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Calling the Race

November 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BROKAW, NBC News Anchor: It appears it will be a long and exciting evening.

TERENCE SMITH: Election Day 2000 gave way to a long and mortifying evening for broadcast network and cable news organizations.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC News Anchor: Mr. Gore has won in Florida.

TERENCE SMITH: Gore’s apparent Florida and presidential victory lasted two hours.

DAN RATHER, CBS News Anchor: But we’ve just pulled back the big 25 from Florida.

TERENCE SMITH: Then, after 2:00 A.M. on Nov. 8…

TOM BROKAW: George Bush is the president elect of the United States.

TERENCE SMITH: But around 4:00 A.M., the contest was again declared “too close to call,” and would remain so for five weeks. The debacle of that election night has lingered within the news divisions, and many changes are in store this year. Looking back at the fallout from 2000, NBC’s Tom Brokaw spoke to the NewsHour two months after the election. What happened?

TOM BROKAW (Jan 2001): The simple answer, and it’s not a dodge, is garbage in/garbage out.

TERENCE SMITH: Bad numbers?

TOM BROKAW: Bad numbers. Was there a rush to judgment? Probably. As I said, we just didn’t have egg on our face, we had a whole omelet on our suits that night.

TERENCE SMITH: In February 2001, the news division presidents were called before a House committee that examined the election night miscues during a sometimes fiery hearing.

ROGER AILES, President, Fox News Channel (February 2001): I am further disappointed that this committee views its role as adversarial, requiring us to take an oath as if we have something to hide. We do not. With or without the swearing in photo-op, we will hide nothing.

TERENCE SMITH: The performance of the exit polling consortium operated by the networks and the Associated Press, called the Voter News Service, was also questioned. It was the source of the bad data used to call the race incorrectly. The AP never projected a winner on election night.

A revamped and retooled VNS was supposed to conduct exit polling for the midterm elections in 2002, as a trial run for this year. But it suffered a software meltdown that prevented it from collecting data in 44 states.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC/MSNBC News: Remember how you and I were going to be talking about exit polling tonight? Well, not so fast. It’s more like we’re using mid-1960s’ technology tonight. And so to sum up, if you liked Johnson/Goldwater, you’ll love this evening…

TERENCE SMITH: After that failure, the networks and the AP decided, in effect, to cut their losses and disband VNS. This year, the networks have formed a new cooperative effort, the National Election Pool, that will help them project races. They have also added safeguards to lessen the chance of erroneous calls.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now to discuss this year’s coverage are: Linda Mason, the CBS News vice president overseeing that network’s decision desk; and Bill Wheatley, NBC’s executive in charge of election night coverage; and Mike Silverman, the managing editor of the Associated Press. Welcome to all three of you.

Linda Mason, what’s going to be different this year to avoid the problems of four years ago?

LINDA MASON: Well, among other things, we’re going to… our motto is transparency. We’re going to share with the viewer everything we’re doing. On our decision desk we’re going to have a correspondent, Mika Brzezinski, who is going to explain how the decision desk works and how we use exit polls and how we use sample precincts. We’ll come back to her during the evening if there are problems, or to explain how our decisions are made or not made.

Our graphics are much clearer. It says “CBS News estimates.” We don’t declare a winner. That’s done by the secretary of state after they’ve… of each state after they’ve validated the votes, and that can take almost a week. We estimate the winner. And that’s going to be clear. Our models have been reworked to take into account the enormous amount of absentee and early voting that’s going on today.

In 2000, the absentee ballots in Florida were not treated properly, and that was one of the things wrong with the model. So… and with the new system that you talked about in the opening, which has been running through the primaries, we’re very satisfied that it’s going to work smoothly election night.

TERENCE SMITH: Bill Wheatley, what about NBC, how will it be different from four years ago, and perhaps different from the approach CBS is taking?

BILL WHEATLEY: Well, I heard the tape that you played of Tom Brokaw’s now- famous remarks about having omelet on his suit. And I can tell you that we’re not ordering any omelets this year, Terry. We’ve worked hard to upgrade and reform our various systems, much as CBS has just described.

In addition to all the improvements on the information side, in terms of the new and improved computer models and equipment, we’re putting a lot more effort into human reporting in terms of having correspondents in all of the battleground states to give us the very latest from those locations.

And I think it’s fair to say that we’re committed to showing an extra degree of caution this time. Given what happened in 2000, given some of the imponderables in this race, in the year 2004, we are just going to be extraordinarily careful about the information we put on the air, and what conclusions that we draw from it.

TERENCE SMITH: Mike Silverman, what about the AP, how will it be different for you this year?

