Magazine article Newsweek

The Night of Bad Calls: Why This Razor-Thin Election Confounded the Number Crunchers and the Networks

Magazine article Newsweek

The Night of Bad Calls: Why This Razor-Thin Election Confounded the Number Crunchers and the Networks

Article excerpt

The party at NBC was just getting good. It was election night, and a group of executives were holding a bash in the "Saturday Night Live" studio. Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, the network's parent company, decided it would be fun to lead guests on a tour of the "boiler room," the newsroom where statisticians were crunching numbers for the election broadcast. By the time they got there, the news crew was in a state of anxiety. Hours earlier NBC had called Florida for Al Gore. Now, the crunchers realized, their numbers were wrong. Tom Brokaw announced that the crucial state was back in play. The staff sweated as Welch hovered with a beer in his hand. He was still hovering six hours later when, after prematurely declaring George W. Bush president-elect, Brokaw finally declared: "We don't just have egg on our face--we have an omelet."

Turns out all the networks got their eggs from the same basket: the Voter News Service, a media pool organization that generates exit polls and election results. The company is jointly owned by a coalition of news companies to cut millions in data-collection costs. But on election night something went wrong, kicking off a stretch of nearly simultaneous botched calls. Now executives are scrambling to figure out where the system broke down. "We made a mistake of good faith based on bad information," says NBC spokesman Alex Constantinople. "We're doing everything we can to make sure it never happens again."

The trouble started just before prime time. …

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