Trying to avoid repeat of 2000 election

TV networks take steps to ensure right candidate is declared the winner

Election 2004

October 30, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Little matters more in television news than being first. Live, immediate coverage, after all, is what gives television that competitive edge when reporting daily events.

But Tuesday night, viewers will witness what amounts to a philosophical about-face: For the first time in the 56-year history of TV election coverage, the major networks and cable channels covering the presidential vote will aim not to be first.

"I think we will all be vying to be last, which is something I've never heard before," said Linda Mason, the CBS News vice president who will be in charge of declaring winners Tuesday night in the network's newsroom.

"Nobody wants to be first this time," said David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief and executive producer of CNN's election night coverage.

The profound change is a direct result of the debacle of election night 2000 when the networks and all-news channels pro- jected Al Gore the winner in Florida, only to reverse themselves later to announce that Republican candidate George W. Bush carried the state and won the presidency. That embarrassment was followed in the wee hours of the next day with the networks finally admitting that the race was too close to call.

No one in the television news business wants to find himself or herself in NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw's position of four years ago. As the veteran journalist who also serves as managing editor told viewers in 2000: "I not only have egg on my face, I have an entire omelet all over my suit."

Armed with next-generation computers, teams of numbers-crunching statisticians, battalions of attorneys, and new, rigorously tested methods of conducting exit polls, TV news executives vow that they will get it right this time. In news studios at NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox News Channel, studios have been redesigned to project an on-air image of accuracy and responsibility - and the watchwords this year are transparency and caution.

At CBS, the site at which all projections and announcements of winners are made has been dubbed the Decision Desk - and moved from a third-floor office into the first-floor news studio to ensure constant communication among producers, reporters, analysts, executives and the anchor team led by Dan Rather.

"It's a big deal to move it into the newsroom, because our newsroom is extremely crowded," Mason said. "One of our mantras is to be transparent, and what that means is that we want the viewer to understand what is going on. ... We want the viewer to be along with us. We're no longer omniscient, knowing everything. That's different from 2000."

Though it won't be on-camera, ABC News has established an Oversight Desk. Dan Merkle, director of the unit, holds a doctorate in public opinion research. He and a team of other social scientists, journalists and political analysts will "serve as a double check" on every projection and election call before it is made at the anchor desk by Peter Jennings, Merkle said.

NBC is transforming Rockefeller Center into what it calls Democracy Plaza. The landmark skating rink will serve as a giant map of the United States, with cutouts of each state (blue for Democrat John Kerry and red for Bush) put in place as it is called for a candidate. It will serve as backdrop to Brokaw, who will be doing his last election-night broadcast before retirement from a booth built on the plaza.

Beyond cosmetic measures, the network will aim for a better grasp of voting patterns by conducting absentee ballot surveys in 13 states - up from three in 2000. In response to controversies surrounding the vote count in Florida in 2000, the network has set up a Voter Alert Line and is urging viewers who notice irregularities to report them. That data will be analyzed by experts from nonpartisan organizations and universities and passed on to teams from NBC News.

At CNN, the newscast will be made from the Nasdaq stock market site in Times Square, where more than 100 screens will be used to display data flowing into the newsroom: "There are so many stories going on election night, and the board will help viewers understand them," Bohrman said.

A CNN team of legal experts led by Jeffrey Toobin will be on hand: "One of the other lessons learned from 2000 is that lawyers also matter - legal challenges can hang an election," Bohrman explained.

The cable network will also offer a 30-person on-camera Election Analysis Center: "Transparency is in vogue this year. We want viewers to be able to look over the shoulders of those folks as they analyze the results. And we want the people in the Election Analysis Center to challenge and tear apart everything that comes to us from the National Election Pool before we put any of it out on the air," Bohrman said.

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