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Prepping for a Nailbiter, Networks Pledge to Get Election Night Right

Just about all polls point to a nailbiter of an election night on Tuesday, which means that for the flood of media coverage the onus will be on making close calls rather than making maximum use of commentary.

Despite deploying new sets, unveiling all sorts of new ways to crunch results and including star anchors and reporters throughout the night, some executives say they are entering the final day knowing that getting it right will be more important than getting it first. As much as the debacle of 2000 is often cited as the example to avoid — when major news organizations called Florida for Al Gore, then for George Bush, then put it back into the tossup category — the temptation this cycle is from social media, where tidbits of misinformation have occasionally seeped into coverage as fact.

Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president at CNN, said, “Being first is not one of my goals. It is not part of my thinking. I just want to be right. It is far more important to be right than to be first.”

Echoing his sentiments was Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, vice president of CBS News: “Accuracy comes way before trying to get it first. It’s the way we carry out our news business on CBS on a regular basis.”

Cabler CNN has assembled what Feist calls an “extraordinary team of statisticians and political scientists” to monitor the results, as well as field reporting teams of 25 to 30 correspondents who are deployed in the battleground states. The emphasis is on access to people who are counting the ballots — like board of elections officials and Secretary of States offices — something that came in handy in the wee hours of the Iowa caucus vote. That was when reporters tracked down Edith Pfeffer and Carolyn Tallet, members of the GOP in Clinton County, Iowa, and went live on CNN to try to clear up a voting inconsistency that, for that night anyway, called the race for Mitt Romney.

“You can’t set a value on boots on the ground in a situation like this,” Feist says.

CNN’s coverage will be based on its new set in Washington, which was designed with election night in mind. It features two “magic walls,” one that will show exit polls and another that will show county-by-county vote data, along with “virtual studio” to present a “virtual Senate,” depicting the chamber and its balance of power. The idea is to deploy technology that are “helping to tell a story for the viewers.” “No holograms,” Feist said.

Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper will be in Washington, with Candy Crowley in Boston and Erin Burnett in Ohio, as well as John King at the magic wall, among other deployments. All told, CNN is planning 40 straight hours of live coverage.

CBS, on the other hand, will avoid the use of tech add-ons during the broadcast. “We’re not big into gadgets,” Ciprian-Matthews told Variety. “Reporting the stories and the actual coverage is much more important than the toys.”

CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Scott Pelley is slated to lead the net’s seven hours of election coverage from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. ET in Gotham, though CBS notes it is prepared to go later into the night should the race call for extended coverage. Pelley will be joined by a journo team including “Fact The Nation” anchor Bob Schieffer, “CBS This Morning” co-host Norah O’Donnell and CBS News political director John Dickerson. The broadcast network also will have correspondents reporting from battleground states throughout the night.

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