Media Tiptoes Around Election Results

Less was more in Tuesday's TV coverage of the midterm elections.

News networks and cable channels treaded carefully as results came in from across the country — and most news anchors and pundits waited to declare winners and losers.

Facing numerous races that CBS' Dan Rather termed "tighter than a Botox smile," the networks pledged not to repeat the errors of two years ago.

In the 2000 presidential election the media contributed to the mass confusion over who actually won: Two networks proclaimed Al Gore the winner in Florida, took it back, declared George W. Bush the new president, took that back and then waited with the rest of the country for several weeks for the election to be decided.

This time, news professionals were more cautious.

"I think the major news networks have been playing it safe because they don't want to screw up again," said Phoenix resident Mark Valenta. "The coverage seemed less erratic and more measured."

Last year the confusion at the networks partly "reflected the confusion that was happening on the ground," said This Week host George Stephanopoulos.

Still, that doesn't excuse jumping the gun, Stephanopoulos said.

With so many close races, the media mostly steered clear of incomplete exit poll information. It was quite a change from past election nights, when networks scrambled to beat one another in projecting winners by even a matter of minutes — then bragged about it.

"Professional pride may be invested in not saying anything until the numbers are actually in," Stephanopoulos said.

Yet, Valenta added that the more responsible coverage was "a bit more clinical or sterile."

Because midterm election coverage is less watched than presidential years, these elections are essentially a rehearsal for the 2004 presidential contest.

"We were mortified by what happened in 2000 and we're determined to win back the confidence of our viewers," said Bill Wheatley, executive vice president of NBC News.

And viewers say accuracy is key in keeping them tuned in.

"I guess the gist is that the networks seem less aggressive about being first than getting it right, which is a good thing," said Valenta.

Meanwhile, newscasters prepared the audience for a long night, recommending a brief nap and a full pot of coffee. They warned of days or even weeks before some races would be settled.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.