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Late call

Wary webs wait until wee hours to call election for Bush

The TV news nets were simply not going to wake up today with egg on their faces as they did after the fumbled 2000 prez race.

It wasn’t until 1 a.m. ET that NBC and Fox News both called the crucial state of Ohio for Bush, which would give him 269 electoral votes and virtually guarantee him a second term. But CNN shortly thereafter declared the Ohio vote “too close to call,” and the other newsies declined to put the president over the top.

With the mistakes of four years ago burnished on their brains, newsies continually erred on the side of caution throughout the evening and let Tuesday’s election unfold without reporting on exit polls or projecting a winner until voting had stopped in each particular state.

Unfortunately, the prudence and punditry could not make up for a lack of punch on the broadcast and cable news nets, with some anchors looking downright weary as midnight approached on the East Coast — still without a presidential winner.

The nets remained reluctant to call states in the race unless they were decisively in one column or the other, and at midnight ET ABC and CBS began calling Florida for Bush. As a result, coverage consisted of reams of analysis, with only the most cautious predictions as to which way the race might go.

At least one thing remained constant: anchor Dan Rather’s folksy CBS News commentary.

“This race is hotter than the devil’s anvil,” Rather said early in the evening.

Or: President Bush seemed to be “sweeping through the South like a big wheel through a cotton field.”

Earlier in the evening there were references on all the news nets to confidence spreading through Democratic challenger John Kerry’s camp. Around 10 p.m. ET, however, the networks began indicating that their internal exit polls were off in having given Kerry the edge in Florida and Ohio. The only difference between this year and 2000 is that those polls weren’t reported on air.

In an evening characterized by low-key coverage, a fleeting hint of drama emerged at 7:30 p.m. ET when MSNBC political host Chris Matthews teased that the cable newsie was about to project a winner in Ohio, one of the key states seemingly destined to swing the election. Upon returning from a commercial, however, Matthews said Ohio was, like several other states, simply too close to call.

Sometime after 9:30 p.m. ET, a smiling and confident President George Bush allowed camera crews into the White House, where he was gathered with his family watching the results.

“This is reality television,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw opined not long after.

It wasn’t until 6 p.m. ET that the cable news nets even began hinting at exit polling results, which were compiled by the National Election Pool (NEP), the consortium formed by the nets in the wake of the embarrassingly wrong calls of election night four years ago.

ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel and NBC News — including MSNBC — are part of the pool, along with the Associated Press.

Throughout the day, the normally gossipy news nets were tight-lipped both on the air and off about the results of the exit surveys. Although the nets exercised restraint in discussing exit poll data, the preliminary spin earlier in the day showed Kerry slightly ahead of Bush in key states.

There were two key batches of polling data, released around 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET. Numbers did quickly make their way onto Internet sites, including the Drudge Report and Wonkette, although traffic was so heavy at times it was difficult to access the info. Matt Drudge also discussed those numbers on Sean Hannity’s syndicated radio show.

Not even that prompted the ever-competitive cable news net to jump the gun. Lacking hard figures to report, the cablers were left mostly to vamp until the first round of voting closed at 7 p.m. ET, exploring potential irregularities at polling places and the high turnout levels. They also sought to reassure viewers that the miscalls of 2000 wouldn’t be repeated.

“We don’t have Georgia on our minds. We have Florida on our minds,” said analyst Jeff Greenfield of CNN, which, like its competitors, stressed that the watchword was caution.

Coverage switched gears at 7 p.m. ET, when the broadcast and cable news nets began their wall-to-wall coverage, turning primetime into a festival of spiffy graphics, electronic maps and political pundits galore. Nets also offered abundant instruction throughout the night as to why they were or were not declaring a winner in a specific state.

“We would rather be last than to be wrong. We will be very conservative as the evening goes on,” pledged Rather, who stirred the ire of conservatives for a botched news report on President Bush’s National Guard service record during the campaign.

Rather frequently used a pencil as a low-tech pointer on the electoral map. “What CBS does do is estimate who may have won in a given state. We make a projection based on a variety of information. If you want to call it a sort of knowledgeable guess, we have no argument with that.”

“It’s certainly possible that Kerry could win. And it’s certainly possible he won’t,” CNN lead election-night anchor Wolf Blitzer stated at one juncture.

NBC political pundit Tim Russert, who shared the Peacock’s main anchor booth with Tom Brokaw, dispensed with the old-fashioned chalkboard he used when things went awry on election night 2000. This time out, he was equipped with a digital chalkboard.

Across the way, NBC anchor-apparent Brian Williams — who takes over Brokaw’s chair at “Nightly News” next month — had his own booth, where his task throughout the night was to dissect the numbers.

Before the coverage began, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all reminded staffers to be extra careful in their reporting.

“Good luck tonight. Be cautious. Be fair. Don’t get out ahead of the story. Have a good time. Now that we’re number one, we have a continuing responsibility to be the best. Fortunately, we have the best team,” Fox News topper Roger Ailes said in a memo.

MSNBC said in its memo: “It may be appropriate to say ‘George Bush has a strong lead here’ or ‘John Kerry is clearly ahead here.’ But, until the polls close, we should be cautious about wording such as ‘It looks like Bush is going to win’ even if this is conventional wisdom. On-air guests should be reminded that they may not characterize a race until the polls close.”

CNN news execs offered similar instruction at a staff meeting.

If the coverage was muted in tone, it was certainly colorful in the literal sense, highlighted by NBC’s vast Rockefeller Center ice-rink map of red and blue states, as well as color-coded chart of areas where poll difficulties were reported. Brokaw shepherded NBC’s coverage from what was dubbed “Democracy Plaza.”

In addition to traditional news coverage, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” aired a live special, with a highly pro-Kerry studio audience cheering every state announced for the candidate.

At one point, Stewart quipped tartly that if you’re not careful in Florida, “The sun will tan you a deep, ineligible-to-vote brown.”

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