BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. The coverage of Tuesday's election departed from the others of the third millennium in one noteworthy way – the exit poll data were handled carefully and effectively, despite anxious anchors and a few panicky political operatives. Here's MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, Fox News Channel's Brit Hume, and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman on CNN, fretting. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] CHRIS MATTHEWS: Welcome back to MSNBC's Decision 2006 coverage. Keith, you've got the numbers on the exit poll, why people voted today. KEITH OLBERMANN: And why we were holding back on it. [MATHEWS LAUGHS] Just because these numbers are - [OVERTALK] CHRIS MATTHEWS: We wanted to give AP a chance to beat us on them. KEITH OLBERMAN: No, no. Because we want to be doubly cautious tonight. CHRIS MATTHEWS: Right. BRIT HUME: We are restrained, we can say, here by the fact that the exit poll data is suspect once again. It may turn out to be okay, but it was looking like it had a very distinct, once again, a distinct bias towards the Democrats. We – KEN MEHLMAN: The exit polls predicted the '00 election wrong, the '02 election wrong and the '04 election wrong. And after '04, the gentleman who oversaw the effort said that these exit polls are often inherently biased. BROOKE GLADSTONE: One reason the poll numbers were used responsibly is because for most of the day they were locked up in a room with network reporters denied computers, cell phones, BlackBerries or even windows. When the numbers were finally released at 5 P.M., America was getting restless, especially that part of America filling the hotel halls rented by aspiring lawmakers waiting for the chance to give their victory speeches – or not.
NPR's Mike Pesca was stationed in the ballroom of Virginia Democrat Jim Webb. The whole country was hanging on that race, since it would ultimately decide which party would rule the Senate. Mike told us that Tuesday night, Webb's ballroom looked like any other Democrat's ballroom. All the TVs were tuned to CNN. MIKE PESCA: Because if it's Fox, a Republican is running [BROOKE LAUGHS] and if it's CNN, a Democrat is running. Now, sometimes the Democrats will monitor - I remember at the Kerry victory rally in 2004 – and even if they lose, they call it a victory rally – [BROOKE LAUGHS] at the Kerry victory rally up in Boston, they were playing a lot of NBC, as I recall, but almost no Fox. Fox, they know, would just get booed at the Democratic site.
And so they were playing CNN, and the crowd – and, of course, CNN was covering all the races, and whenever it would come around to the local race, Allen versus Webb, the crowd would get either ecstatic or they would be inconsolable.
And at one point, I wandered over to – there was a small gathering, and in the middle of this gathering was a guy with a laptop, a guy whose name I found out was Ken Bernstein. [BACKGROUND CROWD SOUNDS] MIKE PESCA: Can you tell me what site you're on? KEN BERNSTEIN: I'm on the State Board of Elections site to get the latest unofficial information they have. However, all they're giving is totals, so we don't know where the votes are coming from. MIKE PESCA: But the totals indicate that this is as close as – almost as close as you could be. It says - KEN BERNSTEIN: Actually, no. MIKE PESCA: Go ahead. KEN BERNSTEIN: And the reason why we say no is we don't think most of Northern Virginia is in there. MIKE PESCA: So at this point, Ken explains how he was doing a little electronic tea-leaf reading, and it was his theory at this point that even though Webb was a little bit behind, he really was ahead because the precincts that hadn't reported, if you look at the referendum votes, seemed to indicate they were Webb voters. I don't know. It didn't matter. Actually, he turned out to be right.
What did matter was the fact that there was this one guy on a laptop getting wi-fi, and he was scooping CNN. [BACKGROUND CROWD SOUNDS] KEN BERNSTEIN: I'm 40,000 votes on each of them ahead. I'm ahead of them. MIKE PESCA: You're saying you're beating CNN? KEN BERNSTEIN: No. The state website's beating CNN. MAN: Don't look at CNN. Listen to Ken! BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don't look at CNN. Listen to Ken. [MIKE PESCA LAUGHS] One-man news station! MIKE PESCA: It was weird, because during the night, the media numbers and the State Board of Election numbers were often off by a couple thousand. BROOKE GLADSTONE: A certain theme that gets struck on this program frequently is that the new media are gradually overtaking the old, especially when it comes to late-breaking information, because the Internet makes everybody a news producer and a news consumer immediately. Is that what we saw at the Webb victory party? MIKE PESCA: Yeah. I think what we saw was the trend of the citizen having access to raw data, the source material, not relying on the media as a middleman. It wasn't so much the fact that Ken was 45 seconds ahead of CNN. It's the fact that Ken was out there double-checking CNN, keeping CNN honest because he had the raw information.
And that's also a credit. Not every State Board of Election does that, so that's a credit to Virginia's State Board of Election as well. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And not only did Ken have access to the information, but the rest of the people in the hall had access to Ken's political expertise, which, I guess, he felt was better than that employed by CNN. MIKE PESCA: Well, he was spinning, you know. [LAUGHTER] No matter what those results showed, there was no way Ken was going to say, well, right now it looks tied, but it doesn't look good. Hope always springs eternal in the ballrooms of the Sheratons and Marriotts on Election Day. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So where are you going next, Mike? MIKE PESCA: If there's a ballot measure [LAUGHS], I will cover it. [BROOKE LAUGHS] If there's an election, I'll be there. I feel like I'm giving the Tom Joad speech. [LAUGHTER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks a lot, Mike. MIKE PESCA: You're welcome. BROOKE GLADSTONE: NPR's Mike Pesca.