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Network Nightmare: How Did TV Blow the Florida Vote Twice?

Aired November 11, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The networks' nightmare: How did television blow the Florida vote twice? What was the impact of declaring George Bush the next president and taking it back? And who's to blame for this big time blunder? We'll ask Dan Rather, Sam Donaldson, and top cable executives.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb is off.

Well, joining us today are two special guests. In New York, Dan Rather, managing editor and anchor of the "CBS Evening News." And here in Washington, Sam Donaldson of ABC News. He's also the co- anchor of "This Week" with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.

We'll be joined a bit later by the two men overseeing political coverage at Fox News at CNN.

But first, a look at the wild ride on election night 2000.


KURTZ (voice-over): The evening started out on the high road.


DAN RATHER, MANAGING EDITOR AND ANCHOR, "CBS EVENING NEWS": Let's get one thing straight right from the get-go. We would rather be last in reporting returns than to be wrong.

If we say somebody has carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank, book it that that's true.


KURTZ: Just before 8 p.m. Eastern, the networks weighed in with a major announcement.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: A big call to make.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BRIAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Mr. Gore will take the state of Florida.


KURTZ: Two hours later, a very different story.


RATHER: Bulletin, Florida pulled back into the undecided column.



PETER JENNINGS, NEWS ANCHOR: There has been a change. Or we're going to make a change.



TOM BROKAW, NEWS ANCHOR: Well, the networks giveth, the networks taketh away.


KURTZ: It was the beginning of a long night.


BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Lots more to talk about. We're waiting on Florida. Stay tuned, folks.


KURTZ: Then at 2:16 a.m., what appeared to be the big moment.


HUME: Fox News projects George W. Bush the winner of the presidency of the United States based on the call we now make in the state of Florida.



COKIE ROBERTS, ABC NEWS: Here it is, what, 2:30 in the morning, so this is likely to be it. Yes.


KURTZ: But, of course, it wasn't.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RATHER: This is where we appear to be, folks. The CBS News has now for the second time tonight pulled back Florida.



SAM DONALDSON, ABC NEWS: We ought not to speculate on a Bush presidency yet. And I think you're right. Should we speculate on a Gore presidency? I mean, someone has got to be president.


KURTZ: As Americans awoke Wednesday morning, there was no president-elect in sight.


MATT LAUER, NBC NEWS: We still don't know.

KATIE COURIC, NBC NEWS: No, it is so strange, isn't it?


KURTZ: And now four days later, the media are still in overdrive.


KURTZ: Sam Donaldson, ABC and the other networks were wrong twice in the most dramatic, high-profile way imaginable, jerking the country around, and the candidates as well. How could this have happened?

DONALDSON: Well, no one is happy about it. We have egg on our face, no question about it. And, Howard, we're determined, all of us, to see that it doesn'thappen again.

It happened, the old garbage-in, garbage-out. A lot of the information coming to the Voter News Service in Florida. There were 120 precincts down there. Forty-five of them had exit polls. These were matched by the computers. The information was called into New York.

And a lot of it turned out to be wrong. And therefore, based on that,we all made our projections.

At 7:49, NBC said it's Gore. At 7:50, CNN said it's Gore. At 7:51, my friend Dan Rather said it's Gore. And at 8:02, may I just say after the polls closed -- a little promotion for us, but it doesn't help us, we were just as wrong -- ABC said it was Gore.

KURTZ: Of course, that early evening call by the networks saying that Vice President Gore had won Florida was in fact based on these exit polls. And we can argue about whether they were flawed, everybody is working off the same data. Cut to 2:00 in the morning Eastern, and everybody is calling the same state for Bush, and with it the presidency. That's not an exit poll problem. That's a problemwhere most of the vote is in. Bush has got a lead. And various political news directors say, "Well, it looks like he's got it wrapped up." How do you explain that?

DONALDSON: No, as a matter of fact, we were still depending on information, not just the raw vote, coming in from Florida. But this time, investigations believe me are underway. We're going to find out who stole our strawberries here.

But by this time, they'd rechecked information from Florida at the Voter News Service. OK, fine, now we think we've got the right data. And so based on that, we all did it again. Oops, I did it again, with apologies to Britney Spears (ph). And once again, eggon our face.

Howard, I don't think any of us is going to try to say this was OK or blame somebody else. We are determined to see that we don't do it again.

