US TV news opted to be safe, not sorry, in covering the election results.
Facing numerous races that CBS’ Dan Rather termed ”tighter than a Botox smile,” the networks pledged not to repeat the errors of two years ago in calling winners.
Then, just before polls closed, they were left without expected exit poll data when Voter News Service withheld its analysis of voter attitudes as unreliable. The networks redeclared their caution.
“Tonight,” said MSNBC’s Jerry Nachman, “will be a race to see who can be first to be second” in reporting each race.
It was quite a change from past election nights, when networks scrambled to beat one another in projecting winners by even a matter of minutes – then bragged about it.
“Those days are over and that’s good,” Nachman said. ”Who cares?”
Viewers heard CNN explain its policy of not making projections based exclusively on exit-poll calls provided by VNS. Instead, the network waited for early ballot counts from both VNS and its own backup force dispatched to sample precincts in 10 key states.
At 2.25am Irish time, Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume reported that The Associated Press declared Republican Elizabeth Dole the winner in the North Carolina Senate race - but said his network wasn’t yet ready to call that contest.
And at 3.15am Irish time, ABC’s Peter Jennings reported that former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles had conceded to Dole. At that point, ABC still had not decided to call the race.
But CNN and MSNBC wasted no time making their first calls at 12am today: the re-election of Senator Mitchell McConnell as well as Senator John Warner who had no Democratic competition.
And at 1.20am Irish time CNN projected the winner in a closely watched race: the re-election of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of President George Bush, over Democrat Bill McBride.
Through the evening, correspondents took pains to explain the mission of VNS (an election-analysis consortium consisting of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and the AP). They tried – some with more success than others – to fill viewers in on what had gone awry.