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Dewey Takes Florida!

When they close the book on Bernie Shaw -- and it looks like they'll be doing that early next year when the CNN anchor retires from the rigors of reading a teleprompter -- there'll be some serious noodling over what moment stands out as the defining act of his career. Maybe it's Shaw leaving the complacent security of ABC to work at a rinky-dink cable news channel that was little more than the pet project of the Atlanta Braves' crazed owner. Or there was Shaw's stint in Iraq during the Gulf War, reporting from under his bed in a Baghdad hotel while U.S. bombs knocked chunks of plaster off the ceiling. And few can forget Shaw quizzing Michael Dukakis about what the Massachusetts governor would do if his wife turned up raped and murdered, provoking such a dispassionate, muddled response from the Democratic presidential hopeful that William Rhenquist might as well have popped up from a trap door in the debate stage and sworn in George Bush then and there.

Sadly, though, I think most people are going to remember Bernie Shaw as the flummoxed news anchor who sat there like a deer in the headlights during Election Night coverage as the state of Florida ping-ponged back and forth between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Not that Shaw was the only talking head who turned in a poor performance a couple weeks back. With the exception of Dan Rather and his mystifying barnyard animal analogies, most of the network and cable anchors had Election Night moments where it looked like they were channeling Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And Shaw certainly didn't lay the biggest egg during election coverage. That honor goes to the person seated to his immediate left -- sputtering nincompoop Judy Woodruff, who, if she's going to make a serious go of this news-reading gig, had best overcome her fear of simple voice commands and string together a sentence or two that doesn't make home viewers think she's in the throes of dementia.

Just a thought, Judy.

Still, it was Shaw who will live on in my Election 2000 memory bank, long after I've forgotten whether it was Al W. Bush or George Gore or some other empty suit that ended up winning the presidency. Bernie Shaw stands out because as the evening wore on, as Election Tuesday faded away into Lawsuit Wednesday, the CNN anchor came across as... well... panicky.

With each stumble, each plaintive question to CNN's endless parade of pundits, each tight shot of his rapidly moistening brow, Bernie Shaw's internal monologue became clear to a viewership of millions. It isn't supposed to be like this, you could hear Shaw thinking. It's supposed to be over by now. 8 p.m., we call the race. 11 p.m., the guy we've pegged as the loser comes out to concede. 11:30 p.m., the winner accepts our coronation. And midnight, I'm in bed with the wife, sipping a hot Scotch toddy.

Instead, there was Shaw still at his CNN anchor desk at 3 a.m., the witching hour just a speck in his rear view mirror and the presidency no more decided then than it was a week earlier.

And so Shaw went a bit daft. Charged with the task of interviewing a Florida elections official about the state's mandatory recount, the punchy anchor kept asking the same questions over and over again, preceding each inquiry with the befuddled election official's first and last name every damn time.

"Bob Myers, when do you estimate that Florida will have completed the recount and we'll know who the winner is?"

"I really can't say."

"Bob Myers, this presidential race -- which has been going on for some time -- will be decided once the outcome of Florida's vote is decided. And that will happen when?"

"Really, it's not my place to..."

"Bob Myers, just tell us when Florida will get its shit together so I can go home and drain all the booze from my liquor cabinet."

Or words to that effect.

You can understand Bernie's high dudgeon. All night long, CNN -- and, to be fair, just about every network news team -- handled coverage of the Florida election results with the grace and dexterity of a Jerry Lewis routine.

By 5 p.m. Pacific time, while I was still at work, the networks declared that Al Gore had won Florida's 25 electoral votes, citing exit polls that surveyed, I dunno, half-a-dozen voters on the outskirts of Winter Haven. By the time I drove home and began cooking chicken for the Schmeiser-Michaels Election Night Gala, Florida was back in the undecided column and professional grump William Bennett was reading Larry King the riot act -- like Larry King's poring over the polling data and telling the CNN anchors what's what, instead of tossing softball questions at addled starlets. By 11:30 p.m., the networks decided that George W. Bush had actually won Florida -- kind of a gutsy call considering they had gotten it wrong just a few hours ago using the same data. And by 1 a.m., Florida was a toss-up again, and Gore campaign chairman William Daley was declaring that the election wouldn't be decided until he had enough time to commit massive voter frau... er, I mean, until every vote was counted.

The lessons here are clear. One: any election involving a scion of the Daley family will, at some point, involve dead voters rising from their graves and marching en masse to the ballot box. And two: exit polling will be the death of us all.

I'm not one of those tongue-clucking good-government types who lament that exit polls trumpeting results from the East Coast are evil incarnate because they discourage West Coast voters from casting their ballots. If the fact that Delaware voters cast their lot with Al Gore or that citizens of the Granite State have thrown the weight of New Hampshire's three electoral votes behind George Bush keeps you from voting, then frankly -- and I say this with all due respect to my fellow citizens -- you deserve to have every state, county and municipal elected office staffed by charlatans and scoundrels and Green Party candidates.

No, I'm one of those tongue-clucking good-journalism types who believe that exit polls are evil incarnate because they pass off conjecture as fact, projection as reality.

There's nothing terribly wrong with saying that exit polling data leads us to conclude that Candidate Porkbarrel will soundly defeat Candidate Graftsalot once all the votes are officially tallied. Too often, though, the TV networks fail to make this distinction. Exit polls are treated as incontrovertible fact, as a fait accompli.

Just after polls closed in the Central timezone, I logged on to cnn.com, just for shits and giggles, to see how some of the Senate races were shaking out. CNN had already declared winners in several of those states. With zero percent of the vote counted.

Is there any other kind of news story where this sort of incomplete reportage is not only accepted but encouraged? Fox Sports doesn't interrupt its World Series coverage during the seventh inning stretch to declare that the Yankees have defeated the Mets. When there's a high-profile court case, nobody at the networks projects the winner halfway through the closing arguments. And it would be sheer folly for a network broadcasting the Olympics to tape delay coverage by as much as an entire day and rebroadcast the taped, musty footage as if it's a live event happening then and there.

OK... bad example. But I think my point still stands.

Chastened by the reaction to their Clouseau-like bumbling, the networks immediately promised never to do anything so sloppy and slapdash and scatter-brained again. Of course, in network-speak, such apologies usually amount to, "Give us 30 minutes to collect ourselves, and then we'll get right back to incorrectly reporting that the polar ice caps have melted or prematurely declaring that Bob Hope has died." Indeed, when Florida began its mandatory recount, networks like CNN reverted to form. Partial tallies were reported without context or attribution. Facts and information came in piecemeal, but not before filtering through the Gaussian blur of Spin. Talking heads filled the airwaves with their own particular brand of hot gas.

Ah, but what do you expect from TV -- accuracy? Before you turn in your essay-length answer, please keep in mind this is the medium that refers to Cursed as Must-See TV.

No, your best bet is to hope that when the dust settles and events sort themselves out, the reports airing on TV news will bear a passing resemblance to what actually occurred. And if you're Bernie Shaw, you hope that people spent Election Day watching taped highlights of CNN's Gulf War coverage instead of election returns.


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