KURTZ: Sam, a lot of people out there think that the primary interest of the networks is generating their own drama, and that this whole system of let's call a state, and let's call a state 16 seconds before the other network does it has more to do with the media's appetite to be first, to be sensational, than with covering election.

After all, we could wait until after all the votes were counted. I might be less dramatic. But you'd certainly get it right.

DONALDSON: I think it has to do with being competitive. I mean, competition is what drives our capitalistic system. If you can come up with a better system, Howard, communism doesn't work, I want to listen. But at the moment, we are competitors.

My friend Dan Rather, I love him. I think he's a great man. But on the few occasions when I've had the privilege of being out in the field with him, I try to bash his head in because we're competitive. And I think that's what drives us.

And if we at ABC said tonight, "Howard Kurtz, we're going to pledge that we will never project again. We will wait until all of the vote in any state has reachedthe point where it's mathematically impossible," you would say, "Wonderful, Sam."

You would put us in the column. You say, "Congratulations, ABC." Andthe next time around, no one would watch us.

KURTZ: Because everybody else...

DONALDSON: Because the other people would be projecting. And people want to know who's winning.

KURTZ: Well, it's worth noting that the networks, or several of them, also blew the Washington state senate race, calling it for Maria Cantwell, the Democrat, and Senator Slade Gorton. And right now, Gorton has a lead. And that one is also too close to call.

DONALDSON: We never called that one, thank goodness. But we called New Mexico. And it looks like that might go south.

KURTZ: You talk about the virtues of competition and capitalism. But in a cost cutting move, all the networks got together and said, "Let's all get our exit poll data from the same place, the Voter News Service." Now, they make recommendations about calling states.

But the networks -- ABC, CBS, CNN, and so forth -- have to make their own judgments. But is it not a good system in retrospect for everybody to be relying on the same set of numbers, which may turn out to be faulty?

DONALDSON: Well, you're right. In 1989 -- it's not just the networks. As you know, over 100 organizations subscribe to the Voter News Service...

KURTZ: Associated Press, yeah.

DONALDSON: ... got together and said, "It makes no sense for us all tospend $17 million each. Let's pool it."

I think you have a point, though. When I say competition, for me to then turn around and say, "Well, of course we should all get together." For instance, I'm against pools at the White House. I'm against pools anywhere. I want us all to go out there individually and see what we can do about it.

But that was a decision made by network officials. And that's where we are.

KURTZ: What did you make, Sam Donaldson, of George W. Bush coming out after that early 8 p.m. call by the networks awarding Florida, taking it back later, to Gore, and inviting cameras in? Usually, you don't see the nominee until after the election isover, and basically saying rightly in retrospect, "I challenge this. I think these projectionsare off." Was that an interesting bit of political gamesmanship?

DONALDSON: Well, we know now that they did suspect that we were wrong. On the other hand, he wanted very much to say to the rest of the country, which was still voting, "Don't listen to those yo-yos. I mean, don't assume it's over." This was part ofa public relations campaign -- and more power to him -- to try to convince people that even ifit was right that he had lost Florida, the jig was not up. I would have done the same thing.

KURTZ: OK, well, we now have our connection with Dan Rather in New York.

Dan, you hate to be wrong. And yet we saw the video of you earlier saying that, "When CBS News calls a state, you can take it to the bank." Obviously, you had the uncomfortable task of also later taking it back twice in the case of Florida for Gore, then Florida for Bush. How could this have happened? RATHER We made a mistake. We were wrong. We were just flat wrong.

CBS News has by far the best record in the business on election nights. And statistically over the years, we've called about I think at least 20,000, probably 30,000races. And I think we've been wrong on 20. But that doesn't excuse what happened the other night.

But we were wrong. We made a mistake. We need to stand up and take the responsibility for it and to be accountable for it.

There is an explanation. It's very long and involved, which I really don't want to go through, but I think it's incumbent upon us, for people to know that we aretaking steps to do better next time. We can do better. And we should do better.

However, having said that, we've always said this is not an exact science. It's an imperfect art at best. And one of the things I think we can do better is to underscore more often with people that while we believed we were right in making these calls thatthey can be wrong.

But I want to clearly say, Howard, that we were wrong the other night. And we take the responsibility for it. We are accountable for it.

We know how it happened. And we're taking steps to make sure that it happens as little as possible in the future. But it will happen.

