Show of caution

Networks, cable channels for the most part hold off on early projections as their Web sites take greater risks

Media

Maryland Votes 2006 -- A Special Section

November 08, 2006|By David Zurawik and Nick Madigan | David Zurawik and Nick Madigan,SUN REPORTERS

With a host of very close races and the embarrassment of premature calls in 2000 and 2004 still fresh in viewers' minds, networks and major cable channels began reporting the midterm elections last night with great caution.

But that did not ultimately deter some of them from projecting winners such as Benjamin L. Cardin in the Maryland race for U.S. senator on the basis of exit polls - a process that has caused problems in the past.

Early in the evening, with the TV audience all to themselves as the polls began to close, cable channels CNN, MSNBC and Fox not only held off on any major projections, they qualified virtually every number presented.

A typical moment came at 8 p.m. as vote totals in the hotly contested Senate race in Virginia showed Democrat James Webb nosing ahead of Republican George Allen. It looked like just the kind of horse-race development that an anchor or analyst could use to inject some dramatic movement into an otherwise static situation.

But CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer stopped such an approach in its tracks: "A word of caution: We don't know what part of the state of Virginia that 23 percent is from. ... And that's a state in which things can vary widely, so it's a mistake to make too much of it at this point."

Nothing on cable could compete with the depth of CNN, which seemed to have correspondents everywhere, two teams of analysts and three of the stronger anchors in Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and Lou Dobbs. CNN was the first to project Cardin's victory in Maryland, doing so at 9:20 p.m. with less than 10 percent of the vote tallied.

On network TV, ABC got a jump on the competition by changing its schedule to begin coverage at 9:30 p.m. The half-hour edge made a difference, as the projections started coming faster in the wake of CNN's call for Cardin.

ABC anchorman Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, the network's chief Washington correspondent, presided with a sure-handed ease - even as the network played catch-up with projections and vote totals made by cable channels and posted on its own Web site.

The class of the network field was NBC, with anchorman Brian Williams joined by chief Washington correspondent Tim Russert, adding savvy analysis, and former anchorman Tom Brokaw, providing tempered perspective.

One of the primary reasons that the networks and cable channels could show more caution than in 2004 was the recent emergence of their Web sites - venues in which they were taking greater risks last night.

About 8:30 p.m., while its parent network was showing an episode of the action drama NCIS, CBSNews.com predicted: "When all the votes are counted, Democrat Bob Casey will have defeated Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, and Democrat Sherrod Brown will beat Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in Ohio - two big pickups for the Democrats."

A half-hour later, when Katie Couric came on screen with an election update, she made no mention of those races. Instead, she went with two safe results, both wins for Democratic incumbents - Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York and Robert Menendez in New Jersey.

Confusion rather than caution marked coverage at WMAR, Baltimore's ABC affiliate - where it wasn't clear whether the station was making one of the biggest calls of the night.

About 9:40 p.m., anchors Brian Wood and Mary Beth Marsden broke into the network's coverage to report that Martin O'Malley had won the governor's race. Then in a live feed from O'Malley headquarters, reporter Jenny Glick suggested that, although some of the mayor's campaign workers were "tipping back some beers" in celebration, it might be too early to call the race.

david.zurawik@baltun.com nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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