To hear the mainstream news media retell the story of the contentious 2000 presidential election, one would think that it all boils down to Bush v. Gore. The Supreme Court decision created huge controversy and poisons public life to this day. But this focus on the decision serves to obscure an act of great duplicity on the part of the media that dwarfs the impact of that case: namely, that if it hadn’t been for actions they took on television on Election Night, November 7, 2000, there never would have been a Bush v. Gore or a Florida recount in the first place.
It is a story of voter suppression. As it turns out, most of what we think was important about that election—hanging chads, butterfly ballots, 36 days of legal jousting—is unimportant. And by 8 p.m. Eastern Time on Election Night, a cover-up had already begun.
During any national election, the political parties are well aware of which states will easily go their way and which will inevitably go for the opponent. This leaves just a small number of states where the vote is likely to be close, and these are the places where the parties and candidates focus their efforts. In 2000, the battleground states that would determine the outcome for George W. Bush and Al Gore were Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
The campaigns come to know these places very well. The states are broken into congressional districts and precincts, and each has its particular characteristics. For example, it is generally understood that the west coast of Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, leans conservative, while the east coast of Florida, on the Atlantic, tends to be liberal. South Florida is more liberal than North Florida.
The northwesternmost part of Florida is the Panhandle, which stretches along the Gulf of Mexico to Alabama. Often called the “Redneck Riviera,” it is the most Republican part of Florida, regularly giving Republicans big margins in state and national elections. The nine Panhandle counties that are farthest west—Bay, Calhoun, Escambia, Holmes, Jackson, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton, and Washington—are in the Central Time Zone, and one additional county, Gulf, is split between Central and Eastern Time. According to the Miami Herald, “It is only a few miles to the Alabama border from anywhere in the western Panhandle, but more than five hundred miles and a cultural light-year to Miami.”
On Election Night, between 6:30 and 7:50 p.m. Eastern, anchors on all the major networks and cable channels reported over and over again that the polls in all of Florida closed at 7 p.m. Eastern. Not once did anyone on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, NBC, or MSNBC inform the audience that Florida has two time zones and two poll closing times. During that hour and 20 minutes, 13 journalists asserted a total of 39 times that there was only one poll-closing time throughout the entire state of Florida.
There were five anchors who handed out this misinformation more than once—Cokie Roberts on ABC, Brian Williams on MSNBC, Judy Woodruff on CNN, Tom Brokaw on NBC, and Dan Rather on CBS. Their words are slight variations on the same theme, interwoven with trivia and banter.
For instance, Tom Brokaw said, “we want to point out to our viewers that in half an hour, at 7 o’clock Eastern Time, we have a group of critical states that will be closing their polls, including the state of Florida.” A few minutes later, he repeated himself, saying, “the polls will close in Florida, as we said just a few moments ago, at 7 Eastern Time tonight.” Brian Williams said, “Just a reminder that we are minutes away from the 7 o’clock hour here in the East when several major states close down the polls. Biggest of them all: Florida.” Minutes later, Williams said: “Seven o’clock here in the East. The polls in six new states have just closed and the lead story at this hour is the state of Florida is too close to call. The state everyone said yesterday would be the story here today and, thus, tonight. It is at this hour too close to call, even though the polls there have closed.”
But the polls there had not closed. Voters in the 10 counties in the Central Time Zone still had an hour left to vote.
On CNN, Judy Woodruff made the following two statements before 7 p.m. Eastern: “we are 23 minutes away from the polls closing in six states, including the crucial state of Florida,” and “Just seven minutes away from polls closing in six states, including that crucial state of Florida.” And after 7 Eastern, Cokie Roberts said, “The Democrats were hoping to take advantage of some of the new people who have moved into Florida, and to pick up maybe one, maybe two, maybe three Republican-held seats in Florida. We don’t know the results there, even though the polls are closed.”
Roberts then added, roughly 20 minutes before the polls would actually close in the Panhandle, “the Democrats seem to be doing well in Florida. We’ve called the Senate race for the Democratic candidate there, so these are very important seats to the Democrats. The polls are closed.” Then, starting at 7:50 p.m. Eastern, the networks declared Gore the winner in Florida. This call was later retracted, as was a subsequent call for Bush.
Hearing these announcements, viewers in the Panhandle would have understood that their own polls closed at 6 p.m. local time. According to Nielsen ratings, viewership of the 2000 election coverage topped 61 million people. It is useful to remember as well that back in 2000 computers were not ubiquitous. There were no smartphones. People had fewer alternatives to television for getting instantaneous information.
