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Too close to call in Florida but TV did -- regretfully

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


It was supposed to be the moment of truth -- at least, for those of us watching election returns on TV in Florida.

Nearly an hour after polls closed in the state Tuesday night, TV outlets locally and nationwide -- led by NBC News -- predicted Vice President Al Gore would win Florida's 25 electoral votes over rival George W. Bush.

It was a prediction they would come to regret, as broadcasters recanted projections of a Gore victory two hours later, citing "suspect data" from some Florida precincts.

It was a vivid illustration of just how close the presidential race would play out on television.

"We know less than we knew three hours ago," said analyst Darryl Paulson, a professor at the University of South Florida, speaking on Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 just after 10 p.m. Tuesday. "The world's been turned upside down again."

"We're going to end this night the way we started -- looking at Florida," said Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, speaking during CBS' election coverage.

As one of the closest presidential elections in recent history played out on air, viewers likely were drowning in all the information available Tuesday night -- with live reports available on the four major TV networks, seven 24-hour cable news channels, both area PBS stations and online.

The currency of the moment: exit polling and projection figures, allowing early prediction of who would take important electoral races through out the night.

NBC and cable channel MSNBC emerged as the most aggressive in presenting poll projections, often crediting wins in various states before other channels, scratching out electoral projections in red pen on a small, white tablet.

"It's as unpredictable now as it was two weeks ago," crowed NBC Washington bureau chief and Meet the Press host Tim Russert early on. "We still don't know who is going to be the next president."

CBS was adamant about holding back on electoral projections, with anchor Dan Rather regularly repeating the network's attitude that "we would rather be last than be wrong. If we've said somebody carried a state, you can pretty much book it. . . . It's true."

Rather, buoyed by high-profile help from 60 Minutes correspondents Ed Bradley, Leslie Stahl and Mike Wallace, wound up admitting hours later that CBS and the other networks did get it wrong, undercutting a previously colorful observation that Bush's lead was "shakier than cafeteria jello."

ABC news anchor Peter Jennings had trouble getting it straight that Gore was projected to win Florida early on. (He wasn't alone; NBC anchor Tom Brokaw also initially said that Bill McCollum had won Florida's open U.S. Senate seat before quickly correcting himself).

Locally, both cable news channel Bay News 9 and CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 used exit-polling figures to shed greater light on local voting trends -- with WTSP noting, for instance, that Florida's projected U.S. Senate winner, Bill Nelson, received more of the black vote than rival Willie Logan, who is black.

Area ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 and Bay News 9 also read commentary from viewers posted on their Web sites, noting the evolution of public opinion as the result rolled out.

Most of the networks and cable news channels kept running totals of the electoral count based on their projections -- numbers that sometimes varied significantly across outlets, depending on how aggressively they were interpreting figures.

Online, several Web sites leaked early reports on exit poll information, with Inside.com predicting Gore victories in Florida and Michigan (among other states) by 4 p.m.

Though the changing information made reliable forecasts difficult, some TV journalists relished the close race, anyway.

"This is Christmas Eve for us political junkies," MSNBC's Chris Matthews said before any polls closed. "It certainly beats the Oscars. It beats the World Series."

- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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