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A Look at Media's Coverage of Election Night 2002

Aired November 9, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Flying blind, the networks covering election with no exit polls. Was the long night an improvement? Why did so many pundits say the Democrats were likely to hold the Senate? Did they underestimate the power of President Bush? And why is everyone in journalism now beating up on Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle and Terry McAuliffe?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

It was a long night for the networks as they struggled to cover the election after their multimillion-dollar exit poll system melted down on deadline.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's taking us a long time in some of these races.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Caution is the watchword here.

KURTZ (voice-over): No one wanted a repeat of the Florida fiasco when the networks called the state for Al Gore, then for George Bush, then threw up their hands. So when the Voter News Service pulled the plug on its computers, television's talking heads were more or less left with raw results and no way in the early hours to project which party would control the House or the Senate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will not rely on the exit polling. We will just wait until they have counted enough votes.

KURTZ: So the anchors and correspondents were cautious as the night wore on. In some races, candidates were declaring victory or conceding defeat before the network projections were made. When President Bush made a congratulatory call to his brother, Jeb, some networks still hadn't declared him the winner in the Florida governor's race. But there was still plenty of chatter, not all of it borne out by the results.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But from the national strategists, and I'm talking into both parties, they are very bullish about Bowles.

KURTZ: Bowles was soundly beaten by Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, but some networks were even more aggressive about making projections.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CBS News estimates Republicans will control -- retain control of the House.

KURTZ: By midnight, with many races still up in the air, viewers had to look for subtle clues that the Democrats were having a bad night. It wasn't until after 2:00 in the morning that CNN, for example, was able to project that Republicans would regain control of the Senate.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Terence Smith, media correspondent for "The NewsHour" on PBS; Judy Woodruff, the host of CNN's "INSIDE POLITICS." She co-anchored the network's Election Night coverage; and Dan Balz, national political correspondent for "The Washington Post."

Judy Woodruff, it's Election Night, you're live, you had hours and a lot of races to do, and you've got no exit polls. Was it frustrating?

JUDY WOODRUFF, HOST, CNN'S INSIDE POLITICS: Well, you know, we were -- I will say we were surprised, Howard, when we found out about 5:00 in the afternoon that we weren't going to have any exit polls. On the other hand, this was a story that had been building. We had about a dozen or more close governors' races. We had 10 or 12 close Senate races. We had a few House races. So we had what we thought was the makings of a great story. We didn't know which way it was going to turn out.

KURTZ: And that's the point. Was it strange to be reporting, for example, that some candidates were declaring victory or getting congratulatory calls and yet, CNN could not project the winners because you didn't have those kinds of...

WOODRUFF: Well, there were moments. I will confess I had a computer right next to me, and I was getting computer messages from John King at the White House saying the president has just called Jeb Bush or the president has just called so and so to congratulate -- and we were still waiting to make our projections because we wanted to be very careful.

KURTZ: Suddenly the White House is faster than television. Dan Balz, you're writing a lead story for the paper on deadline on Election Night. How do you write it? How do you characterize it with no polls, exit polls that enable you to at least sort of lean one way or the other.

DAN BALZ, NATL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: Howie, I'm not sure that the absence of the exit polls for us would have made that much of a difference in part because we knew, as Judy said, that there were going to be a lot of close races. And that exit polls and close races aren't very good for projecting a winner. We figured that these races ultimately were going to have to be called by the votes themselves. So what you knew in the middle editions of the paper was that if you could begin to see a trend, you would try to point to that, and we did at one point say, Republicans were threatening for the Senate, but that control was still hanging in the balance or not clear. By 2:00 when Jean Carnahan went on the air and said that she had called Jim Talent to concede, everything flipped, and we were able at that point to say control of the Senate goes to the Republicans.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

BALZ: The House -- we were pretty confident going into the election that Republicans would hold the House. I think everybody underestimated a little bit the gains that they were able to make, but the House is a very slow process of counting. And in the House, you generally rely on AP and their bureaus in all the states to begin...


BALZ: ... to call those races.

