The Networks Got It Wrong
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 7:50 p.m. 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 one or two 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 10 p.m., after Bush and 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. That returned "FL" to the undecided column,
to the assembled Democrats' horror, and returning the entire contest to
a crap shoot.
problem was a simple error in translating the exit poll data by Voter News
Service, the sole company that provides instant polling data to all the
networks and 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 (sic) 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 five networks and AP — it was formed 35
years ago to cooperate instead of compete in getting broad election info,"
said Joel Albert, their D.C. manager. Wasn't it dangerous to have only
one 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 (ADA is the oldest liberal org.). A similar error had allegedly
miscalled the 1996 New Hampshire Senate race for Democrat Dick Swett, when
Bob Smith was the ultimate winner. "The TV station [Channel 9, the only
New Hampshire station] never recovered [it's credibility]," said a New
they double check these things in 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.'
Four people sit [at VNS] and put data in spreadsheets, and it's their job
to call races: one person for the House — East, one for House — West, one
for Senate, and one for the President." The networks also accepted this
data without question, presuming, as the VNS did, that a Gore majority
in a Republican district meant a blowout — and started calling Florida
(the linchpin of the whole contest) for the Veep at 7:49 p.m. 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 [Florida 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 manager Robert Phillips explains: "I called in my first report
(to VNS) at 9 p.m.: Bush 1,026, Gore 4,302 ... 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; it first reinforced
their error, then helped expose it.
Duval County had huge anomalies: 22,000 overvotes (invalidated for having
punched two candidates), more than Palm Beach (which had 69 percent more
voters), but they didn't have the butterfly ballot. They
did have a two-page ballot for president and a different one-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 percent
of the total) were in black districts voting +90 percent for Gore. In the
1996 election only 2000-4000 were tossed for overvoting (est.), so the
overvote increase was six-fold, the total voided increase
three-fold. "Statewide there were 184,000 (rejected) overvotes and undervotes
(no vote) — which is an astronomical number — some of them went outside
and were interviewed by VNS (who questioned 1,800 at 45 exit-polling stations),
and that's what skewed ... their data," theorized NE Florida Gore chairman
Mike Langton. With the 9:20 p.m. 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.
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 Florida, again shockingly
early, Fox TV (whose election coverage manager, John Ellis, is George
Bush's cousin), followed within four minutes by the other networks,
committed the second outrage: calling the state and the election for Bush.
He was president. "BUSH WINS" flashed decisively on the screen.
The Gore supporters in Nashville lapsed into a morose funk, tears streaming
down some 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
and a 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 two anointed hours, created the impression that prize rightfully
belonged to Bush; it hardened his resistance to the possibility of losing
and generated the TV questions about when Gore will concede; although with
an electoral (16), popular (~240,000 then), and likely real lead
(>5000, if a full hand recount was done) in Florida — Gore should
have worn the mantle of inevitability.]
Then the word
came in: the Florida Secretary of State's Web page was showing a difference
of only 2,100 votes. The projections of the remaining vote and even
the actual numbers 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 a.m. Rather gave up: "Somebody needs
to begin explaining to me why Florida 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 incoherent.
Brokaw intoned: "We don't just have egg on our face, we have omelet all
over our suit." Something stronger, Tom. (This same phrase was also uttered
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 540,000 (Dec 22).
by the lush Ocala National Forest, 20 miles west 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, 2813‡
extra Bush votes, and 9,880 for the Socialist Workers candidate in one
Volusia Co. precinct (#216) that had only 585 registered voters
(the SW, James Harris, got only 11,000 votes nationwide). Volusia election
supervisor Deanie 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 ... (took) out the card ... and we directly
uploaded into the computer." At 10:02 p.m., the machine dumped its corrupted
contents: +19,000 net erroneous votes for Bush into the Volusia computer.
Volusia was instantly posting their numbers on their county Web site, which
they "shut down around 11-12pm. We think.. VNS was picking it up from the
Daytona News/Journal site that had taken it off of ours," Lowe clarified
Dec 22. "The County stopped updating their web site and we were left with
the incorrect numbers till the next morning," said the News/Journal's Matt
Grimison. VNS apparently entered Volusia's wacky numbers just after 2:05
a.m. into their (and the networks) system, causing a 22,000-vote net rise
in Bush's lead. Delayed 4 hours, they must have known those numbers were
suspect since they revealed a large vote drop for Gore that should
have triggered human and computer alarms, as instantly happened in Duval
Co.. Lowe continued: "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 to Florida Election Hdqtr. around 2:50 a.m., too late
to stop the greatest broadcast error in history. Reportedly, there was
another VNS data entry error in Brevard Co. that subtracted 4000 votes
from Gore, not corrected until near 4am. A rush of Democratic votes from
Palm Beach County then brought the race to an effective tie on the Florida
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
World War Two. 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, and Ellis bragged about
his role in a magazine story.
