Election night 2000 will not go down as one of the electronic media's finer moments. To be sure the fare served up by the television networks was entertaining, but only because giddy, million-dollar anchormen had to sheepishly pull their feet out of their mouths more than once during their hyped, up-to-the-minute coverage.
November is a huge ratings month for broadcasters, and no doubt planning for the main event had been in the works for months. The glitziest graphics, the most prolific pundits, the sexiest satellite remotes, and, of course, anchors with a gift for gab, were primed to bowl over the competition.
But what the network honchos overlooked in their race to get a sizable bounce in the November book was the race to be as zealous in pursuit of accuracy. The presidential campaign was an extremely close shave going into the final round. Under those circumstances one would assume caution would be the watchword of the on-air brigade.
Yet by the time the sun was rising in the east, the networks had repeatedly thrown caution to the wind.
In their haste to accommodate Americans who can't wait for anything, the networks rushed to judgment to keep viewers from changing channels. Promotions departments were poised to exploit the news organization that beat the others to the punch, the one that declared the next president of the United States and could rightly proclaim that “you heard it here first.”
But there was a weak link in the election lifeline the major networks and CNN relied upon without question. The exit polling supplied by a New York-based group, and shared by all the big media players in a cost-saving move, was inaccurate. But who knew or cared when dramatic, unexpected information was fed to newsrooms early in the game?
One by one, like dominos falling, the breathless anchors proclaimed Florida had gone to Al Gore. It hadn't. They retracted. Other retractions followed after George W. Bush was proclaimed a winner when that claim was still in dispute.
CBS' Dan Rather, with his stultifying, over-the-top verbosity, promised viewers from the beginning they could take his network's projections to the bank. Maybe you don't want to bank there.
Yes, some newspapers had early editions that jumped the gun, becoming instant collector's items, but the print media are not in the same position to stir the pot so dramatically.
The electronic media have been skating on thin ice in the public's perception for a long time, and their election night overkill at the expense of accuracy only further taints their credibility. All the whiz-bang network technology displayed by polished anchors doesn't mean squat when the breaking news rushed on air is wrong.