The networks’ mistaken early calls Election Night that Al Gore — and later George W. Bush — had won Florida were due in part to flawed exit polls in the Tampa area and a “significant computer error” in Volusia County’s election agency, CBS’ news chief told Congress.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward said in a letter to Rep. Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Commerce Committee’s telecommunications panel, that his network’s initial call for Gore at 7:50 p.m. ET on Nov. 7 was based on Voter News Service exit polls and actual vote data, interpreted through tested statistical models.
But at about 9:20 p.m., Heyward said in the letter released today, CBS found that exit poll results in the Tampa area had overstated Gore’s lead and that tabulated votes in Duval County were probably wrong. That call was retracted at 9:54 p.m.
When the networks then erroneously called Florida for George W. Bush a few hours later, Heyward said, “another series of confusions took place — including what at this juncture appears to be a very significant computer error made by the Volusia County Elections Department — which led to another series of bad calls by the television networks and newspapers across the nation.”
That mistake has been traced to a faulty government computer disk.
Tauzin, R-La., is investigating what led to the early election calls, how they affected voter turnout where the polls were still open and whether any inherent biases were involved, partisan or otherwise. Tauzin, planning congressional hearings in January, today released responses from the networks and The Associated Press to a series of questions he has asked in preparation.
‘We Were as Good as the Information’
CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN and The AP make up the consortium that uses Voter News Service exit polls and actual results to project election results. The AP never called Florida for Bush but did give, and then retract, the state’s critical 25 electoral votes to Gore earlier in the night.
Although Tauzin received responses from all six news organizations, Heyward went into the most detail about what led to the mistaken early Florida calls. He said the matter will be thoroughly reviewed by a three-person panel headed by Linda Mason, CBS’ vice president of public affairs.
“We were as good as the information we were getting from sources we trusted,” Heyward said. “In this case, that information was not good, and neither were we.”
Journalists Investigating Themselves
Top executives at ABC, CNN, Fox and NBC also said they had begun intensive internal examinations of what went wrong and assured Tauzin of their future cooperation. VNS is also conducting an investigation.
CNN Chairman Tom Johnson stressed that “there was no intentional bias in the Election Night reporting” at his network.
“Nothing is more upsetting than to make an incorrect projection,” added Robert C. Wright, NBC’s president and chief executive officer. “We’re in the midst of a top to bottom review of Election Night procedures,” said Kerry Marash, vice president of Editorial Quality, ABCNEWS.
Tauzin has indicated it may be time to update a 1985 agreement between Congress and the networks on when races should be called so all of a state’s polls would have to be closed, not just most of them.
On that point, CBS’ Heyward noted that in Florida “it would be extremely difficult to argue any impact on turnout” because all but 5.8 percent of the state’s precincts were closed when the call for Gore came at 7:50 p.m. ET — and the rest closed 10 minutes later.
Republicans have complained that the initial Florida call for Gore might have depressed voter turnout in California and elsewhere, tipping the balance in close House races and helping Gore to a lead in the national popular vote.
Meanwhile, the senior Democrat on the Commerce Committee, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, has complained to Tauzin that no Democrats have been involved in the investigation. Of particular interest, he said, is the presence at Fox of a Bush cousin in a position to influence when the network called state results.
“If the work of this committee on this important inquiry is to have credibility, bipartisan cooperation is necessary,” Dingell said.
The Associated Press and ABCNEWS contributed to this report