The legendary NBC news producer Reuven Frank once described election night as a TV show about adding. If that doesn’t seem exciting enough, consider this: Election night 2020 will be a TV show about waiting to add.
A man who knows a lot about election nights is Dan Rather, anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News for 24 years. He covered a lot of elections in that time, including the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, during which many networks—including CBS with Rather as lead anchor—first called the crucial state of Florida for Gore before retracting it, then later in the night called the state for Bush before retracting that, as the margin became tighter and tighter ahead of the legal battle that would culminate in the Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore, ending the vote recount in Florida, and thereby ending the election in Bush’s favor.
Rather joined me on The Gist this week as part of our special series “Calling It,” looking at how the media is planning to cover election night on Nov. 3. In our conversation, Rather and I discussed his experience of election night 2000, what news anchors can learn from it ahead of election night 2020, and a postmortem report that analyzed CBS’ coverage of the Bush-Gore election. A portion of our interview is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Mike Pesca: In the report, they noted competitive pressure. They write—this is in 2000—“Competitive pressure, make no mistake, the election night broadcast occurs in a cauldron of competitive heat, heat that comes from within each individual and within each network all burning to be the best and to be first.”
Now, from what I know of network news, that cauldron has not declined in intensity, but are you hoping and predicting that, for this night, this year, the heat will, in fact, consciously be turned off beforehand? Because it’s a hard thing to do so if you don’t make the commitment to do so.
Dan Rather: Well, exactly. With the major networks—the major networks are owned and operated by very large corporations. In every case, a worldwide corporation controls. This is true of all the networks. It wasn’t in 2000. It is now. In the control room on election night, what I would call the big owls, big powers of the corporations, are frequently in the control room. After all, they own the news divisions. You’ll have the head of NBC, the head of Fox—it’s a big night there in the control room where decisions are being made and implemented. The corporations have interests in who wins and who loses races, particularly presidential races.
What happened in 2000, nobody much likes to talk about this, [was] that in the control rooms, there were—in some control rooms, there were representatives, even leaders of the corporations who owned the news divisions who were urging to make a call for George Bush because it was in their businesses’ best interest as well as their own personal, political, and ideological interest to get Bush out front. This happened in two of the network control rooms. Whether that will exist this time or not—but I’m not telling anybody how to run their business. But if somebody asks me, I would say it’s very important to keep the corporate leaders out of the decision-making corners, especially the control rooms. I hope that hasn’t confused you, but it’s such an important point if you’re going to understand what happened in 2000, because those pressures existed, and in some cases they were prefacing. And in the end, I think they did make a difference.
Was CBS one of the networks with corporate bosses in the control room?
But some of the other ones were.
That’s correct. That’s correct. It’s not for me to say so in this broadcast. I’m not trying to be coy with anybody, but you can check the record, but it was not the case at CBS. In the case of CBS—and keep in mind that I was the anchor on election night, and I accept my full amount of responsibility for what happened. But CBS had been the gold standard for calling elections since what I would call a modern election night era [that] began in the late ’50s or [early] ’60s. The CBS News operation, which from decade to decade was enhancing different people—I’m going from memory here, but it called well over 3,000 races, including presidential races, with only—my recollection—only three, maybe four mistakes in the case of Senate races or House races, an overwhelming record for being correct. And so the confidence of CBS News was extremely high that when we made a call, you can take it to the bank.
I would say overconfidence and being certain once our operation decided to make a call, that that was the call, led to an early mistake. The early mistake was putting Florida in a Gore column. I can remember very well before we got into election night, we all reviewed what the leadership of the CBS News division wanted to do, and one of the things was once we had made a call, once CBS News has made a call, then we don’t want to be questioning [it] on the air.
When Florida was called, and as the night developed in the early stages, when it appeared that, well, Florida was certainly going to be closer than we first imagined, there was that ringing in our ears of “don’t question the call,” because the people making the call have such a good record. But the rest, as they say, is history. Now, those who made the call that night will go to their graves—some of them have already gone to their grave, I’m sorry to say—insisting that the call was right, that what happened is that in the counting of the votes and allowing votes that the Republicans were in charge of, the state apparatus, and the Republicans had the control of the Supreme Court, and that they managed to pull the election for George Bush. [So they would insist] that the original call, being for Gore, was correct, but that doesn’t get you very far, because George W. Bush was sworn in as president. Gore was not.
To what extent do you think that calling it first for Gore, then retracting, then Bush, then retracting—did that have any real effect on the narrative? Do you have any sense that the momentary impression, relatively speaking, that one side or another had won had any real effect on the outcome ultimately?
All I can do is give you my opinion. I think the decisive things, having to do with the way it finally got settled was—as I say, the fact that Republicans were in control of most of the upper reaches of the state machinery in Florida and that they had a majority in the Supreme Court. That’s what settled it. There’s arguments about, “Well, I’m making this call early, it actually affected the election,” [and] no, I don’t agree with that argument. I can understand why Republicans make the argument, and there’s some people making the argument still. But here we are in 2020, and what we’re trying to do is learn from our mistakes in 2000 and move forward, and do it better and build all the confidence we can with the news-consuming public.
