- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2000

The media were armed and ready last night, poised to drop the big one: the final news of victory, the moment that would bring America to a halt.

Word of George W. Bush's victory came at 2:18 a.m. But within two hours, networks changed their tune, as the Florida secretary of state promised a recount and dawn broke with the election still officially undecided.

Such genuine moments of gravitas are rare, and relished by journalists who report them.

Sometimes a little too much. In the major gaffe of the evening, CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS prematurely announced that Al Gore had picked up Florida, only to retract the call about 10 p.m. when the real numbers began proving otherwise.

Polls in most of Florida closed at 7 p.m. and the networks promptly called it for Mr. Gore.

Republican George W. Bush took umbrage.

"The networks called this thing awfully early, but the people counting the votes are coming up with a little different perspective," Mr. Bush said.

"You all called Florida before Florida had even closed its polls," Bush strategist Karl Rove told CNN, referring to Florida's Panhandle, which is on Central Standard Time and where polls close an hour later.

Bill Bennett of Empower America also scolded the network. "Come on," he said. "Get it right, guys."

The race itself got dramatic billing in print and broadcast alike called a cliffhanger, countdown, shocker, bumpy ride and frantic push, among other things.

"This is Christmas Eve for us political junkies," MSNBC's Chris Matthews said.

But there were long hours in between. At times, the press was all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Sluggish data and uncertain results made for a fitful night among broadcasters faced with hours of air time. They were game.

"This is a long, long night. The evening is young, but the election is riveting," said CNN's Judy Woodruff during the cable channel's marathon coverage, which featured 30 correspondents and endless analyses.

At times, the well-modulated voices got shrill, the phrases "too close to call" and "a real upset" bandied about by news teams on the verge of dramatic collapse.

All networks were preloaded with feel-good features, studded with hard news as it surfaced. Video vignettes and localized patriotic tableaus were bolstered with endless charts and frantic graphics in red, white and blue.

There was much cross-fertilization on the Internet.

Many print and broadcast news organizations offered electronic toys and gimmicks to Web site visitors. ABC allowed its users to "vote" on line in presidential elections of years past or compare their predictions with "experts."

But some thing went awry.

Both the Republican and Democratic party sites were hacked into by unknown culprits who added offensive content. Both sites were forced to shut down followed by accusatory tirades from spokesmen on both sides.

The Drudge Report, meanwhile, hit a traffic jam reminiscent of the 1996 election, when the Internet was called "the worldwide wait."

The site crashed altogether in late afternoon once its controversial maestro, Matt Drudge, posted a few early exit polls before voting places had closed.

Talk-radio hosts and conservative news sites picked up the slack, offering early news that Mr. Bush was ahead in several states.

The global press, meanwhile, followed the election from a cultural distance. Mr. Bush, the London Daily Telegraph observed, gave an "Austintatious show."

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at 202/636-3085 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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