- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2000

Anyone nonplussed by the evident delight with which much of the media met the wrenching developments of Election Night may find themselves pondering the disturbing role the electronic media in particular have come play in American elections. As exciting as agitating as a close contest is, it is not the game the media seem to think it is. "This is as good as it gets," may be the view from an imagined ringside seat, but not from the vantage point of a citizenry struggling to grasp an election outcome still in doubt.

While the presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush couldn't be closer (note to networks: please, no more "tighter than a tick's … " homespun-isms), it is the media themselves that have created the more excruciating elements of the limbo the country now inhabits. Without the disastrous rush to "call" Florida for the Gore campaign early on before polls in the Florida Panhandle, which occupies a different time-zone from the rest of the state, had closed the nation would have been spared the shock of seeing the electoral fortunes of both candidates swing back, then forth, before ending up in the suspended animation of the moment.

As an impassioned William Bennett said on CNN, "This should not happen." But Florida-for-Gore, of course, wasn't the only media stumble. After MSNBC led the network pack at 7:49 p.m. (E.S.T.) in calling Florida's 25 pivotal electoral votes for the vice president, CNN decided a little more than two hours later to withdraw the prediction "amid much shouting in the network's Atlanta control room," according to the Los Angeles Times. The rest of the networks followed suit. In the interim, Americans across the political spectrum had run an emotional roller coaster from elation to despair or vice versa.

Then, shortly before 2:30 a.m., the networks declared Florida and the presidency for Mr. Bush, only to retract this projection again and the presidency 80 minutes later. Before this ultimate retraction, Mr. Gore actually conceded the race in a telephone call to Mr. Bush only to retract his concession as the Florida race once more appeared too close to call.

What does all this mean? The centrality of a single state in a presidential election is almost unique in the annals of American history. But given the evident closeness of this particular national contest tight as a tick doing something or other, so they say the networks were reckless not to take great pains to ensure that their projections were wise and safe before going with such dramatic, and dramatically bad, calls. (Note that this cataclysmic misinformation was coming from some of the same media mavens who like to hammer Matt Drudge.) The fact is, by calling Florida for Mr. Gore who, at the same time, was racking up key battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan it is quite likely that the networks had a significant dampening impact on voters out West and in the Central and Mountain states who believed a Gore victory was imminent.

But there is another terrible consequence of the media's recklessness. Due to the network blunders, both candidates, along with their followers, had the transforming, if fleeting, experience of believing that they had won the highest office in the land. What bitterness that remains after the outcome is settled may be all that much deeper for the media's careless gamesmanship.

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