Four years ago, when Al Gore and George W. Bush left the stage after the first of three presidential debates, the consensus among viewers polled by the TV networks was that the vice president had beaten the Texas governor. In the words of Hardball host Chris Matthews, Gore had “cleaned the other guy's clock.”
But within a few days, opinion began to shift, as pundits like Matthews focused relentlessly on the fact that Gore had sighed too much.
When last night's presidential debate ended, there was little doubt among viewers who had won; the networks' in-house quick-polling operations all gave John Kerry the win by sizeable margins.
In 2000, television agreed on the first night that Al Gore won the debate. Then the spin set in. Look out for a replay.
In case you were wondering whether or not to pay attention to the presidential debates over the next three weeks, CNN's blowhard-in-residence Jack Cafferty delivered the verdict in advance on Monday morning.
“The presidential debates begin Thursday,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether they're going to be worth watching. My sense is they probably won't be.”
There was plenty of humiliation to go around in the aftermath of the 2000 elections. Vote counters and ballot designers, election boards and state legislatures all came in for heavy criticism. But special ignominy was reserved for the five major broadcast and cable networks and their news operations. The networks that night broadcast multiple incorrect reports, including the premature and still-disputed claim -- initiated by FOX at 2:15 a.m. -- that George W. Bush had won the state of Florida. “It was the most embarrassing evening in the history of network TV, politically,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “They just embarrassed themselves and failed in the basic public-interest obligation they have come to have over the years.”
The quadrennial political Kabuki over the scheduling of presidential debates has begun again. As is their usual practice, the members of the Commission on Presidential Debates are keeping a low public profile while allowing themselves to be bullied behind the scenes by the incumbent's handlers, who seem reluctant to agree to even a limited schedule of three debates with their opponent.
The Washington Post is being roundly ragged by its journalistic counterparts this week for producing a special section headlined “Election 2000,” a mistake made by production staff who used an old template to create the new section.
But a more egregious misuse of a 4-year-old template hit the newsstands this week yet received little notice.
Four years ago, Newsweek's Evan Thomas produced a profile of Al Gore headlined “The Precarious Prince,” in which readers learned that the candidate had few friends in high school (where he was mocked for being serious), that he remained a “stiff,” that he appeared to be a big phony, and that he was regarded as “remote” by voters.