KURTZ: Terence Smith, a two-year effort, $10 million spent by the consortium of networks and AP, the Voter News Service no usable exit polls. How embarrassing a failure is that?

TERENCE SMITH, MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, PBS, "THE NEWSHOUR": Well it's a complete failure. They have an excuse that it was a four-year rebuilding process and that this was supposed to be a dry run. Well, it was no run at all, as Judy said. I didn't think the problem was so much the lack of projections. Even, in fact, I would argue that -- I know it's sacrilegious, but I preferred the slower pace.

KURTZ: You like the old fashioned way of doing it?


WOODRUFF: And so did some of us. We were...


SMITH: And some interesting races would break and you know you get to think about it a little bit. On the other hand...


SMITH: ... qualitatively, without those exit polls...

KURTZ: Why did people vote? The old? The young?


KURTZ: The urban?

SMITH: Not what happened, but why...


WOODRUFF: But those numbers don't typically come in until later in the evening. You don't really start to get a substantial trend that you can...

SMITH: Yes. WOODRUFF: ... look at until a little bit later. So you know, but yes, it's -- we suffered because of -- you know, because of lack of...

SMITH: I mean, was George Bush the big issue? Was he the big difference? We don't really know.

KURTZ: Yes, telephone servers, but not servers of people actually coming out of the polls, Dan.

BALZ: I was just going to say, I think that is the critical loss of the breakdown of VNS. It's not the inability to project, it's the inability to explain and understand what happened. We lose two years out of a long continuity of being able to see how different...

KURTZ: How the election changed and why people at least say they voted as they did.


KURTZ: Well, speaking of projections, there was the ritual that we have every two years, of various media geniuses going on the air to answer the question who's going to win? Let's take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who's going to be the majority in the Senate?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Democrats will pick up one seat, I think.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democrats pick up one to two seats.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, two, Democrats pick up two.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think the Democrats will be up two seats strengthening their position, continuing to have the Senate be the center of the Democratic opposition to President Bush.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Cleland wins in Georgia and Senate -- the Democrats are up two.


KURTZ: So, are all these prognosticators going to come on "INSIDE POLITICS" and say gee, I was wrong?

WOODRUFF: Well, what can we say? I mean, Howard, we can always do this after an election, but there is no question we were looking at the public opinion polls. And many of the polls were showing that the Democrats were in stronger shape than they were. There was -- I will say a few days before the election, there was a CNN/"USA TODAY" Gallup poll that pretty clearly showed what the final numbers were. It had the Republicans -- it was a generic ballot question, you know, would you rather have -- vote for your Democratic -- vote for a Democrat or vote for a Republican for Congress and the Republicans were ahead about 51 to 45, and that's about where it ended up.

KURTZ: Somewhere on the newspaper coverage, Dan Balz, "The Los Angeles Times" wrote on the Sunday before the election Democrats seem poised to maintain or enlarge their Senate majority. And you wrote a piece saying Republicans face stiff odds in their bid to reclaim Senate majority. Would you like to have that one back?

BALZ: No, I think on that weekend we thought they did face stiff odds. We felt that they had to run the table on many of the close races, and in fact, they did. What we, I think, underestimated was (A), the strength of President Bush's popularity and turning out a Republican vote, and I think the other thing we underestimated was the failure of the Democrats to actually win the debate on the economy in a more decisive way.

KURTZ: You be the referee. Wasn't...


KURTZ: ... the press kind of leaning the wrong way going into the final weekend?

SMITH: It just -- it wasn't just the media. Prognoalstication (ph) is a perilous business, even if I can't say it.

BALZ: It -- and this proves it again because I think we all talked to a lot of political professions in the days before the election and while some did have their finger on this trend, this movement, towards the Republicans in the last, say, 72 hours, I think generally speaking they mirrored what you saw and read and heard.

KURTZ: But journalists don't have a great record, particularly in midterm elections. '98, well everyone said the Democrats are going to get clobbered because Clinton was facing impeachment and they picked up five House seats. So why is it...