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. Fox and NBC have said they wouldn't use
VNS again, but VNS has an enormous, professional organization- not that
easily duplicated by a network- and individual network calls may be even
more influenced by partisan passions in a group like Fox.
Press, concerned by the large unreported vote in Democratic precincts on
the Gold Coast, never called the election for Bush, despite enormous
pressure. They had an independent network of poll reporters that gave them
new results every five minutes rather than VNS's 20. Reportedly, when the
networks did, the actual votes showed Bush had an almost insurmountable
lead — but the numbers were all wrong, including a vastly underestimated
remaining vote: 100,000 — when it was actually about 280,000. A half a
million more Floridians voted this year, some for the first time.
Over a half
million largely elderly absentees normally voted in Florida; the Parties
(10:1 Republican) had also solicited tens of thousands of voters by mailing
out absentee ballot requests like candy (the alteration of which in Seminole
County became a lawsuit). These absentees, vastly underestimated by VNS,
were never surveyed in exit polls or measured in most precinct counts;
counties added them to totals at different times, many days or weeks later.
In fact, this election revealed that they are often never added
to the totals in states, unless they can change the result of an election.
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, after their
earlier gaffe, they didn't proceed with extreme caution. "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 perhaps hijacking the American
Presidency ($10 mil for Fox). They called it wrong three times.
Without the bestowed legitimacy of that last grievously mistaken call,
Republicans probably couldn't have delayed and prevented the manual recount,
and Gore would have emerged the victor. 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 two to six percentage points
across the board by Monday morning, and the last Zogby poll, consistently
the most accurate, had Gore ahead by 1-2 points November 6 and
7. Neither enormously pertinent facts were mentioned on any broadcast
I saw (three or four networks): the candidates went into election night
with Bush ahead by three to five percentage points on the networks, creating
an expectation- a pressure for his victory that may have played a part
in the second 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 by one point on November 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. November 3-4, one poll had Washington Senator Gorton
ahead 50 to 42 percent; two days later his opponent (RealNetworks' Maria
Cantwell, who had spent $10 mil of her own money) was ahead 50 to
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 two points apart in the last
week, and probably never more than six 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 two, 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 two to five points apart from the
same raw numbers. They were also skewed by the small sample in doing
one- to two-day polls instead of the far more reliable five-day polls that
didn't show such absurd variations. These worthless polls became THE story,
bandied about like competing Macy's Day balloons, while Bush's mistakes
were left unchallenged. "All of them are looking into a very foggy crystal
ball," Issacs says.
Incredibly, two historic mistakes were not enough — the damage was non-partisan:
in Washington state, Cantwell was given the TV Senate victory election
night, although she was 3,000 votes behind and there were 900,000 votes
uncounted (half all votes are absentee) out of 2.4 million total. At
3:18 p.m. on November 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,
a local station wiser and more cautious than it's parent — "pushed hard
not to call it ... and never did." Until November 21 Gorton led, but Cantwell
finished with a 1,953 vote lead. After a mandatory recount, Cantwell won
by 2,250, leaving the Senate 50-50 (Cheney's Veep-ship will swing it to
Repub, but two elderly Republican Senators could retire or die this term
in states with Dem governors).
and will happen: VNS wasn't completely at fault here — they actually have
a stellar record of accuracy. In fact, if one accepts the Miami Herald
analysis that claims Gore would have won by 23,000 if votes were tallied
properly, VNS was correct in calling FL for Gore; they never
said Bush won. The blame lies in the networks' pathological reliance on
polls and destructive urge to report 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 possibly 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.
Corrected numbers: The extra Bush votes from the Deland
computer were erroneously reported as 8642 in many papers, including here.
2000 Michael Hammerschlag
has written commentaries and articles for the Providence Journal, Seattle
Times, Honolulu Advertiser and Columbia Journalism Review. He is also a
former TV news reporter. More of his work is available on his Web
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 to 1949 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
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 [my votes] 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 do to not ask him
to say, "And that's the way it is ..." rather than his notably self-effacing,
"I'm an icon, which means I'm an old fart." Not so, Walter.
A personal note:
I used an optically-read pen-marked ballot for the first time, when I got
home I wondered, "Where were the referendum questions?" They were on the
reverse side, which I'd never seen before on a ballot, so even I