Jumping the Gun - Again

At 1:40 a.m., Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, told CNN, “I would suggest to you that if the number of votes that make up the difference between the two candidates is fewer than the number of provisional ballots, then I would say, everybody should take a deep breath and relax, because we’re not going to start counting those ballots until the eleventh day after this election.” Asked to estimate how many provisional ballots had been cast, Blackwell hedged, saying he thought it was under 200,000, but that it “could be” as many as 250,000 as Democrats has suggested.

Evidently, Fox News and NBC didn’t bother to do the basic reporting one would hope that networks projecting a critical state would do. At 12:41 a.m., Fox News Channel called Ohio for Bush, saying it was based on tabulations and some math suggesting there weren’t enough potential Kerry votes out there to close the gap. At 1:00 a.m., NBC and MSNBC followed suit, putting Ohio in the “red” column. Moments later, along with other networks, they called Alaska for Bush, giving him 269 electoral votes — good enough for at least a tie (which, given the results suggesting a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and that the House would pick a president in the event of a tie, is effectively a Bush win).

Given what happened in 2000, we can’t begin to fathom what went into the decision-making process of the networks that called Ohio. Why go out on a limb and make the call that early? What is possibly gained by picking a winner when so much uncertainty exists?

We can only guess that Fox and NBC fell prey to the temptation of the scoop, rushing to judgment. (CNN put Ohio in a new category: the “green” state. Wolf Blitzer explained the network was projecting it as “too close to call,” based on the unknown number of provisional ballots still out there.)

Yet NBC and Fox apparently became a little gun-shy as the night wore on into the morning. As of 3:30 a.m., neither had called any additional states for Bush, which would have forced them to declare him the winner (despite already having effectively done so since Bush would win an Electoral College tie). If the decision to call Ohio was inexcusable, the decision not to call any additional states was inexplicable, given that New Mexico, with nearly all the returns in, showed a five percentage-point lead for Bush, and USA Today had already called Nevada for Bush — far beyond the two-percent lead Bush held in Ohio.

And so we’re left with the same media spectacle we got in 2000: An election too close to call, media outlets so excited they can’t contain themselves, and viewers losing faith in both.

Bryan Keefer, Brian Montopoli, and Thomas Lang

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.