KURTZ: And '94, of course, very few people saw the magnitude of the Republican side that would swamp Capitol Hill. So why is it that there are journalists who continue to sort of risk their reputations by going on and making predictions when after all, these things are hard to predict?

WOODRUFF: Because they're asked to do that. I mean, you know, they get these questions...

KURTZ: Can't you just say no?

WOODRUFF: ... but -- well, you're right, we should be able to say no, Howard. But I mean, the fact is we cover this day in and day out. You talk to people and you know, as Dan was saying, you know this -- it really -- we really didn't know, you know, the magnitude of how successful George Bush was going to be out on a stump. We didn't know, and we didn't know how much of a failure the Democratic argument on the economy was apparently going to be. KURTZ: And in fact, I read a number of pieces, Dan Balz that said these are basically a collection of local races. It hadn't really been nationalized. The president might or might not have an impact. So I wonder now if we're in danger of over-interpreting the impact of George Bush or anything else? And after all, if you know 50,000 votes had gone the other way in two or three states, the Democrats would have held the Senate.

BALZ: It's always a danger after an election to ascribe too much talent and brain power to the winners and too little to the losers. Politics is not a linear business. Parties adapt and change based on victories and particularly defeats. And I think that politics is so organic that if we over-interpret what this looks like, we'll probably be sitting here two years from now with egg on our face, again, saying that we had, you know, in one way or another missed it.

KURTZ: Is there a lot of over-interpretation going on now?

BALZ: Well, there's probably some in terms of, you know, how bad this was for the Democrats, but I think that the Democrats will have to go to school on why they lost. They have underestimated George Bush from the time he became a candidate, and I think they once again underestimated...

KURTZ: Some would say journalists have done that as well.


SMITH: ... clearly have.

KURTZ: I'm interested in this question. You've studied the media culture. Is the reason that journalists on TV or elsewhere have to sort of have a take or offer an opinion or have a slant on it, because otherwise if you just come on and say, I really don't know how Mondale is going to do because I've never been to Minnesota. That would be boring, right?

SMITH: The admission of ignorance is unacceptable. I mean it seems that way...

KURTZ: It's better to be wrong than to be dull...

SMITH: I suppose. In fact, you're right, though. We should all be a little more wary in the forecasting business when you know and every sign suggests it's going to be a close election. It's a dangerous business.

WOODRUFF: But the pressure has gotten greater over the years. I mean there was a time when reporters really were not expected to make that many predictions. But now we've gotten to a point where on just about any -- if you go on television, you're going to be asked...

KURTZ: Right.


WOODRUFF: ... you know, what do you think, and you're right. Then you look -- you know you look a little stupid or...

KURTZ: Or you could also look like a genius, at least until the next (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But all of these polls, I mean for -- to take one example, the Sunday before the election, the Minneapolis "Star Tribune" said that Mondale was up by five or six points. He lost. The same day, the same poll paper said that Coleman, Norm Coleman was up by five or six points against Mondale. With this blizzard of polls, maybe we all just rely on them too much in characterizing and handicapping what's going to happen when we don't really know who's going to turn out, particularly in a midterm year.

BALZ: I think it's more complicated than that. I think that part of it is sometimes there are so many polls, and we don't know which are reliable polls and which are not. I think in reality the political parties and the consultants they use probably have more accurate polling than some of the media polls that are done...


BALZ: Because they are used to doing close elections. They understand sort of the nature of what turnout might be in a midterm election where it's much harder to predict who's going to vote and who isn't going to vote. They've gone through and they've made their own mistakes. I don't think that all -- there's obviously some good media polls, but there are also so many now that just go in, they take a quick snapshot. They may get it at the wrong time. They don't have a sense of what -- sort of the trend of that race is, and they can often get it wrong, and we get led astray by that.

KURTZ: Or people don't answer their phones, they don't want to cooperate, or they've got cell phones...


KURTZ: ... lot of whole other problems involving polling.

BALZ: Yes. Yes.

