The delayed finish in the race to determine America's 43rd president resulted in wrongheaded newspaper headlines and the dismantling of newsweeklies' best-laid plans for special issues.
But cable and broadcast news networks saw their Nielsen ratings skyrocket -- although they were heavily criticized for twice calling results prematurely and then retracting them. And many Web sites with election coverage were overwhelmed as users checked back dozens of times a day for the latest tally in the Florida recount.
The TV flip-flop on results, in fact, prompted U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.) to write senior broadcast executives demanding an explanation -- along with hinting a hearing may be called on the matter. "As chairman of the House [Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications], I will be leading an investigation into the possible disenfranchisement of voters on Election Day and looking into ways we can remedy this situation," he wrote.
SKIPPED AD BREAKS
Even though the electoral mess kept millions glued to their TV sets, advertisers didn't necessarily benefit. That's because many networks skipped commercial breaks on election night for fear of missing an important news development. Collective Nielsen ratings for the top four broadcast networks as well as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC were up 60% over election night 1996. However, in '96 Nielsen measured only ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN.
While the delay was bad for the presidential candidates, it was good for . . . giraffes.
Time Inc.'s People at the last minute was forced to fill several pages that had been slated for a feature story on the president-elect with what Senior Editor Jack Friedman called "a cute animal story" about a pricey Kenyan resort where guests share space and snacks with giraffes.
New media benefited from the missteps of old media in other ways. The eBay Web site was cluttered with sellers offering copies of daily newspapers from Elkhart, Ind., to Casper, Wyo., emblazoned with premature headlines heralding a win by George W. Bush. Bids for the New York Post's "Bush wins" headline and the The New York Times' wishy-washy "Bush appears to defeat Gore" topped $100.
NEWSWEEKLIES SCRAP ISSUES
Both Time and Newsweek scrapped traditional post-election issues, originally scheduled to hit newsstands two days after the election. Press releases touting Time's special issue sailed like ghost ships into journalists' in-boxes last Wednesday.
"We are going to be covering this for weeks to come," said Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, who insisted his staff was "jazzed" by the exhausting electoral tumult. "We got some sleep last night," he added.
Business Week, which like People has a Wednesday deadline, scrapped Bush and Gore covers and went with one emblazoned, "What mandate?"
On the Web, according to Media Metrix figures, CNN.com had the most traffic, logging 4 million unique visitors the day after Election Day -- up 400% from the previous Wednesday. MSNBC.com and ABC.com also posted triple-digit percentage traffic increases.
The Drudge Report, which boasted it would post the now-scorned Voter News Service exit poll data, was virtually impossible to access on Election Day. Its traffic spillover took down fellow Monicagate veteran Lucianne Goldberg's site lucianne.com, which also posted Drudge's information
"As you know, the whole Web went wonky," said an apologetic note on lucianne.com.