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Examining Election Night

Terence Smith talks with network news anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather about upcoming Congressional hearings on their 2000 election night coverage.

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  • TOM BROKAW:

    Good evening. I'm Tom Brokaw in New York. It's been a long campaign. It appears it will be a long and exciting evening.

  • DAN RATHER:

    We could be in for a long night.

  • PETER JENNINGS:

    In many ways this will be an unusually interesting election night.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And unusually interesting it turned out to be.

  • PETER JENNINGS:

    Mr. Gore has won in Florida.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    With seeming certainty the networks called the state of Florida for Vice President Al Gore just before 8 o'clock Eastern Time, November 7, about ten minutes before the polls closed in the panhandle region of the state. But later in the evening, Gore's apparent Florida victory, and his prospects for the presidency, were taken away.

  • DAN RATHER:

    But we've just pulled back the big 25 from Florida.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Then, after 2:00 a.m. on November 8, Governor Bush was projected the winner of Florida and, thereby, the presidency.

  • TOM BROKAW:

    George Bush is the President-elect of the United States. He has won the state of Florida, according to our projections.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    But that victory, too, proved short-lived. Yet again, around 4:00 a.m., the contest was declared too close to call. It would remain so for five weeks. Tomorrow, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin, will conduct a hearing examining the election night conduct of the commercial broadcast and cable networks and their jointly operated exit polling consortium, the Voter News Service. Recently, the NewsHour sat down with the anchors of the three commercial broadcast network evening news programs to reflect on election night and to look ahead to the hearing.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    When you look back — you've got a few weeks now to look back at what happened on election night. What happened?

  • TOM BROKAW:

    The simple answer, and it's not a dodge, is garbage in, garbage out.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Bad numbers.

  • TOM BROKAW:

    Bad numbers. The precincts had changed in their characteristics. Al Gore trailing the president-elect in the state that proved to be pivotal by 565 votes.

  • TOM BROKAW:

    565 votes.

  • RUSSERT:

    And there are some votes….

  • TOM BROKAW:

    That's not even a wide spot in the road.

  • RUSSERT:

    There are still some votes that have not been counted.

  • TOM BROKAW:

    And there's still votes to be counted because we're at 99…. Broward and Palm Beach are the uncounted votes. What if this goes the other way?

  • TOM BROKAW:

    Was there a rush to judgment? Probably.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Competitive pressure?

  • TOM BROKAW:

    No, no, I really don't think so. I mean, I don't think that our guys, the computer wizards who make these calls are saying, CBS has done it, I've got to do it because they know what the risk is when they put themselves out there. In the past some have gone faster and others have gone slower. I've been on both ends of the occasion.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    This time Fox was first and three others followed within four minutes.

  • TOM BROKAW:

    I wasn't aware of that. I didn't know that Fox had gone first. We were more worried, as I was talking to our guys who were making the calls, about Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin. They seemed to be tougher calls that night. And it was because the Florida data were so wrong, frankly. And I don't think that we did a sufficient job in explaining to the audience, when we say project, what does that mean — it's a best estimate. We think they're going to win. And generally in the past, we've had kind of set phrases that we would use every time, and we didn't have them this time. I did it kind of out of memory, a couple of times, but not enough.

    As to the business that there was some kind of a conspiracy to suppress votes in the panhandle and that kind of thing, it's worth noting that when we made the projection for Florida, there were 11 minutes left in the panhandle for people to vote, and five to six percent, I think, of the precincts were still open. That means for us to have real suppression of vote there, that all over the interstates and county roads of the panhandle people had to be putting on their brakes and doing u-turns and heading home. I don't think that was going on. You also had a very hot Senate race going on down there that people had real motivation to get to the polls. But, you know, look, it's the congressman's absolute prerogative to have these hearings and to examine it. One of the things you can say about television is that when we make a mistake, everyone knows about it, and we almost instantly apologize for it. We're right there, as we were that night, both times. And as I said, we just didn't have egg on our face, we had a whole omelet on our suits that night.

  • PETER JENNINGS:

    We are now able to make the projection in the state of Florida. ABC News projects that Al Gore wins state of Florida and its 25 electoral votes. Give him the first big state momentum of the evening.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What conclusions have you drawn?

  • PETER JENNINGS:

    Well, the conclusion is a fairly simple one. We made an honest mistake, I thought the first time, based on…on computer modalities and information which had served us so well over the years that we've become all together too accustomed to it, and we made a mistake.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    In calling it for Gore.

  • PETER JENNINGS:

    In calling it for Gore. We made a colossal mistake the second time, under the pressure of competition.

  • PETER JENNINGS:

    (November 8, 2000, 2:20 a.m.) ABC News is now going to project that Florida now goes to Mr. Bush.

  • PETER JENNINGS:

    I'm very glad in my shop that David Westin, the president, has taken a very strong lead in isolating all of our decision makers and analysts for the next election from any possibility of competitive pressure. They'll be in a dark room without any… without any television sets. And of course, we'll re-look, and we in fact have hired an outside organization to re-look at all of our computer models, so that we will not have to sing 'I'm sorry' one more time.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    And to those who would… those in Congress or anywhere else, who would try to impose restrictions, who might propose legislation prohibiting networks, let's say, from projecting winners until all the polls are closed, something like that, what would you say?

  • PETER JENNINGS:

    Well, I'd be happy to have my boss speak to the political issue of that, but it would be an interesting news story, would it not be, if a politician in the United States tried to legislate freedom of speech and information in the country? It would be a great story.

  • DAN RATHER:

    (CBS News, November 7, 2000, 10:00 p.m.) Bulletin: Florida pulled back into the undecided column. Computer and data problem. One of the CBS News election night headlines of the hour. This knockdown, drag out battle drags on into the night. And turn the lights down, the party just got wilder.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    What do you think as you look back on it? What went wrong and what should be different?

  • DAN RATHER:

    Well, first, we made mistakes, and we need to be accountable and responsible for those mistakes. We need to explain the people, and I think we have, we've certainly tried to explain what happened, how it happened, why it happened and what steps we're taking to do the best we can to keep it from happening again. Having said that, I want to make sure that people understand that I've been in the business long enough to know we can't do it perfectly. There is no way to do it perfectly. We can do it better. We called some places too soon on election night. We did not say often enough– well, we did say, but not often enough, "Look, these are our estimates. We think they're valid, but you have to take them as estimates, and nothing is certain until the votes are counted." We didn't say that often enough.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Should you not project?

  • DAN RATHER:

    No, not as long as things are…

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Should you not use exit polls?

  • DAN RATHER:

    No. It's a moot point, quite honestly, because competitively this isn't going to happen. And I think, frankly, it's a waste of time to discuss it under the current situation now. It's wisdom, exit polls are going to be used. The government couldn't, if it tried, and I don't think it's going to try, pass a law saying you can't. The First Amendment is there. The question is, how better and more responsibly can we handle those polls? And we're working on it and working hard on it. I want to say this about election night: That while we made a lot of mistakes, I'm not sure that our mistakes are the most important mistakes made election night. The most important question about election night is, how do we get an election as close to perfection, in terms of people casting their votes and getting their votes counted? That's the key thing. Now, the Constitution guarantees free elections. It doesn't guarantee perfect elections. We know we can't get them. But I fear that not a lot of people in Congress are going to listen to that.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Yeah.

  • DAN RATHER:

    It's easy to beat up on us, and particularly when we deserve it. So we'll get a public caning, and we probably deserve it.

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