The stark effect of this widespread misreporting can be seen in the sworn, notarized testimony of a pair of poll workers who were on duty as inspectors that day in Precinct Eight, Escambia County. According to the 2004 Almanac of American Politics, “Pensacola’s Escambia County, where about half the district’s people live, is the state’s westernmost county.” The first poll worker attested that:
We had the usual rush in the early morning, at noon and right after work. There was a significant drop in voters after 6:00. The last 40 minutes was almost empty. The poll workers were wondering if there had been a national disaster they didn’t know about. It was my observation that this decline in voters between 6:00 and 7:00 was very different when compared to previous elections. The last 30 minutes was particularly empty. There is usually a line after the poll closes. In this election there was no one.
The second poll worker corroborated the testimony of the first, stating, “The expected rush at the end of the day didn’t happen. We were all very surprised. It was a normal day until 6:00 pm. Between 6:00-7:00 pm voter turnout was very different from past elections. There was practically no one the last 40 minutes.” Since the final hour of voting in any election is typically characterized by an after-work rush, one can only imagine how many people would have voted in that last, deserted 40 minutes, but for the misinformation dispensed by the network and cable news anchors.
It is possible, though, to make a rough estimate. The Florida Department of State provides the 2000 election results by county in an online archive. If you add up the total votes from all 10 Panhandle counties in the Central Time Zone, you find that the total number of votes cast was 357,808; Bush received about 66 percent and Gore received about 31 percent. The polls were open for 12 hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. If you divide the day into 12 hours of voting at an equal rate, with 357,808 representing the votes cast in the first 11 hours, an additional 12th hour would have yielded a further 32,528 votes. Assuming the partisan split remained the same, Bush would have received over 21,600 additional votes, and Gore more than 10,100. This would have added over 11,000 votes to Bush’s statewide margin in Florida. (The same calculation done excluding Gulf County, which is on both Central and Eastern Time, also adds more than 11,000 votes to Bush’s statewide margin.)
It stands to reason that the pattern of voting in the Panhandle in the final hour would have remained the same. While this additional group of votes would not have been large enough to have precluded an automatic machine recount immediately after the initial statewide tally, it would have raised Bush’s lead to five digits, and it would have ended the conversation about who actually won the state very early on.
With respect to Palm Beach County, many voters claimed they had intended to vote for Al Gore but had mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan because of the confusing layout of the butterfly ballot (which was designed by a Democrat). Tellingly, Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker acknowledges that there was “an element of hysteria” surrounding this controversy. He reports that: “Democratic lawyers ultimately compiled more than twelve thousand dossiers from disgruntled voters in Palm Beach County, even though Buchanan received only 3,407 votes there. That means that not all of the voters made the mistake they thought they had.”
Even if those Buchanan votes had been meant for Gore, they don’t come close to equaling the over 11,000 votes that Bush lost in the Panhandle due to the actions of the media.
The two poll workers’ statements were given as affidavits on March 21, 2001. They were then submitted as exhibits in an antitrust lawsuit filed in Pensacola in October 2002 challenging the Voter News Service (VNS) and its constituent members as a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Act. The VNS was an exit-polling consortium founded by the networks, cable channels, and the Associated Press and operated as the media’s sole source for information ranging from exit polling to poll closing times. In the fallout of the Florida recount, the VNS was blamed for the retracted Florida calls and other mistakes the media made on Election Night.
(Incidentally, one of us, Boyden Gray, was asked to testify before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee in May 2001 about the actions of the media and these very affidavits, but he was prohibited from doing so by his then-law firm, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering—now WilmerHale—because ABC, a client of the firm, objected.)
Ten days after the election, Congressman Billy Tauzin (R-Fla.) and other Republicans accused the networks of bias against Bush—through the timing of their calls of a number of states—in their Election Night coverage. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing to investigate on February 14, 2001. Between the recount and the hearing, however, Tauzin dramatically changed his views. In his opening statement before the committee, he said, “The good news is that we discovered no evidence of intentional bias, no evidence of intentional slanting of this information.” Academics and network news executives testified, and the VNS—as though it were an unrelated third party, when it was in fact the combined effort of the networks and cable channels themselves—was roundly scapegoated for news coverage they all deemed “embarrassing.”
