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Thursday, 9 November, 2000, 11:00 GMT
TV networks behind turmoil
Dewey defeats Truman
This isn't the first time the media has named a winner too soon
Television viewers hoping to get an early indication of the US presidential election result were not the only people to be confused about who was the winner.

Even the candidates did not know when to trust what their televisions were telling them.

And if they were bewildered, the television networks themselves were in a state of utter confusion, see-sawing between predictions.

I've got three words for the networks. Shameless, shameless, shameless.

Prof Allan Lichtman
At first they said Al Gore had won Florida. Then they changed their forecast to say George W Bush was the victor. Then they said it was too close to know.

"If you're disgusted with us, frankly, I don't blame you," CBS television anchor Dan Rather told viewers.

In such a close contest, where the national tallies of votes were only thousands apart, it became clear that the winner in Florida would be the man spending the next four years in the White House.

Clearer picture

But as became even clearer, the predictions were based on very incomplete assessments of the votes cast.

The eventual result would only be known after a full recount.

Mr Gore had reportedly taken the predictions, or "calls", on face value and rang Mr Bush to concede defeat. Then he reportedly withdrew the concession.


Professor Allan Lichtman, of the American University in Washington DC, told the BBC he was disgusted by the media's conduct on election night.

"We don't need this insane rush to judgement," he said.

"I've got three words for the networks. Shameless, shameless, shameless.

"The entertainment culture has engulfed everything. Entertainment, excitement, keeping the viewers appears to have trumped giving accurate information."

He said he would be happy to get rid of all "dastardly" exit polls, even though it would spoil some of the drama of the occasion.

Conflicting reports
Midnight: Networks say Gore has won Florida
0300: Networks retract reports of Florida victory
0730:Gore congratulates Bush on victory
0830: Gore retracts concession of victory
Florida recount begins
GMT, times approximate
"It would avoid some of the ghastly mistakes we have had this evening."

He added: "I feel like I have been wrenched back and forth simply by the need of the networks to provide a horse race, to provide entertainment.

"I would say 'Viewer Beware'."

Serious impact

Professor Anthony King of Essex University in the UK said that the predictions might have had a greater impact.

"The network calls were taking place long before the polls had closed in a very large number of states. Heaven knows how voters might have been influenced by the belief that Al Gore had taken Florida."

Elsewhere in the country, other predictions were running into trouble. Three television networks had to change their predictions in the Washington senate contest when they said Democrat Maria Cantwell had won, when it is still in the balance.

Not the first time

But this is hardly the first time the media has got it spectacularly wrong.

Perhaps the most famous upset in American politics came in 1948, when every pundit expected Republican Thomas Dewey to sweep the Democrats' White House incumbent, Harry Truman, out of power.

Dewey had staged a campaign carefully tuned to offend no section of the electorate and reaped the rewards in the opinion polls. President Truman's hold on power appeared tenuous, what with his party divided and votes leaking to the third party candidate, Henry Wallace.

As the results came in, Truman retired to bed, perhaps the only person in the country convinced his last-minute populist campaigning would confound the polls.

Truman lost both New York and Pennsylvania - the state with the second largest electoral college - prompting many to hail Dewey the victor.
Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter trusted the polls and threw in the towel

In the days of the metal press, it was up to newspaper editors to decide whether to fudge the result on their morning frontpages - or go for broke. The Chicago Tribune took this seemingly safe gamble and declared: "Dewey Defeats Truman".

Unfortunately for the Tribune, Truman hammered his rival when all the votes were counted. He won 303 electoral college votes, to Dewey's 189.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter had none of Truman's unshakeable self-belief. The Democrat publicly conceded defeat before the polling stations even closed on the West Coast.

Although his rival, Ronald Reagan, was only running a few percentage points ahead, Carter put his faith in TV reports saying the former actor was powering towards a landslide victory.

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