Premature exuberance was first sign of chaos

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The Independent US

When the story of this rollercoaster US presidential election is written in the history books, spare a thought for the humble wire service reporters of the Associated Press in the state of Florida.

When the story of this rollercoaster US presidential election is written in the history books, spare a thought for the humble wire service reporters of the Associated Press in the state of Florida.

For when the stars of the US television networks were announcing - wrongly - victory for George W Bush, based on projections in the cliffhanger state, Associated Press did not declare a winner.

At that crucial moment, at 0620 GMT on Wednesday, newsrooms across the world stopped reading the wire, and trusted the words of Dan Rather, who called the election for Bush amid intense media competition to be first to announce the winner. "If you're disgusted with us, frankly, I don't blame you," the CBS anchor told viewers in the hours that followed as it became clear the election was still a toss-up.

But earlier on election night, all the US media - including Associated Press - had quoted exit poll projections in Florida at 0049 GMT to announce that Vice-President Gore had won the "sunshine state".

This has enraged the US Congress, on the grounds that the premature announcement of a Gore victory in Florida may have discouraged voters from turning out elsewhere in the country. The chairman of the House Commerce Telecommunications Sub-committee, Bill Tauzin, has sent letters to the heads of US television networks and to Associated Press, and is threatening hearings on the matter in the spring.

Mr Tauzin said a depressed voter turn-out in the West may have had an impact on the House races in California and on the national popular presidential vote. When the networks NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, ABC and the Associated Press all called Florida for Mr Gore, polls were still open in the western part of the state, as well as in West Coast states.

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