The answer to all of this, see, I hate these things. And I would rather walk through a furnace in a gasoline suit than be inaccurate about anything.

We need a uniform poll closing law, a 24-hour vote period, a uniform poll closing law, that will wipe out the possibility, even the possibility of this happening in the future.

KURTZ: OK, but on the point, Dan, about this happening twice, the first early calls for Gore, as I was just discussing with Sam Donaldson, was based on exit polls. Everybody got the same information, perhaps some of that data was faulty.

RATHER: Not just on exit polls.

KURTZ: Well, sure, everybody makes their own decision. But 2:15 in the morning, you're out there. And you know the importance of it. You're calling Florida for Bush, you're calling the election for Bush. And that was based largely on the fact thatmost of the vote was in, and Governor Bush appeared to have a big lead.

So how does something like that happen? And do you have any input in that decision? Or are you just being told in your ear, "Well, it's time to call it for Governor Bush."

RATHER No, at that stage, and I'm not excusing myself because I'm partof our team. And there's no such thing as "their end of the boat is sinking." But at that stage, I'm ad-libbing, and had been ad- libbing for some hours. But we have in Warren Mitoski (ph)and Dr. Kathy Frankovic (ph) two people who lead our team. And they say, "OK, we're comfortable with calling." And they call.

But again, Howie, there's no question. We never should have called itthe first time. And we certainly should not have called it the second time.

It's a mistake. How many times do we have to say it? It was an error.

KURTZ: Sam, you want to jump in?

DONALDSON: No, I was just saying that there are 120 precincts in the state of Florida that are used by the Voter News Service. Forty- five of them have the exit polling technique. But at the end of the day when the polls close, the raw vote as tabulated by the officials there come into the Voter News Service.

Now if there is a discrepancy between, as Dan says, this may be more than you want know. If there's a discrepancy between what the people have told us and how they voted in the exit polls and the raw vote, the computer makes an adjustment.

It's a fiendishly complicated thing. At the end of the day, as Dan says, we all get the same information, and we make our calls.

KURTZ: Well, the stakes sure are high. Dan Rather, do you think the first mistake, the early call of Florida for Vice President Gore, could have had some impact on the race in the sense that lots of people still voting in states to the west, western time zones...


KURTZ: ... And they're hearing you and others say, well, "First, Gore has won Florida. Then Gore has won Michigan. Gore has won Pennsylvania. It looks like an awfully good night for Al Gore."

RATHER For a long time, I thought that there might be that effect. But there have been study after study. And there is no empirical evidence, and I say no, zero,empirical evidence that it affects that vote.

But, again, Howie, I know you slid past it before. But I'm going to come back. This is my story. This is my song. There's a solution to this. And it's a uniform poll closing time. It makes good copy for newspapers, and for that matter television programs to whoop up on us pretty well. And we deserve it on the basis of what we did the other night.

But there's a solution at hand. Go to a uniform poll closing time, you don't have this problem.

KURTZ: OK, well, of course, we're not there yet. And the "New York Daily News" said, speaking of all the networks, that this kind of election night meltdown was, in their words, "a betrayal of a public trust." I wonder, how do you get the trust back? In other words, how much damage do you think has really been done to media credibility here, Dan Rather?

RATHER Well, I think some damage has been done, and justifiably so. Iwouldn't agree with the "New York Daily News," which I think credibility is the most important thing we have. Accuracy is job one.

Any time we make a mistake, and particularly when we make a big mistake such as this one, it takes a chunk out of our credibility. And it should.

I will say that I -- and I say this gently, Howie I find that our newspaper friends are very happy to jump on us about this when the fact of the matter is that frequently newspapers put this same information up on their web site. But that doesn't excuse us from anything.

KURTZ: Well, in this case, Dan, your newspaper friends also, many of them, made the same mistake not just on the web sites but in print.

I need to get a break. More of our discussion with Dan Rather and SamDonaldson, and we'll hear from top executives at CNN and Fox News in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We're talking with Dan Rather of CBS News and ABC's Sam Donaldson.

Also joining us now, Marty Ryan, the executive producer for political coverage at Fox News, and CNN Political Director Tom Hannon. NBC News declined to provide a representative for this program.

Marty Ryan, Fox was the first to call the state of Florida and the election in effect for Governor Bush at 2:16 in the morning. How did that happen?

MARTY RYAN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER FOR POLITICAL COVERAGE, FOX NEWS: Well, obviously, like all of us, we'd been tracking it all night and following the data. And we had some concerns early on about how the data was coming in. We thoughtgoing in our planning that Governor Bush would have the leg up in the state of Florida. We kind of watched that throughout the night.

So we did go with the Gore thing early on like everybody else. And like Sam mentioned in the first segment, we did it before 8:00. And that's nothing we're proud of. But as the night wore on, we felt that Governor Bush would hold the day in Florida. And allthe numbers lined up about 2:16. And we went with it.

KURTZ: OK, Tom Hannon, is there pressure on CNN when other rival networks are calling a state for Governor Bush, particularly calling the election for Governor Bush, that perhaps you'd better make a decision in the next second-and-a-half. TOM HANNON, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, CNN: Well, there's never pressure to do something you know that's wrong. I mean, if we weren't absolutely convinced at that second call after being burned on that first call in Florida was right on the money, wewould never have taken it regardless of who else was calling it.

But it's a competitive business. I mean, I'm vaguely aware, and it's really only vaguely aware, what the other networks are doing at any particular time because we're focused on the screens in front of us and trying to determine our own calls.

KURTZ: Right. Marty Ryan, given the spectacular (INAUDIBLE), should polls be scrapped?

RYAN: I don't think they should be scrapped. I think they should be greatly revised. I mean, one of the things that we want to do at Fox News is we want to take avery close look at what VNS is doing. We are very disappointed in what they did. We don't think their work was up to par. And we think something has to be done about VNS, and whether that's restructuring the way it's done, whether it's a technology issue or a sampling issue, something has to be done.

KURTZ: Tom Hannon, it's simply not realistic for a network like CNN tosay, "We'll wait on the facts. We'll wait on the vote count. We won't get out in front with projecting," particularly in a close race?

HANNON: Sure it is. I mean, that's perfectly realistic. It's realistic if we don't think we know what the answer is. But if we think we know what the answer is and we have the tools to forecast, beyond a one chance out of 200 that we're wrong, it's incumbent on us to do it I think.

KURTZ: Dan Rather, covering the aftermath of this, this bizarre aftermath of the election, what I call the post-campaign, the recount with the presidency hanging in the balance, and we're all talking about little punch cards, little holds in paper ballots. Is there any danger that television will over-dramatize what's already a tense situation? Or is this just sucha great story that there's no danger of that happening?

RATHER No, I think there's some danger that that's happening, Howie. And it some ways, it may have already happened to a certain degree. And hopefully all of us can keep that very much in mind.

It is a great story, no question about it. It's a tremendous political story. And it has the added advantage of being important. Sometimes something is interesting. But this is important. It doesn't get much more important than this.

Television is a medium. And I do not accept myself in this criticism. We tend to overuse the word crisis. We tend sometimes to over-dramatize things. There's certainly a danger.

But so far, speaking only for our own coverage, I think we've been pretty steady on the mark so far. And from what I've seen of everybody else's coverage, pretty steady and reliable coverage.

I'll tell you, what happened Tuesday night was sobering for all of us,speaking for myself, very sobering. And in this post-election period, I pick up on everybody being just a little more careful than we were before.

KURTZ: All right, Sam.

DONALDSON: Well, I've been curious about the fact that very few people, if any, have said we've over-covered the story. They said we over-covered O.J. They said we over-covered Monica.

This story, not only did more Americans come out and vote than a lot of people expected. But Americans are interested in this story. So I...

KURTZ: There's no guilt. There's no sex involved. There's no tawdry tabloid aspect. It's a presidential election.

DONALDSON: Well, that's very important. And I think Dan is right. We've got to be careful about it. But this is very important. It's hard to think that we can over-dramatize it in the way of saying, "This is very important, folks. And we're going to keep bringing it to you."

KURTZ: At the same time, Marty Ryan, I have seen on various talk shows, including some on Fox, people yelling at each other and calling each other liars as the partisans line up here to seize the jockey for advantage on behalf of Bush or Gore. Should television, does television have any responsibility to try to cool it in these situations, or is combatfine?

RYAN: Well, I think to a certain extent combat is fine. I mean, you do see some party elders coming up and saying, "It's time for calm and tempered remarks." But then again, the biggest prize in the land, at least politically, is at stake right now. SoI think it's very natural that partisans will be partisans during this time.