KURTZ: But I wonder whether or not, you know, I don't want to take anything away from the president, who campaigned hard and may have had an effect in key races, but huge victory for Bush. I mean is there a -- is there a journalistic compulsion to take this compilation of 435 House races and 34 Senate races and reduce it to a simple storyline the next morning.

SMITH: I think there is, and it is a mistake. I would argue that where President Bush made a difference, those were still local races. He came in and made a difference in local races. Now you add them up and there's a national conclusion and a national impact. But there is a tendency, and I would go back to our original point. We don't really know his impact. We didn't have the opportunity to go and interview those people coming out of the polling booth and ask them how much difference George Bush made.

WOODRUFF: Well, it's pretty clear, I think. I mean I think what we do know is he clearly helped to fire up the Republican base in a number of states.


WOODRUFF: The fact that he went to Georgia repeatedly; the fact that he went to South Dakota repeatedly. You know the victories in Georgia that they won shocked the governorship, which no one had predicted.

KURTZ: So it's perfectly fair, then, for the press to credit the president to some extent?

WOODRUFF: Well, to some extent, sure. I mean it's pretty clear that there's a connection. I mean you talk to the people who were organizing in those states, and they say the president coming in and getting people excited, it was easier to get people to go out and walk the streets. When you talk to Ralph Reed, who's the chairman of the Republican Party in Georgia, it was easier for him to find volunteers because the president was coming into Georgia. Now, does the mean we give George Bush all the credit? Perhaps not.

KURTZ: Well, I would simply observe that had a couple of those tight Senate races gone the other way and the Democrats had retained control, you'd be reading a lot of stories now about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) dumb strategy the White House followed and how good the Democrats were. But let's hold it there.

When we come back, does anyone in the media have anything good to say about the Democrats? That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Dan Balz, in the last few days, the president has really just been savaging the Democrats having no message, having run a dumb campaign, and Gephardt, Daschle and McAuliffe. Are we piling on at this point?

BALZ: Sure. The press also piles on the losers at the end of a campaign, particularly when it looked as though Democrats would do better. You know it's the flip side of what we were talking about with Bush and the Republicans. When there is some expectation that they might have done better in this election and they didn't, and particularly when you look at the governors' races where it looked like they were going to take over a clear majority; they may not even end up with a majority at this point. The question is what happened. What went wrong, and everybody looks for reasons.

KURTZ: Is that just part of the media game, Judy Woodruff, that the party that loses has to come on and be interviewed by people like you and take their 50 lashes?

WOODRUFF: Well, it's part of the media game, but Howard, there's a real reshuffling of the deck going on right now in the Democratic Party. They've got to figure out who their leadership -- you're having a real fight for the leadership of the Democrats in the House with Dick Gephardt stepping down as his party leader.

KURTZ: Everybody looking for an '04 candidate...

WOODRUFF: Everybody looking for '04...

KURTZ: ... think the press is really reflecting a lot of the finger pointing?

WOODRUFF: Well, we are piling on. I mean I think we're piling on in addition to what's going on. But I don't think you can ignore what's going on. There's a lot of recrimination going on right now among Democrats out of, you know, it's not going on, on the television screens, but behind the...

KURTZ: You're shaking your head.

SMITH: I don't agree. I don't think the press is piling on, as Judy suggests, any more than they are within Democratic circles. This was a domical (ph) for the Democrats. They failed to express a message. They failed to project a face. They failed to convince the public that there was an alternative worth voting for. That's not piling on.

KURTZ: So it's the duty of the press, therefore, to point those things out.

SMITH: It's reporting.

BALZ: This was a Democratic Party that unlike after '84 and '94 when they also suffered big losses, does not have the White House, does not have the House, does not have the Senate, does not have a clear national leader and obviously does not have a real agenda...

SMITH: Does not have an idea where it's going.

BALZ: So...

KURTZ: Well, I'm going to tell you one thing, journalists like divided government because it leads to a lot of fights. And we'll see how interesting for the media's point of view and all Republican govern is in the next two years.

