Great Sunday read: How the networks blew the 2000 election — twice

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David Westin, president of ABC News from 1997-2010, in forthcoming book “Exit Interview”: “Following a tradition, ABC News invited all of the candidates in for informal, off-the-record conversations in the summer and fall of 1999 … All of the candidates, including the vice president, accepted our invitation — all but one. Mr. Bush’s people said that the governor would receive us in Austin, Texas, but he would not travel to New York. So, on November 16, a small group of us, including Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson, flew to Austin to meet with Governor Bush and members of his campaign staff . After lunch with Karen Hughes at a local Tex-Mex restaurant and short meetings with Karl Rove and Joe Allbaugh (Bush’s campaign manager), we went to the Governor’s Mansion for a fifty-minute session with Bush himself. We were joined by Condoleezza Rice, then an official at Stanford University and a senior foreign policy adviser to the governor. (Rice years before had been a consultant to ABC News on foreign policy issues, working directly with Peter Jennings. Peter liked to joke that he was the one who had discovered Condoleezza Rice.)

“All of us were struck that day by how likable Bush was . He had a relaxed, friendly demeanor and seemed completely at ease. He answered all of our questions without hesitation or a hint of self- doubt. In talking about an upcoming foreign policy address that he was working on with Dr. Rice, he went into some detail about U.S. relations with Russia. When I asked whether we would be spending as much time talking about Russia if it didn’t have nuclear weapons, Bush thought for a moment and then admitted that, no, we probably wouldn’t. It was a refreshing and honest answer. I glanced across the room at Rice. If I read her reaction right, she wasn’t sure that her candidate should be quite that refreshing and honest with us.

“[On election night] at 7:55 eastern time, ABC News Radio and ABCNews.com projected that Vice President Gore would carry the state of Florida. Just after 8:00, when Peter Jennings came back on for continuing election coverage, he made the projection on the full ABC Television Network. Almost immediately, Governor Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove, began challenging the networks’ projection of a Gore win in Florida. In retrospect, Karl’s eagerness to challenge us on the record should have given me pause. But at the time, I chalked it up to partisan advocacy and went on. …

“Shortly before 10:00 , the Decision Desk called to tell me something had gone wrong and that we would have to pull back our projection in Florida and return the state to the ‘undecided’ column. … In over thirty years of election coverage, ABC News had never had to retract a projection in a presidential election. … About 2:15 in the morning, … I saw Fox News on another monitor make its projection that Florida would go for George W. Bush and declare that he would therefore become the forty- third president of the United States. Fox went straight to its prepared, elaborate graphics package with all the pomp and circumstance that attend these announcements on network television. … Almost immediately, NBC News made the same projection … After well over a year of intensive preparation, we now had been beaten by not one but two competitors. … A short time later, the control room telephone rang. It was our Decision Desk, saying that they were now comfortable making the projection. Marc Burstein, the executive producer, immediately told Peter through his earpiece; Peter broke off his discussion of Nader with [polling director] Gary [Langer] — ‘Stop please, Gary. Stop. Gary, I apologize. We’re going to make a projection now’ — and ABC News joined the others in projecting that George W. Bush would be our next president. …

“Almost immediately, Peter and Mark Halperin started to ask questions on the air about whether this thing was truly over. … At 2:30, Vice President Gore called Governor Bush to concede defeat. Clutching at straws, I was frankly relieved. If the vice president conceded, then our projections must be right. It didn’t occur to me at the time that Vice President Gore and his team were relying on our projections … At 2:48 a.m., Bush’s lead dropped dramatically. At the time, we didn’t know why; weeks later we’d learn that someone working for the County of Volusia had made a clerical error, giving Bush credit for thousands of votes that he shouldn’t have had. … Shortly after 4:00 a.m., Bill Daley, Gore’s campaign manager, came out to address the crowd gathered in Nashville. Instead of conceding defeat, Daley said the race wasn’t over.

“By this time, it was clear to everyone – to Peter, to those of us in the control room, and to our audience- that our projection of Florida going for Bush wasn’t supported by the facts. He might ultimately win, but we didn’t have enough information to predict that with confidence. As Peter put it, ‘Let’s get back to Florida because in the interest of sobriety, if nothing else, we are going to take Florida back into the too-close-to-call column. So we now have our second major switch of the night . . . this is astonishing.’ … [A]s I got in my car to drive home to Bronxville, all I knew was that I was exhausted and embarrassed- and that we had a very big problem on our hands. After showering and changing, I was back in the office within an hour. We had blown it -big-time — and I needed to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong. In the words of our competitor Tom Brokaw, ‘We don’t just have egg on our face, we’ve got omelet all over our suits.'”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.