But the most telling part of the hearing came before any of the expert testimony. At the end of his opening statement, Tauzin announced, “we have prepared a brief ten-minute clip in chronological order of the events of election night 2000. We would like to show you that clip because it presents the problem, I think, in dramatic form.” The lights dimmed, and the committee watched the montage on a large TV screen. (It’s available on C-SPAN.)
The montage from this hearing starts with Dan Rather telling his audience, “if we say somebody’s carried a state, you can pretty much take it to the bank, book it, that that’s true.” It then proceeds to show the various calls and retractions all the networks made. Yet not one example of the 39 misstatements of the Florida poll closing times was included in this video. Obviously, whoever prepared the montage for the congressional committee watched all of the footage from all of the channels and was either genuinely uninformed and not up to the job or understood exactly what the media did and chose to bury it.
After viewing the 10-minute compilation, Congressman Jack Dingell (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat present, echoed Tauzin’s assessment, commenting:
Because of the massive attention to miscalls by the networks on election night and perhaps because of this hearing and inquiry, Mr. Chairman, the networks and others have to varying degrees taken a hard look at themselves and drawn tough and I think appropriate conclusions. CNN, CBS and ABC in particular should be commended for their efforts. Another good piece of news is that contrary to inflammatory allegations made in November the inquiry found no evidence of intentional bias.
Further along in the proceedings, network news executives from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC testified; no one mentioned that their anchors had reported that the Panhandle polls were closed when they were open. The testimony of CBS News president Andrew Heyward inadvertently offers evidence of a cover-up. Heyward told the committee about a report that CBS had commissioned to review its Election Night performance.
Part of the report was written by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who at the time was dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. According to CBS, Jamieson did “an extensive examination of the 284-page transcript of the 12 hours of CBS News election coverage.” In her review, Jamieson recreated a timeline of events; she writes, “At 7:00 PM, Dan Rather announces that the polls have closed in Florida. Later in the first hour, he again reports, ‘The polls are closed in Florida’ (p. 9). This is true for most of Florida, but not for the Western Panhandle, which is in the Central Time Zone.” She makes nothing of this, however, and moves on to discussing matters of little importance, including, ironically, praising Rather because, she claims, he “encouraged those in states whose polls had not yet closed to vote.”
If Jamieson had indeed conducted an “extensive examination” of the CBS transcript, then she would know very well that Dan Rather did not make this “mistake” twice. He said it 20 times. Factoring in breaks for commercials and local news, Rather misinformed Panhandle voters at a rate of once every three minutes he was on the air.
In his spoken and written testimony, Heyward amply cited this report. He even went so far as to tout the integrity of the network, writing: “On a personal note, I am very proud of the process by which CBS News has publicly exposed the flaws in its Election Night performance and procedures. I believe we have met this challenge with a candor and thoroughness that few corporations have ever displayed in acknowledging and addressing their own problems.” They may have met this challenge with thoroughness, but certainly not with candor.
Incidentally, Heyward, like the other network heads, submitted his testimony under oath.
The person who has the most to answer for in this whole affair is Dan Rather. It was he who, live on the air, relentlessly misled his viewers. He started early, at 6:33 p.m Eastern, saying, “Florida, where the polls close in less than half an hour, could be one, if not the, make-or-break state of the night.” By 7:50 p.m., he had repeated this 19 more times. His was the behavior of a man with an ax to grind.
Rather’s grudge against both George Bushes is well-documented, perhaps nowhere better than in his own 2012 memoir. In Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, the veteran newsman devotes much of his narrative to various conflicts with the two presidents. He defends his contentious 1988 interview with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who bested Rather by asking, “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?” (On January 25, 1988, two weeks ahead of the Iowa caucus, Rather hectored Bush over the Iran-Contra affair during a live broadcast of the CBS Evening News. But Bush threw Rather off his guard with the aforementioned quip, reminding Rather and his viewers of, as Jon Meacham puts it, “an embarrassing moment when the anchor had stalked off his set in September 1987 to protest his broadcast being delayed for a tennis match, only to have the network go dark for a few minutes.”) Rather also defends at length his phony Texas Air National Guard reporting just ahead of the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, which eventually led to his bitter departure from CBS. (Just eight weeks before the 2004 election, Rather reported on 60 Minutes that George W. Bush “may have received preferential treatment in the Guard after not fulfilling his commitments.” Twelve days later, following heavy scrutiny of the documents backing up his claim, Rather acknowledged, “Tonight, after further investigation, we can no longer vouch for their authenticity.”)
But Rather does not discuss the 2000 election—or the media’s coverage of it—at all. What he did on TV that night he expunges from the record.