MIKE SILVERMAN: Well, the main difference, Terry, is that for this election AP will be the sole source for the real-time vote collection and tabulation on election night. As you noted, in 2000 in Florida the voter news service was not only doing the exit polling, but they had their own vote-count system which ran parallel to ours. And we think that it was the strength of the AP’s system then that prevented us from making that erroneous call for Bush late, late in the night.

The networks, I think, have turned to us because of the strength of the AP system, which has been in existence for decades. In fact, we started counting the vote in 1848, the year of our founding. Because we’re the only game in town this year, we have taken a number of steps to improve the system and shore it up. And we’re confident, but we know that the networks and the world are looking to us for a good count.

TERENCE SMITH: And Mike Silverman, you’ve deployed, I gather, a huge number of stringers and people around the country?

MIKE SILVERMAN: Well, that’s what you have to do. We all have a stringer at every county election center in the country. That’s about 5,000. And they will be phoning in throughout the night as the results are released. They’ll be calling in to networks of clerks who will enter the votes on computer screens. And that’s how they get sped to the networks and newspapers and Web sites and radio stations.

TERENCE SMITH: Linda Mason, just to make clear, you will still have exit polls, I gather. And will you still project winners in states when it becomes clear and you’re satisfied by that? Will you still project a winner of the overall race?

LINDA MASON: Absolutely. What’s different is what Bill mentioned, that we’re going to be extra cautious. But exit polls are a wonderful tool for finding out what America is thinking at this moment. It helps us to explain the vote, why people voted as they did. It gives context to the election and helps us to analyze what happened.

These exit polls, combined with sample precincts and other figures, allow us to make projections. In some… as you know, Terry, there will be from eight to twelve states that will be very close. And the other states are rather easy to call in contrast. And so we will be estimating those outcomes. If we hit 270, if anybody gets to 270, we’re certainly going to estimate the president.

But as it’s been looking in the past few days, if there are some states that are very close, we’re going to not only have a long night, but we might have a longer period of time. For instance, in 2000, New Mexico was taken by Gore with 366 votes; and Florida by Bush with a little over 520-some votes.

And if that was the case in a state where there was conflict, we’d have to wait until all the absentee and early votes were counted and all the challenges were settled, and that could go on for a long time. So it’s going to be a very exciting evening. You’re not going to know which is going to happen.

TERENCE SMITH: Yeah. Bill Wheatley, this is obviously a very competitive business you’re in. What are you going to do with your decision desk which in past years conceivably could have been influenced by what the competition was doing?

BILL WHEATLEY: Well, this year we’re going to isolate the decision desk not from all the information that it could use to come up with its analysis and potential projections, but we’re going to isolate it from learning what other networks have done. It’s really an abundance of caution because we don’t believe that the decision desk in the past has been influenced by other projections. Nevertheless, rather than take any chance on that, the people who make the projection decisions will not know what the other networks have done.

TERENCE SMITH: Linda Mason, how is CBS going to handle that issue, the question of competitive pressure and what the others are doing?

LINDA MASON: We brought our decision desk back into the studio. In 2000, the decision operation was conducted in an office two floors above the studio. And when I did the report on what happened in 2000, I read the transcript and Dan and Ed Bradley and Byron Pits were talking about the problems in Florida, and we broke in to announce Bush. I felt that if the decision desk was in the newsroom, we’d have a sense that something was happening in Florida, and before we announced our decision, maybe we would have taken this into effect… into account.

So we brought the decision desk back into the newsroom. It’s been very effective in 2002 and the primaries. In the newsroom there are monitors, but the decision people… the analysts are so busy looking at all the data coming on their screens, so they won’t have a chance to take a look. And as to pressure, that’s not quite right. We, and I don’t think any of my competitors, would ever estimate an election if we didn’t have the facts and figures to back us up.

TERENCE SMITH: Mike Silverman, there are this year more early voting and more states, more absentee ballots in some of these close states. It could be a factor. How do you deal with that?

MIKE SILVERMAN: Well, we have people in every state who have been spending the last several weeks collecting as much information as they can about the numbers of absentee ballots that have been sent for, that have been returned, the early vote. We did a story the other day that 11 percent of the voting population has already voted. And another 11 percent say they plan to vote before Election Day.

In addition, there will be an untold number of provisional ballots cast on Election Day because of the new federal law. And many of those won’t be counted for up to ten days or so after the election. Again, we’ll be working very hard to try to get a fix on the number of those. And that will all be factored into the vote count and what’s missing from the vote count on election night.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Linda Mason, Bill Wheatley, Mike Silverman, thank you all very much.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, in our special election coverage tomorrow night, we will be keeping tabs on, and reporting, the individual networks’ projections, in addition those of the Associated Press.