On November 7, 2000, during the final hour and a half of voting in Florida's most conservative region, the Panhandle, 13 national television journalists, representing all six major outlets, asserted a total of 39 times that the polls in that region closed an hour earlier than they really did.
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. They hammered away that there was only one poll-closing time throughout the entire state of Florida: 7 p.m. Eastern. The polls in the ten westernmost Panhandle counties—all heavily Republican—were actually open until 8 p.m. Eastern.
Hearing these announcements, viewers in the Panhandle would have understood that their own polls closed at 6 p.m. local time. The effect was to shut down voting in those ten Panhandle counties during the final hour. Sworn testimony from Panhandle poll workers confirms that this is exactly what happened. Given that 357,808 votes were cast that day in those ten counties, thousands were surely disenfranchised, the vast majority of them Republicans. Adding those votes (around 11,000) to Bush's statewide tally would have ended the conversation about who actually won the state very early on. 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.
There were five anchors who handed out this misinformation more than once: ABC's Cokie Roberts, MSNBC's Brian Williams, CNN's Judy Woodruff, NBC's Tom Brokaw, and CBS's Dan Rather. Dan Rather misinformed viewers about the Florida poll closings approximately once every three minutes. For a full, chronological presentation of these statements, see the two video montages at The American Conservative.
In the wake of election night 2000, the media have engaged in a cover-up, aided by a feckless Congress. Specifically, the networks claimed "embarrassment" over their retracted calls of Florida for Gore and then for Bush. They blamed these mistakes on the Voter News Service (VNS), which was the exit-polling consortium formed by the television networks, cable channels, and the Associated Press. The VNS operated as the media's sole source for information ranging from exit polling to poll closing times.
The significance of the VNS is revealed by a brief exchange that reportedly occurred in the White House on the day of the election in 2000. A foreign ambassador told one of us, Boyden Gray, that he had been in the White House on Election Day 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.
Herein lies the danger of creating a monopoly like the VNS. When all of the news channels are drawing their information from the same source, it makes it fairly simple to spread disinformation. The VNS was sued in 2002 because of its status as a monopoly and it quickly dissolved itself, thus terminating the litigation.
Americans' distrust of the major news media is at an all-time high, and yet most can't identify precise incidents that caused them to distrust the news. This case provides a perfect example. 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. This article is adapted from the September/October 2016 issue of The American Conservative. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.