The mainstream electronic media, still bruised from making bad calls in the 2000 election, ceded the dirty work to the new kid yesterday, allowing Internet news sites and Web logs to rule political reporting for much of the day - for better or worse.
By early afternoon, online bloggers had started listing early, and sometimes questionable, exit poll information that showed Kerry leading Bush in the three key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. And by early evening, before most polls closed and the networks resumed reporting, a few blogs and news Web sites were calling the race for Kerry.
"Naturally, we don't want to jump any guns here. Oh sure we do ... A certain high ranking former republican senator called Karl Rove around 5:15 this evening. Bush's brain sounded `dejected' and gave less than a 30% chance for a Bush win," said a 6:40 p.m. posting on Wonkette.com.
The bloggers were filling a void left by news outlets reluctant to speculate, though much of their information was based on rumors or postings of their peers, causing some others concern.
They are "putting up exit polls and things like that, and they're based on almost nothing," said Ann Althouse, a blogger and law professor from Madison, Wis. "They seem to want to affect things in bizarre ways. What the good bloggers, the reasonable bloggers, are trying to do is keep mainstream media honest."
Still, political Web loggers played a solid role this election season. They helped raise millions for early Democratic favorite Howard Dean and were the first to question the validity of documents leaked to CBS' Dan Rather about President Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam War.
"I think mainstream media should feel threatened," said Andrew Nachison, director of the Media Center, a Reston, Va.-based think tank. "What we're seeing is ordinary citizens exerting a new level of power to participate in political discourse in a way that was never available to them before"
Traffic on some blogs was so heavy that it slowed the Internet and caused speculation of virus attacks. But traffic was up on all online news sites as voting day neared, said comScore Networks, which measures Web traffic.
Part of the popularity of the Internet for election news can be explained by the fact that for a daytime audience eager for news, it has become a first option.
"The Internet becomes a worker's lifeline to the outside world," said Graham Mudd, spokesman for comScore Networks. "Many don't have TVs in their office; flipping through a newspaper is a little obvious - and not all that up to date."
Traditional news outlets seem to have adopted an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude. For yesterday's coverage, those that could snapped up available bloggers, positioning them in command centers, in front of cameras and keeping them running for their ringing telephones in an effort to tap into their take on the news.
NBC set up a cadre of bloggers - including Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox - near its election headquarters, and ABC kept Kevin Drum, who blogs for The Washington Monthly, on its contact list. MSNBC had earlier hired Howard Dean's former campaign manager to blog about the election.
There are advantages for both sides. Online, out of the mainstream, bloggers don't have to be objective or politically correct. Many are making money selling ad space or, like Drum, taking paying jobs with other news media. The networks win because they can blame bloggers as the source of information when it's not accurate.
"Our role is just to mouth off; it's a great job," said Drum. But the notion of bloggers driving election coverage was not a comforting one.
"In a way, it's the ultimate in navel-gazing," Drum said. "The bloggers all read the media, and the media call bloggers to find out what they're reading."
An Election Day sampling of observations from Web logs and Internet news sites:
"There is a bogus batch of exit polling numbers, supposedly released by what used to be the [Voter News Service], showing Kerry winning several key states. Don't feel bad about being suckered. They fooled Drudge and apparently K-LO at National Review. But they are absurd on the face. Republican sources say Pennsylvania is tied, these reports say Dems are leading by TWENTY points."
- www.freerepublic.com, 12:03 p.m.
"The early exit polling in 2000 did not favor Bush at all. I remember coming home from class in 2000 and discovering that Bush was "toast" in the big states ... and that he was putting together a `small state strategy' for victory. Well ... we all know how that one worked out."
- www.jaycost.blogspot.com, 2:11 p.m.
"Not sure whether this will hold up throughout the day, of course. Those huge margins for Kerry in Pennsylvania and Minnesota look way out of line to me. But we'll see. A Kerry landslide? Could be. Could be."
- www.andrewsullivan.com, 2:31 p.m.