During election night, there were times when the networks could have called the election for George Bush—and declined to do so. Nevada would have been the final Bush state, but calling the state would also have meant calling the winner of the presidential election.
This has led to a debate on whether the networks withheld news from the public. There have also been dark motives assigned to the networks to explain why they failed to make the call.
The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, touched on the issue in an online chat. A reader from Alexandria, Va., asked Kurtz, “Howard, regarding the network projections—as media critic, do you feel the networks were correct or incorrect in making sure no candidate had over 270 votes on Wednesday morning? I can understand the reluctance of CNN, ABC, and CBS to call Ohio during that time frame. But once Fox and NBC called Ohio giving Bush 269, they didn’t call anything else. Nevada and New Mexico could have been easily called (like the others did). It was like they did not want to be the ones to declare Bush had 270.”
Kurtz responded, “Even though other nets were calling Nevada for Bush beginning around 3:45 a.m., NBC and Fox did not call another state until Kerry conceded at 11. Fox denies that it didn’t put Bush over 270 out of any nervousness, saying that those other states were too close to call. After the 2000 fiasco, no one wanted to get it wrong, especially on the biggest call of all.”
On the morning after the election, BBC, ABC, CBS, CNN had all called Nevada for Bush. But they had not called Ohio for Bush, so calling Nevada did not mean calling the presidential election. FOX News and NBC, having earlier called Ohio for Bush, did not then call Nevada for him. It would have been equivalent to calling the election for Bush, and anchor Tom Brokaw later told the Associated Press, “Our judgment is that we will not be the arbiter. There will be no declaration from us tonight as long as the Kerry campaign is contesting in Ohio.” Brokaw was more candid than those speaking for other networks, who denied being skittish after the 2000 fiasco.
For the networks, this was an awkward switch. Their news people have always defended election projections on the grounds that if vote totals posted on the screen make it apparent to the public that a state has gone for a candidate, it would be foolish of the networks not to call it.
There are those willing to raise questions about why it did not happen. Web log www.CountryKeepers.com’s Gary Peterson wrote, “I don’t understand why NBC is holding out on calling Nevada, unless it is so they don’t have to call the race. You don’t suppose it is because news organizations are biased towards Senator Kerry, do you?”
Another web log, www.BradStevens.com, said, "Perhaps there were questions about Iowa and New Mexico, but the stats on Nevada was [sic] quite clear. Indeed, it appeared quite clear that Bush had been re-elected. All that is left is to project that Bush has won the election. But, even though the hard numbers are out there for all to see, the media refused to call it for Bush. Yes, you could see the sparkle in their eye when Kerry refused to concede. They would contribute to the efforts of the Kerry campaign in the one way they could—by not projecting a winner."