Networks' Crystal Ball Fails Them

Wednesday, November 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — TV networks declared George W. Bush the president-elect, then took it back during a bizarre night of election coverage that left everyone, including newscasters, flabbergasted.

Newspapers across the country didn't have it any easier. They pushed back deadlines, slowed press runs and planned extra editions. But with the presidential race coming down to the wire and deadlines looming, many papers went to bed — prematurely declaring Bush the winner, even as Florida's crucial votes were still being counted.

``Bush Wins!'' the bold red headline screamed from the New York Post.

``BUSH TRIUMPHS,'' was across the front of The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

After holding out most of the night, The New York Times' Web site around 3 a.m. finally declared: ``Bush Captures the White House.'' About an hour later, the Times' site rolled back and declared the race ``tight.''

The Times said it released about 100,000 newspapers saying Bush ``appears to have won.''

The Associated Press did not declare a winner early Wednesday, despite TV network projections.

In Chicago, both papers hedged their bets. The Sun-Times avoided the subject with the lead headline, ``Hillary Wins,'' and the Tribune said, ``As close as it gets.''

It was eerily reminiscent of the Chicago Daily Tribune's infamous 1948 gaffe, ``Dewey Defeats Truman.'' Except this time, even Gore himself conceded defeat — giving Bush a congratulatory telephone call. He later called back to retract the concession.

``We stopped the presses, and pulled back just about all of them,'' said Matthew V. Storin, editor of The Boston Globe, which ran the early headline: ``It's Bush in a Tight One.'' ``We had about 20,000 either on trucks or around the (loading) dock. We pulled back just about all, but there's no way to be absolutely sure.''

The only things that seemed sure: a recount in Florida and a political night no one would ever forget.

``I hope it will be two-out-of-three and not three-out-of-five,'' CBS anchor Dan Rather said in a wry reference to the networks' twice-retracted call for the winner of the pivotal Florida race — first giving it to Al Gore, then to Bush, before returning the state to the undecided column.

On Tuesday night, the AP had called Gore the winner in Florida but then said it was too close to call. The initial projection was based on surveys by Voter News Service of voters leaving polling places. VNS conducted the interviews for the AP and five television networks.

``By midnight we knew Florida was going to deliver the presidency to one candidate or the other, and when our TV partners called the state for Bush, the vote was in his favor,'' said AP Executive Editor Jon Wolman. ``We saw that, too, but we also saw that some significant Democratic precincts were still being tallied, and our vote-count experts felt strongly that it was too close to call.''

With Florida still in doubt, the next president remained undetermined as the sun rose Wednesday.

``We're not absolutely sure quite what to do next,'' ABC anchor Peter Jennings confessed at 4 a.m. EST.

Katie Couric opened NBC's ``Today'' show at 7 a.m., ``Good morning. We do not have a winner.''

It already had been a nailbiter when, shortly after 2:15 a.m. EST, the networks declared Bush the winner in Florida — and thus the nation. But by 3:30 a.m. EST, Brokaw continued to wonder aloud if Florida, where candidates were separated by only a few hundred votes, was truly a lock for Bush.

``That would be something if the networks managed to blow it twice in one night,'' he said. Soon after that, all the networks declared Florida too close to call.

Playing out for viewers as a genuine whodunit, this was edge-of-your-seat suspense that Hollywood couldn't have improved upon.

As the evening began, Florida stood as a key state for Bush. But at close to 8 p.m. EST, the AP and television networks forecast Gore the winner of its 25 electoral votes.

With this early score by Gore, Rather soon was calling Bush's national prospects ``shakier than cafeteria Jell-O.'' ABC's political commentator George Stephanopoulos noted that Gore in the White House would pre-empt a presidential bid in four years by New York Senator-elect Hillary Clinton (whose own victory wasn't even clinched yet).

But two hours later, Bush appeared on TV screens saying he wasn't giving up Florida. By 9:55 p.m. EST, CNN had taken back its projection that Gore had won the state. CBS quickly followed, then NBC.

``If you're disgusted with us, frankly, I don't blame you,'' Rather told viewers. Over on CNN, anchor Judy Woodruff turned to her colleagues and said, ``Could you pass the crow?''

Just before ABC signed off its coverage around 5 a.m., viewers got one final unexpected sight: A studio light burst into flame, then was extinguished by a staffer. Jennings barely missed a beat.

It was that kind of night.