To do that, I do think that the people in network—and some of them were doing a good job—now need to get out front and explain, “Look, this is not going to be your average ‘election night.’ It’s going to require patience. It may take a long time.” Now, there is a possibility—and I do think that we should pause and make sure that people understand it. I haven’t talked about what could happen. Among the things that [could] happen on course is that the election is overwhelming in one direction, and that we do know pretty quickly how it’s going to go. That is also a possibility. In my personal opinion, that’s not the likelihood, but it does remain a possibility.
In your years since 1952 of covering elections, I would assume you went into most election nights hoping that there was drama, hoping for races tighter than the lug nuts on a 554, let’s say. Do your colleagues and brethren have to get out of that mindset for this election, and will it be hard to?
Well, you’re quite right, that I never went into what used to be called an election night without that sense of there’s a real chance here of high drama. I always considered it a real honor to be in the anchor chair. I know that sounds corny to some people. I considered it as an honor and a real responsibility. But things move on, times move on. Here we are at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, and everything has changed. People have to understand—and particularly the people who have the responsibility of presenting election night returns, vote night returns—that it’s not the same game.
But I can almost guarantee—while I know some of them, I don’t know every anchor person that will be in an anchor chair for a network for this vote night—but it will be impossible for them not to think to themselves, “Boy, this could really be close this night. That could be an exciting night, and I need to convey that in our coverage.” It’s natural for them to think that way. A lot of them, despite what you and I are discussing here, they’re still advised this time, are bound to do it. It’s just the nature of appearing on television.
We were talking about things for people to have in their mind [now] that we live in a time when truth is often intentionally obscured. So an unexpected delay, particularly a long delay, and counting the votes is bound to fuel any number of false narratives. Whether they’re anchorpeople or have minor roles on air, I hope—I have confidence but I certainly hope—that the journalists will make it clear that if it takes a long time to get the vote count, that does not and should not call into question the election’s credibility. Indeed, what it ought to do is underscore the election’s credibility by taking our time and making sure it’s as close as we can come to making every vote count.
You mentioned that you consider at times Fox to be a propaganda outlet. I think that’s a fair assessment. But then there is the news side of Fox, which—I mean, I was watching your 2000 election coverage, [and] there in with the Bush camp was John Roberts reporting for CBS News. He’s the White House correspondent for Fox now. As you know, your former colleague, Mike Wallace, his son, Chris Wallace, who has some CBS experience—he’s Fox’s iconic news figure. Do you have faith in the news side of Fox if they are the ones who are dominating the coverage on election night?
I do have confidence in the individual people that you mentioned, both of whom I know well. I do have confidence in general in the news, what is called the news side of Fox, that they want to do the right thing. The question is the ownership of Fox and the leadership of Fox. It all starts at the top. If the Murdochs, who own Fox, if they want their integrity-filled news side of Fox and the integrity-filled election-projection group of people who are very experienced and want to do the right thing. If the very top of the corporate management encourages integrity and insists on integrity, then I would believe what Fox puts out. But there’s no way of knowing whether that’s true or not.
Right. We should cover the news without fear or favor. It is an old journalism dictum—Adolph Ochs coined it, or at least popularized it if he didn’t invent it. What you’re describing, and I think what the networks are saying they’re going to do, is not to show favoritism. But there is a fair amount of fear in their coverage, fear of misinformation, fear of what happens if a malevolent actor runs with the ambiguity of election night. Is that OK? Does that come at a cost? Or maybe we should just rethink what Adolph Ochs originally expounded upon.
What a good question. I think the answer is listen to your conscience. Most people who got into journalism get in because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to contribute something, want to contribute to the country, and they want to contribute to the good of humankind, and if those decision-making corridors of the networks listen to their conscience and report on the basis of conscience, then we’ll be OK.
It’s when pressures like ratings pressure, competitive pressure—there’s areas of corporate leadership. When those kinds of things begin to eat away at the conscience, that’s when mistakes get made. You said it quite rightly that it’s an old credo in journalism, that “report the news without fear or favor.” Or a shorthand version of one of the credos of journalism on election night that I always tried to have in mind is “You trust your mother, but you cut the cards,” which is a way of saying, “Yes, these figures seem to add up, but you know what? Maybe we take just another minute, another five minutes, another hour, another day, to make sure we’re right.” So you trust your mother, but you cut the cards.
Hear all episodes of “Calling It,” or read selected transcripts from Mike Pesca’s interviews with NBC’s Steve Kornacki, CNN’s Brian Stelter, the AP’s Julie Pace, and misinformation expert Brian Rosenwald.
Listen to the full episode featuring Dan Rather below. To get The Gist every weekday, including this election series, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Join Slate Plus and enjoy ad-free episodes of the show.