Fox News’s role in the 2000 election

Fahrenheit 911 begins on election night 2000 where Al Gore is on stage at a Florida rally with a banner reading “Florida Victory.” While this creates the impression that Gore was celebrating his victory in Florida, the really actually took in the early hours of election day, before polls had even opened. Gore returned to his home in Tennessee to await the election results. The “Florida Victory” sign reflected Gore’s hopes, not any actual election results.

The film shows CBS and CNN calling Florida for Al Gore when Moore intones “Then something called the Fox News Channel called the election in favor of the other guy….All of a sudden the other networks said, ‘Hey, if Fox said it, it must be true.’”

“All of us networks made a mistake and projected Florida in the Al Gore column. It was our mistake” says NBC anchor Tom Brokaw in a portrayal that makes it seem as though the NBC retraction was caused by Fox.

Dave Kopel reports the events of the evening in detail that starkly contrasts Moore’s presentation:

In fact, the networks which called Florida for Gore did so early in the evening—before polls had even closed in the Florida panhandle, which is part of the Central Time Zone. NBC called Florida for Gore at 7:49:40 p.m., Eastern Time. This was 10 minutes before polls closed in the Florida panhandle. Thirty seconds later, CBS called Florida for Gore. And at 7:52 p.m., Fox called Florida for Gore. Moore never lets the audience know that Fox was among the networks which made the error of calling Florida for Gore prematurely. Then at 8:02 p.m., ABC called Florida for Gore. Only ABC had waited until the Florida polls were closed.

The premature calls probably cost Bush thousands of votes from the conservative panhandle, as discouraged last-minute voters heard that their state had already been decided, and many voters who were waiting in line left the polling place. In Florida, as elsewhere, voters who have arrived at the polling place before closing time often end up voting after closing time, because of long lines. The conventional wisdom of politics is that supporters of the losing candidate are most likely to give up on voting when they hear that their side has already lost. (Thus, on election night 1980, when incumbent President Jimmy Carter gave a concession speech while polls were still open on the West coast, the early concession was widely blamed for costing the Democrats several Congressional seats in the West. The fact that all the networks had declared Reagan a landslide winner while West coast voting was still in progress was also blamed for Democratic losses in the West.) Even if the premature television calls affected all potential voters equally, the effect was to reduce Republican votes significantly, because the Florida panhandle is a Republican stronghold; depress overall turnout in the panhandle, and you will necessarily depress more Republican than Democratic votes.

At 10:00 p.m., which network took the lead in retracting the premature Florida result? The first retracting network was CBS, not Fox.

Over four hours later, at 2:16 a.m., Fox projected Bush as the Florida winner, as did all the other networks by 2:20 a.m.

CBS had taken the lead in making the erroneous call for Gore, and had taken the lead in retracting that call. At 3:59 a.m., CBS also took the lead in retracting the Florida call for Bush. All the other networks, including Fox, followed the CBS lead within eight minutes. That the networks arrived at similar conclusions within a short period of time is not surprising, since they were all using the same data from the Voter News Service. (Linda Mason, Kathleen Francovic & Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “CBS News Coverage of Election Night 2000: Investigation, Analysis, Recommendations” (CBS News, Jan. 2001), pp. 12-25.)

Moore’s editing technique of the election night segment is typical of his style: all the video clips are real clips, and nothing he says is, formally speaking, false. But notice how he says, “Then something called the Fox News Channel called the election in favor of the other guy…” The impression created is that the Fox call of Florida for Bush came soon after the CBS/CNN calls of Florida for Gore, and that Fox caused the other networks to change (“All of a sudden the other networks said, ‘Hey, if Fox said it, it must be true.’”)

This is the essence of the Moore technique: cleverly blending half-truths to deceive the viewer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *