It was the most important election, we were told, of our lifetimes. And as we anxiously watched the news anchors on Tuesday evening, they watched the exit polls with just as much anticipation. But unlike 2000, when the networks barged through the night to a premature declaration of victory for Gore, this time the watchword was caution. Bob sizes up the real-time coverage and assesses the lessons learned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. When election night coverage began Tuesday, there may have been some uncertainty about the presidency, but on television one thing was sure: while voting places in a given state remained open, prognostication took a holiday. [TAPE STARTS]
WOLF BLITZER: This time around, we have made a decision that we'll wait for every single precinct to shut down in the state before we go ahead and project any winners. [TAPE ENDS] [TAPE STARTS]
JEFF GREENFIELD: We don't have "George on our minds," like the great Ray Charles said. We've got Florida on our minds -- 2000. [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, yes. The debacle of 2000, and the premature call of Florida and the presidency decisively to Al Gore. The abuse of exit poll analysis was appalling -- like watching a junkie O.D., and about as surprising. Of course TV networks surrendered to the vanity of revealing their special, special knowledge. Of course they succumbed to the competitive pressure to be first calling a key state. Of course they couldn't bear the frustration of holding back actual data, while desperate anchors and pundit blowhards vamped for their lives. But after Election 2000, the watchword was restraint. This time all the networks wanted us to know -- I swear, man, I'm off the junk. And this time I mean it. [TAPE STARTS]
CHRIS MATTHEWS: We don't even have a result in New Hampshire yet, much less do we have results in the Midwest yet. It's, it's not incompetence on anybody's part; it's caution. [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: Yet, through the early coverage, there was this strange sense emerging that the people on TV knew something really important that they just couldn't say aloud -- at least, not directly. [TAPE STARTS]
CNN REPORTER: There is a quiet confidence here, among the Kerry staff. They're not hysterical, but there's a quiet confidence that he is going to pull this thing out. [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: An easy observation to make, when you and the Kerry campaign have seen the exit poll figures indicating Kerry has cleaned the president's clock. For all the rhetoric about caution, incomplete exit poll data once again were informing the coverage. And once again, the early data were misleading. But then, in mid-evening, the coyness was displaced by explicit analysis, leading to a very different conclusion. [TAPE STARTS]
LISA MEYERS: Potentially significant development here. Bush campaign officials say they've been comparing the actual voting returns that have come in from the states against the exit polls, and they claim that the votes that are coming in are much better for Bush than the exit polls have been. [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: Which, of course, turned out to be exactly the situation. But the networks stuck to their promise, stubbornly declining to state the obvious, even when, in the case of ABC, their scrupulousness began to border on self-parody. [TAPE STARTS]
PETER JENNINGS: Do you believe that the Kerry campaign is conceding Ohio? Because we've not -- [LAUGHS] hate to put you in an embarrassing position here -- we've not projected Ohio.
DEAN REYNOLDS/KERRY CAMPAIGN HQ: No, but everybody else has, and I think they can watch television as well as everybody else. [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: As it turned out, the best analysis Tuesday came in the form of the usual folksy Dan Rather-isms. The race was indeed "hotter than the devil's anvil," and CBS was "on the actual returns like white on rice." But mostly, Dan was right about this: [TAPE STARTS]
DAN RATHER: George Bush is sweeping through the South like a big wheel through a delta cottonfield- [TAPE ENDS]
BOB GARFIELD: And the heartland too. And most particularly, no matter what the exit polls said, the red, un-gay-wed State of Ohio. [MUSIC]
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