How television contributed to a night of chaos

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The Independent US

The American television networks have been heavily criticised for twice trailing inaccurate results for the state of Florida - on which the fate of the entire election hangs.

The American television networks have been heavily criticised for twice trailing inaccurate results for the state of Florida - on which the fate of the entire election hangs.

At around midnight projections awarded the state to Gore and the result was announced before polls had closed in some other American states. The news enthused the Gore camp which began to scent victory.

As counting went on it became clear that they were wrong and Bush in fact was in the lead in the crucial state. Despondency set in at Gore's Tennessee HQ.

Bush's lead was trailed at around 30,000 for some hours then at 50,000, when the assumption was made that he had won. The network declared Bush president and Gore had telephoned his congratulations. News stations around the world picked up the story and for around an hour Bush was president-elect.

But the true situation was that just 1,200 votes out of around six million separated the two men - with around 5,000 remaining uncounted. Gore withdrew his concession and announced he would remain in the contest.

Pundits have accused television of wanting to create a horse-race where none existed at the expense of accurate reporting.

"What the networks giveth, the networks taketh away," NBC's news anchor Tom Brokaw said.

Some analysts said that the networks had felt forced into making a rash judgement on the Florida result because internet sites had been threatening to leak early exit poll results.

It made for gripping television. The networks spent millions of dollars on polls and vote-gathering efforts in an attempt to find out the results as quickly as possible. Instead, they got something better - old-fashioned suspense.

They stayed on the air past midnight, their counts showing the race essentially a dead heat. They were awaiting the agonizingly slow reports of Florida votes.

"Those of you who have stayed up with us, you have been rewarded with one of the all-time close races," said CBS' news anchor Dan Rather.

An early sign of a tight race came during the network evening news. Anchors usually can be counted on to drop subtle hints from exit poll results about how the night will unfold, but few were forthcoming.

Rather convened a panel of political experts and asked them to pick a winner at about 2340 GMT Tuesday. Linda DiVall picked Bush, Harrison Hickman guessed Gore and Norm Ornstein took a pass. "I honestly don't know," he said.

ABC's George Stephanopoulos, the former political operative for President Bill Clinton, predicted legal challenges to vote counts would be brought in several states if the race stayed close.

Even as they faced the prospect of a sleepless night, political reporters were almost gleeful.

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

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