KURTZ: Tom Hannon, CNN's ratings on Wednesday I read were up by 500 percent. A lot of interest now, cable going wall to wall. You love this story, right? You'd like it to go on for another month or two?

HANNON: Listen, I mean does a -- I know we're focused on the media here. But there's something very important going on here. This might be the first election in a long time that's not resolved. And we've had elections in the past where issues weren't resolved. But to have an election unresolved, you've got to go back a long way, maybe to 1824. And I think there's history happening here.


KURTZ: I've got to break in here, Sam, because we're going to go right now to Bob Nichols, the Palm Beach County spokesman, in Florida.


DONALDSON: Howard...

KURTZ: ... Yeah, Sam.

DONALDSON: ... I want to see the minute-by-minutes on this program. Iwant to see whether Nichols beats Rather and Donaldson trying to wipe egg off our face.Dan, if we can't beat this guy, we should hang it up, about the chads.

KURTZ: Dan Rather, we did see an example of the pervasiveness of this story. And I'm wondering, you alluded to this earlier, whether or not given the intense public interest in this, perhaps even more than the campaign itself, whether this is a chance for journalism, which has been through so many tawdry spectacles, to kind of shine and to do some really good realtime reporting?

RATHER I absolutely agree with that. And to be steady and reliable and to make it to be clear. What we just saw in my humble opinion didn't help the clarity of this story at all. I'm confused about hanging doors, swinging doors, dimples, and what counts and what doesn't.

But accuracy, fairness, and clarity on a big story like this, that's what professional journalists get paid to do. And I quite agree with you. Here's an opportunity to show ourselves at our best. And I just hope we don't blow it.

KURTZ: Marty Ryan, when we have these constant live news conferences where people use arcane terms and reporters ask questions and the answers aren't clear, sometimes that's hard to follow. Is this sort of the electronic equivalent of watching sausage being made?

RYAN: Well, I'm not sure about that. But I think it's incumbent upon,as Dan just mentioned, that all of us journalists who are on live television, 24-hour television like Fox News and CNN, that we really work hard in explaining these things. I mean, it would be kind of funny if it wasn't so important in the fact that the presidency is at stake in a discussion like Mr. Nichols just had.

DONALDSON: You're right because we can take our time. Tomorrow morning on "This Week" on ABC, I'm going to make certain that Cokie and I explain chads in away with graphics that everybody can get it. How's that for a plug?


KURTZ: Tom Hannon, looking at the coverage of the campaign, the coverage of election night, the coverage of this amazing post campaign, are there any lessons that you've learned, things that you would do differently next time besides perhaps not making the big call the wrong way?

RATHER Well, we certainly wouldn't make the big call the wrong way. Number one, I think we need to do a better job of explaining what we do. We need to do abetter job of putting in those caveats that say, "While we have a great record for calling races,it isn't perfect. And when we call a race, we don't do it until we absolutely believe what we're telling you. But a certain amount of skepticism might be healthy for you." I think those are ways we can improve.

I also think that there's no way out of the competitive box that I cansee, Howie. I come back to once it's out there, you say, "Well, why doesn't CBS just not call races?" We don't call them until we think we know. But we're simply not perfect.


RATHER I'm embarrassed about what happened the other night. I hope itdoesn't happen again. But we can do better. And I come back to we need a uniform poll closing time.

KURTZ: OK, you're on message today, Dan. Tom Hannon, we have a few seconds. Any lessons learned from the campaign and from election night?

HANNON: Let's get the election over with first. And then we'll talk about lessons.

KURTZ: And do you have any hope that the election will be over soon?

HANNON: I'm making no more predictions in this election.

DONALDSON: That's right.


RYAN: No more calls in that you can count on the fact that Fox News will not be calling races until every poll has closed in a state we're going to call.

KURTZ: In future elections.

RYAN: In future elections.

KURTZ: OK, Dan Rather in New York; Sam Donaldson, ABC; Tom Hannon, CNN; Marty Ryan, Fox News, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again tomorrow morning for a special one hour RELIABLE SOURCESat 11 a.m. Eastern. We'll talk more about the press, the election, and campaign 2000. Among our guests, the top editors at "Time" magazine, "Newsweek," and "Slate."

Thanks for joining us. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next.



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