I had the feeling, Judy, that this campaign was the least intensively covered of my professional lifetime. We had Iraq. We had the sniper. We had a lot of other stories that seemed to intrude. Was it frustrating for you? I mean "INSIDE POLITICS" had to deal with this other news for many of the weeks in the campaign...

WOODRUFF: We did -- we did. There were many days when part of -- we do "INSIDE POLITICS" everyday from 4:00 to 5:00 Eastern on CNN, but there were many days when we were preempted by news on the sniper shootings...


WOODRUFF: ... understandably. That was a huge story. Before that, by news on Iraq and the president's efforts to get support of the Congress, support of the United Nations. So those were big important stories. Yes, I mean I think coverage of the campaign suffered, and I think it's getting worse with every election. I think that it gets harder to get good comprehensive coverage out there about elections.

KURTZ: Is that because of a sense, particularly among television producers or maybe other news executives, as well, that people are tuned out of politics. It's kind of boring. There's no great video. We'd rather have something flashy, something sensational. Is that where we're headed?

SMITH: I think it was the lack of a single galvanizing issue and a single galvanizing contest between two people or several people that you could identify and hang your hat on.

KURTZ: Even though both Houses of Congress were up for control, that's not the same thing as a good compelling plot, good storyline.

SMITH: That's right. Because the alternative was never articulated. Obviously the stakes were huge, but there were these many distractions, and that played a role.

KURTZ: Did you feel like your chosen profession was sort of pushed to the backburner by these other breaking stories?

BALZ: I think less in print than in TV and...


KURTZ: So a lot of those stories that might have been on the front page, ran inside the paper...

BALZ: I think that's...


KURTZ: ... particularly in the Washington area because of the sniper.

BALZ: Right. For us, it was not less coverage, it was less prominent coverage. But I think we had probably as many or more people out covering this midterm than we had in '98 or '94.

KURTZ: But would you agree that this didn't get quite the same intensity on television and including television, where they take all the money for political ads, but don't cover as many political stories.

BALZ: No, absolutely. That's absolutely right. The local level, it did not.

SMITH: Well it disappeared. The Anna Byrd (ph) School out at USC did a study on...


SMITH: ... and the coverage was at an all-time low at the local level.

KURTZ: Well, I hope that will change some future campaign. That has to be the last word. Terence Smith, Dan Balz, Judy Woodruff, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Iraq moves front and center, Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (on camera): So where were we when we were interrupted the other day by the midterm elections? We were talking about the snipers and about Iraq, right? Now with the election over and the snipers caught, it's back to Saddam and whether we're en route to war. And people want to know what it all means, how many dead, what the costs, what the consequences, what the unintended consequences, which means that all our favorite pundits will be switching subjects without missing a beat, from partisan politics to the possibility of war.

(voice over): In other words, we're in for some very heavy pontificating and 24/7 has made it nonstop. But the fact is that all this chatter is more than mere entertainment, vaudeville disguised as wisdom. And the question is still open as to whether pundits can be a hazard to your health. But Iraq is not just talk fodder, so a word of caution as we tune in, remembering that the basic job requirement of punditry is an inexhaustible supply of words and right or wrong, always being certain.

For example, this rare excerpt of pundit personification of a decade ago at the end of the first Gulf War.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When will Saddam Hussein be out of power?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd say by the end of the year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Really? What do you say?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not that optimistic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you say? What does that mean?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here we are thrown into obscurity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That means maybe 1992.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh. What do you think, Jack?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, three weeks ago I gave him three weeks and time's up. I think he's gone...


KALB: Saddam still hasn't stopped chuckling. Now, it's so easy to poke fun at these talking heads, so why resist? But like all Americans, they, too, deserve the benefit of the doubt. And they have been known to shed a glimmer of expertise on various issues over the years.

(on camera): So, let's get back to Iraq and the pundits always remembering another day, another issue, and anyway, it's all in one ear and out the other. Let's face it, our civilization has been punditized (ph). The challenge for us is to practice selective listening, distinguishing between reality and fantasy. It may be the only way to survive.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


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