Eager to avoid a replay of the 2000 vote-counting debacle, the TV networks covering the race between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry found themselves in much the same situation as on election night four years ago: the hour growing late, the outcome seeming to hinge on a single state rich with electoral votes.
At 9:41 p.m. PST, Fox News called Ohio and its 20 electoral votes for Bush; NBC followed suit. But this time there was a crucial difference: The networks didn't move in a pack.
ABC, CBS and CNN all held back. And about 20 minutes later, in the crowded, chaotic CBS News control room on the West Side of Manhattan, staffers tensely stared at returns that showed a narrowing gap between the candidates in Ohio. "Be glad that we didn't call it," senior producer Dick Jefferson told his staff. At 10:14 p.m., CBS anchor Dan Rather told viewers: "We'd rather be last than be wrong here at CBS News."
Around 11 p.m., CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield explained why his network also was also reluctant to make the call: "What we're doing is trying to remember what happened four years ago — and not make that mistake again."
So it was deja vu all over again for the networks, which found election night every bit as long and unsettled as many pundits predicted it would be. Even as late as Tuesday afternoon, anchors and reporters reminded viewers how much more careful they would be about calling the race this time around. All day Tuesday, CNN featured an on-screen clock that ticked down the hours and minutes until the first polls closed in Eastern states — and, presumably, the political desk chiefs could loosen their belts and start calling winners. At one point late in the afternoon, CNN flashed a graphic with the plaintive headline: "When Will We Know?"
Memories of the 2000 election debacle shadowed the networks long before they began manning the campaign desks Tuesday. Back then, the focus centered on erroneous projections in Florida, which was called first for Al Gore, then for Bush and finally for no one, as a dramatic 36-day recount ensued.
After those serial flip-flops, caused by breakdowns in exit polls and glitches snafus in reports of real returns from key precincts, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw confessed: "We don't just have egg on our face — we have an omelet."
Some expected that Florida would keep political reporters up late once again in 2004.
But by 8:40 p.m. Tuesday, ABC News had formally projected Bush as the Florida winner, and several other networks followed suit. One notable holdout was Fox News Channel, which caught flak in 2000 for prematurely calling Florida for Bush.
Tuesday night's electoral calculus then quickly settled on Ohio, where the race was close and pundits figured Kerry must win to have any hope of grabbing the White House. Rather, in one of his characteristic homespun similes, said the contest in the Buckeye State was "hotter than a Times Square Rolex" and alluded to the importance of votes in heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County. By 9:30 p.m., Rather allowed that Kerry's chances were "not looking very good." "He must have Ohio to win," Rather said. "If Kerry loses Ohio, he's finished, say goodnight."
"Meet the Press" host Tim Russert tallied electoral votes on an electronic slate and told Brokaw — covering his last election as NBC anchor — that with Ohio in the Bush column, Kerry had virtually no chance of winning the White House.
Yet even after Fox News and NBC called the state for Bush, ABC, CNN and CBS did not immediately jump on the bandwagon.
Earlier in the day, there was an unmistakable sense that, while networks pledged not to reveal exit polling that trickled in throughout the afternoon, pundits and analysts were influenced by early data that showed encouraging results for Kerry.
But once the actual returns began coming — and in-studio electoral maps began lighting up with red, pro-Bush states — the momentum slowly shifted in the opposite direction.
The network's election night performance was being closely watched not only because of the 2000 experience, but also because of a political season marked by a series of media controversies. Among them: CBS's flawed reporting on unverified documents regarding President Bush's National Guard service and the film "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," financed by the liberal group Moveon.org, that attacked Fox News for alleged right-wing bias.
Jensen reported from New York, Anderson from Washington. Staff writers Scott Collins and Lynn Smith contributed from Los Angeles.