On the stump: onWednesday President George Bush was heading back to theWhite House
Determination not to repeat mistakes of the last election resulted in a split among the US news networks early on Wednesday morning, with all but two holding back from projecting a winner in the key state of Ohio.
Fox News, one of two organisations that wrongly called election results in 2000, predicted that Ohio would go to the Republicans at 12.41 am and NBC News followed shortly after.
“This race is all but over,” anchor Tom Brokow announced.
But an hour later the other news organisations – CBS, CNN, ABC and Associated Press – decided, on the basis of the same information, that the decision was “too close to call”.
“Given the small difference and given the provisional ballot issue, we’re just not comfortable at CNN making this call,” spokesman Judy Woodruff said, as it became clear to journalists that their hopes that this election might be tied up by the morning would not be realised.
The tone of all the election night programmes was cautious from the moment they kicked off at the close of the first polls at 7pm.
In contrast to the hyper-competitive 2000 election, the news organisations focused on accuracy, abandoning the fierce competitiveness that led to CBS first calling the election wrongly for Democrat candidate Al Gore and just hours later Fox News projecting a win for George Bush, which they then also had to retract.
CNN, with the motto “Tonight, Trust CNN” was the most cautious, calling the previously-contentious state of Florida for Bush more than 30 minutes after ABC. On election day, the networks carried news stories about steps they had taken to ensure that the debacle of four years ago was not repeated.
Fox News increased its decision team to four people and said they would only project a result if all four agreed it. Like NBC, Fox decided to put them in rooms where they couldn’t see TV monitors, although CBS News’s response was to move the decision team closer to its anchors.
CBS also said it had increased the size of its ‘projected result’ announcements to make clearer the fact that the calls were predictions.
The Voter News Service, which was disbanded in January 2001 as the news organisations set about repairing their reputations, was replaced by a new news consortium, called the National Election Poll, to provide exit poll information to ABC News, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN and Associated Press.
The networks used the data to inform their projections as the counts started coming in.
But while the news networks could at least be sure that they had not repeated the mistakes of 2000, there were concerns among networks that early exit polls they commissioned had indicated John Kerry would do better than he appeared to be faring as actual vote counts came in.
From Julie Tomlin in Washington