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Nets Elect Safe Coverage

Here we go again: An incredibly close election; a Republican secretary of state defending a state's voting, much of it by those ignominious punch cards; and networks accused by a candidate of jumping the gun on calling the key state.

That said, for the most part broadcast and cable networks held to the script Election Night, which was to avoid early calls and keep their collective faces free of the egg that covered them after the 2000 presidential election and got the network news chiefs a dressing-down from legislators..

Some key states went hours without changing to either red or blue. That was thanks to some states too close to call, and others too close for the newly cautious networks. Florida wasn't called until about 11:45, compared to a tad before 8  O'clock in 2000.

ABC's caution seemed to have been built in.

At the top of the hour at 8 and 9, when polls were closing and the other networks were beginning to call states, ABC had scheduled cut-aways to local news coverage of local races, putting it behind the other's calls by several minutes. It rectified that at 10, returning from the cut-in much sooner.

CBS was arguably the most aggressive in calling states for the candidates, with CNN the least. For example, CBS appeared to be the first to call Pennsylvania for Kerry, the first of three key swing states, at about 10:50. CNN didn't call Ohio until 2:20 Wednesday afternoon, after Kerry's concenssion speech.

CNN preached and practiced caution, but it also had an on-screen clock counting down to the top of the hour, when Wolf Blitzer began calling the states that could be called, some seemingly within seconds of the poll closings.

Certainly the nets were not reporting in lockstep. At one point in the night--at about 8:21--five different news nets, ABC, NBC, CBS, FNC and CNN--all had different electoral tallies. 

According to CBS, Dan Rather’s first folksy characterization of the election came at 7:26 p.m. with:  "Let's hit these biscuits with a dab of gravy." 

CBS and ABC called Florida for Bush at about 11:45, with CNN and NBC holding off. With that call, Rather pronounced the Kerry campaign's "back to the wall, shirttail on fire and the bill collector at the door."

As Nov. 2 stretched into Nov. 3, CBS had the most aggressive total at Bush 246, Kerry 207. CNN still had the total at Bush 207, Kerry 188.

"We haven't projected a winner yet because we just don't have enough information," was the mantra at CNN.

Not so the members of CNN's Crossfire. Earlier in the day, Paul Begala, James Carville, Tucker Carlson and Robert Novak all predicted when the race would be decided. All picked times before 11:30 p.m. and all watched their prediction times come and go.

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell became the man of the moment. In an interview on ABC, Blackwell said that if there are more provisional ballots than the margin of victory for one or other candidate in the regular ballots, the election can't be determined until those ballots, estimated at about 150,000,are counted 11 days after the general election.

Blackwell, a Republican, was the same official who tried to prevent the media from covering Ohio polling places. Only a U.S. Appeals Court decision allowed journalists to cover what was shaping up to be the key state in the election.

Fox and NBC called Ohio for Bush a little after 1 a.m., with CNN, ABC and CBS not willing to follow suit, particularly given the provisional ballot issue. They were probably glad they didn't.

In what seemed an eerie repeat of 2000, one of the campaign's--Kerry's--challenged the Fox/NBC call, issuing a statement that the vote count in Ohio had not been completed, pointing out that there were still 250,000 votes to be counted, not to mention the provisional ballots, and saying at the end of the day, their man would be President.

"They can be forgiven for hoping," said Hume of the Kerry count's challenge, "but it looks bleak."  NBC's Tom Brokaw also quickly reported the challenge. Neither took the state away from Bush, however.

Blackwell repeated his explanation of the provisional ballot issue, and defense of his state's voting procedures, on various networks as it became clear that his state was shaping up to be the next Florida.ABC

ABC Anchor Peter Jennings bristled when correspondent Dean Reynolds suggested at about 2 a.m. that "everybody else" had already called Ohio--CNN and CBS, in fact, had not. Returning from a commercial, Jennings appeared to be talking to a producer, rather than the audience, saying that everybody hadn't called Ohio and ABC wasn't going to.

VP Candidate John Edwards made a statement at about 2:30 a.m. that the campaign "would fight for every vote," saying the campaign would make sure that every vote would count and that it could wait for another night for a decision.

Actually, the decision came about 2 p.m. Wednesday, when Keryr conceded Ohio and the election.