It is worth noting that, although Dan Rather leaves it out of his memoir, many books have been written about the Florida recount and Bush v. Gore. In fact, no fewer than 16 books on the subject were published in 2001 alone, some of them in the very early months after the recount. The speed with which this volume of literature was produced is, in itself, telling. There was a rush to set the narrative. Largely, this body of work attempts to establish that the important story is that the Republican governor and secretary of state in Florida tried to suppress Democratic voters in Palm Beach County.
For journalists who misstated the poll-closing time only once, you might give them the benefit of the doubt. But with respect to those who said it more than once—Brian Williams, Cokie Roberts, Judy Woodruff, and Tom Brokaw—an explanation is in order. And Dan Rather was off the charts. This was no accident. This performance, not the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, was the voter suppression.
On October 30, a little more than one week before the election, the office of the secretary of state of Florida put out a press release about the Panhandle for the benefit of the news media. It stated, “Secretary of State Katherine Harris today requested the media to delay predictions of the outcome of elections until after 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time,” because “the Secretary wants all Floridians’ votes to be cast prior to predictions of the winners of races.” The press release also quotes Harris as saying, “The last thing we need is to have our citizens in the Central Time zone think their vote doesn’t count—because it certainly does!” Thus, the notion that the Panhandle could be disenfranchised due to its geography was a real fear for Florida politicians.
Not long after the recount, Boyden Gray had a conversation with Ulrik Federspiel, who at the time was the Danish ambassador to the United States. Federspiel was interested to hear how the networks had reported that the polls were closed in Florida when they were still open in the Panhandle because it reminded him of a similar incident in Denmark. Federspiel also said he was especially interested to hear this story because he had been in the White House the day of the 2000 election and had asked a high-ranking political official how the voting was going. That official remarked that they had a real problem in the Panhandle. Asked earlier this year via email if he could confirm this incident, Federspiel replied on January 23 that he had checked his papers and that he could indeed confirm it.
Herein lies the danger of creating a monopoly like the VNS. When the networks and cable news channels all give out the same misstatement, with varying degrees of intensity, it is hard to blame negligence and discount a conspiracy. But when they are all drawing information from the same source, it’s not so hard to see what happened. The VNS was ultimately dissolved in January 2003, as a matter of settling the aforementioned Pensacola lawsuit. The VNS member organizations couldn’t have been more eager to settle and prevent discovery from taking place.
A study released by the American Press Institute in April showed that only 6 percent of the public has a high level of confidence in the news. The study adds that “the majority of Americans, however, cannot recall a specific experience with a news source that made them trust it less.” This makes sense. For who is better positioned to obscure their own untrustworthy actions than the media?
It is not without irony that, to this day, the media regularly deploys the 2000 presidential election as an example of Republican misdeeds. But without the media’s intrusion into the voting in the Panhandle, it is likely that there never would have been a 36-day Florida recount, or for that matter, a Bush v. Gore.
The ultimate result of the media’s actions that night was that George W. Bush ascended to the presidency with something to prove. It didn’t matter that, early in 2001, statewide recounts undertaken by the New York Times and the Miami Herald confirmed him as the winner in Florida. His presidency was significantly delegitimized before it even began. In his recent history of the Bush 43 presidency, Peter Baker acknowledges this, writing that, following the Republican victories in the 2002 midterm elections, “it seemed to some advisers that this finally provided him a measure of validation, even legitimacy, after the much-disputed outcome in 2000.” Later, writing about the 2004 election, Baker adds that Karl Rove and Bush 43 “wanted to show they did not need the Supreme Court to win an election.”
Furthermore, the chaos in Florida in 2000 prevented a normal transition, which went forward during the recount with little of Bush 43’s attention. The consequences of these events for America’s foreign policy have been detailed in these pages by John Hay’s essay “The Deciders.” At 7:08 p.m. Eastern on Election Night, Dan Rather was right when he said, “What happens tonight will set the nation’s next agenda for the 21st century. There are many who believe that this election is not just about the next four years, but it may well decide the direction of our country for the next generation.”
In light of their actions on November 7, 2000, and the cover-up efforts that have followed, the notion of “trust, but verify” with respect to the news media is insufficient. As the next election approaches, voters would do well to be skeptical: distrust, until a story is verified.
C. Boyden Gray served as White House counsel under President George H.W. Bush and as U.S. ambassador to the European Union under President George W. Bush. Elise Passamani earned her doctorate in French literature from the University of Oxford in 2015.