Media varies in coverage, more cautious on presidential outcomeNov. 5, 2004
By ALEX JOHNSON, contributor
Editor's note: This is a media analysis contributed by journalism graduate students Desiree Evans, Chad Nakanishi, and senior Danielle Wilkinson.
Caution was the prevailing theme of the news coverage on election night 2004.
Wary after the Florida fiasco in 2000, media outlets played it safe Tuesday night, calling highly contested states only when they felt it was completely prudent to do so. Florida was again an important battleground state. CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield even went so far as to say, "We don't have Georgia on our minds, like the great Ray Charles says, we have Florida on our minds."
ABC and CBS both called Florida for Bush at roughly 10:45 p.m., and CNN followed suit at 11:10 p.m. Fox called Florida for President George W. Bush at 11:26 and NBC was last to call the state at 11:34 p.m. CNN anchor Judy Woodruff did mention on the air at 10:40 p.m. that sources inside Sen. John Kerry's camp felt they had lost Florida, but she stated that CNN was making sure they refrained from mistakes this year. Florida, while important, was not the pivotal state of this year's election. That honor went to Ohio, which Greenfield compared to current fashion trends.
"Blue is the new black in fashion," Greenfield said. "Ohio is the new Florida."
Perhaps because of the comparisons to Florida in 2000, Ohio was never called by all of the networks. At 11:45 p.m., Fox projected Bush as the winner in Ohio with 83 percent of precincts reporting. NBC decided to call Ohio at 12:04 a.m., which led Fox anchor Brit Hume to remark on air that he was relieved that another network had called Ohio. An hour before Bush's victory speech on Wednesday, CNN had still not called Ohio, with their electoral vote counter still showing the president short of the necessary 270 votes. The networks were not subtle in reminding viewers of their caution this time around. Early in CNN's election broadcast, Woodruff reminded viewers that "we don't want to jump the gun." CBS's Dan Rather also remarked early in the CBS broadcast that the network didn't mind if they were last in projecting a state, as long as they were correct.
The results of the cautious attitude by the news outlets could be seen in the electoral vote counts, which were all prominently featured on the screen.
Between 7:30 and 7:45 p.m., a variety of different electoral counts were shown on the news stations. ABC, NBC and Fox had the count at 102 votes for Bush to 77 votes for Kerry. CBS had the count at 108 votes for Bush to 77 votes for Kerry, and CNN had the count at 77 votes for Bush to 66 votes for Kerry. Much confusion was caused by Maine and Nebraska, which have laws stating that their electoral votes can be split. Some of the networks split them, while other networks did not.
As for the presentation of the election coverage, some networks chose a more high-tech look than others.
CBS opted for a high-tech look with John Roberts operating a touch-screen television that showed various polls and statistics, but also looked low-tech with Dan Rather using a pencil to point at the electoral map. CNN featured a massive bank of television screens that provided electoral results and raw vote counts from different states.
Neither of these high-tech devices were without problems, as both the touch-screen television on CBS and the bank of television screens on CNN occasionally showed the wrong information.
At one point, Greenfield asked if the "nice people in the control room" would show the correct information on the bank of television screens. NBC's Tim Russert had no such problems with his infamous dry-erase board, which was featured prominently again this year.