying lies.

Copyright © 2000    Michael Hammerschlag

 

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 a documentary series on the Presidential primary campaign.  His web page is at   http://mikehammer.tripod.com.

This article was produced with the cooperation of reporters from the Daytona Beach News/Journal and the Jacksonville Times/Union.

 

Optional

Author’s Note:   Walter Cronkite, 84, is still sharp and active: lecturing, writing, and doing specials for Discovery.  We got to chatting about our time in Russia- he was there from 1946-49 as UPI chief during the worst period of the Cold War, when foreigners were routinely disappeared in the mass murders; while I was there at the best time in the last 1000 years- 1991-94, when the people were intoxicated with the collapse of the Communist party, loved Americans, and a penny was worth a dollar. "We were frightened that we might be thrown in the Lubyanka any day... One of our number was charged with espionage – he was turned in by his secretary who they arrested and co-opted and, Oh boy, we were very concerned we all were going to get picked up."

Cronkite is worried about the lasting effects of the Florida foul-ups, “People must look with considerable skepticism on their own voting procedures… I thought about my own vote. My gosh, did I pull that lever correctly, did I punch the right buttons on that thing, and if I did, were they counted? It places a serious impediment on people’s confidence in their democracy. The very base of it is people’s right to have their vote cast and counted.”

                 He still has that famous rich gravelly baritone voice that for 45 years was the sound of truth to Americans; it was all I could to not ask him to say "And that's the way it is..", but is notably self-effacing, "I'm an icon,  which means I'm an old fart." Not so, Walter.