For months NPR's election team has been gearing up for the biggest day of primaries and caucuses in the history of American presidential elections. Tuesday evening, Studio 4 A, NPR's largest, was transformed into "election central" with four projector screens, dozens of computers and more than 50 people.
At the center of the quiet room was a raised black-skirted platform where All Things Considered hosts Robert Siegel and Michele Norris, headsets on, sat on black folding chairs anchoring the first half of NPR's live eight-hour broadcast.
The only chance to get up would be the one minute or 90-second breaks built into the time clock that allows local stations to cut in. "No time for bathroom breaks," noted Siegel.
That didn't matter. "Nothing beats doing live radio when the story's full of surprises. I could have sat there for another hour or two," said Siegel, who handed over the microphone to NPR's Scott Simon and Andrea Seabrook at 11:50 p.m.
Preparing to cover 24 state political contests required detailed planning and a dress rehearsal the previous Thursday. For the anchors, there were thick briefing books. To make sure NPR's information was first-hand, the network had 19 correspondents at political headquarters around the country. Technicians stood at the ready against the wall.
The event was tightly choreographed into 30-minute segments that were continually updated as news broke and different politicians became available. NPR was careful to give five or six minutes each over the course of the evening to the three Republican and two Democratic candidates who'd won primaries.
Nothing was left to chance. NPR's editorial guidelines insist that "NPR will project race winners only after ALL polls close in a given a state." Only the two top political editors, Ron Elving and Ken Rudin, were allowed to project a winner.
The real drama of the evening came with the bellwether state of Missouri, famous for its ability to choose winning presidential candidates. At 11:22 p.m., NPR had Missouri as "too close" to call for both Republicans and Democrats — even though the AP, which news organizations depend on, had given it to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
NPR announced Clinton's win at 11:27 p.m.—three-and-a-half hours after Missouri polls closed
"In Missouri, where elections tend to be close, NPR has declared Hillary Clinton the winner for the Democrats and John McCain for the Republicans," wrote NPR reporter Brian Naylor on NPR's blog at 11:33 p.m. "Clinton's win came despite the efforts of the state's junior senator, Claire McCaskill, who endorsed (Sen.) Barack Obama from neighboring Illinois."
Soon, some news organizations — but not NPR — began to backtrack on whether Clinton was really the winner.
By 11:50 p.m., an NPR listener posted a comment on Naylor's blog. "The Missouri projection is too early," wrote Dan Hall. "Clinton is above Obama by under 10,000 votes and those that remain to be counted are in districts where Obama is running 2:1 ahead of Clinton."
At 12:09 a.m., another blogger wrote: "It's 49 - 49 how can you call this race?."
At 12:17 a.m., someone else wrote on Naylor's blog: "NY Times projects Obama over Clinton in Missouri 49%-48% with 97 percent reporting. NPR, did you call this too soon?"
Some listeners tried to telephone NPR, and others sent emails but there was really no way to get through at that hour even though many were still working in Studio 4A.
"On the one hand, I thought NPR's coverage was just great," said Elizabeth Owen, from Gordon, WI., Wednesday morning when she phoned me to complain. "But I sat there so frustrated last night. I knew Missouri had switched to Obama and tried to call and email. I just found it very misleading for NPR to not, at least, say NPR was unsure."
Now that technology has come to play such an interactive role in election night newsgathering, NPR's Simon made a good suggestion. Why not have one five-minute segment every now and then where people posting to NPR's blog could ask questions and comment to NPR editors and correspondents in real-time?
At 12:32 a.m. — with NPR still projecting Clinton — the AP sent out an advisory: "The AP is uncalling the Democratic presidential race in Missouri. The vote now suggests the race is too close to call for Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama has taken the lead."
By 12:41 a.m., CBS, Fox, Reuters and NBC were projecting Missouri for Obama.
Calling races — correctly and at the appropriate time — is important for two reasons. First, is the overriding need to give listeners accurate information. The other is that when radio and TV networks call a race for a candidate, it has the potential to influence states where polls are still open. In this case, California polls were closed by the time NPR inaccurately reported for an hour and a half that Clinton was the winner, so it couldn't influence West Coast voting.
NPR's senior Washington editor Elving did pull back the Clinton call on air at 1:02 a.m.
"We talked about it on the air, saying we and other news orgs had called the state when it appeared Clinton had won with 96 percent of the vote counted," said Elving in an email. "The last 4 percent came in quite heavily for Obama, an unusual but not unprecedented occurrence."
Most news organizations are still shaken by their disastrous flip flop predictions in the 2000 presidential election, which made Elving more cautious about calling it one way, then another, and possibly reversing it again.
NPR officially declared Obama the winner in Missouri at 4:13 p.m. (not a typo) Wednesday.
NPR's incorrect call, in otherwise superb coverage, had no effect in this case. But come the national election, if such an error by NPR or any broadcast outlet occurs in a tight race, it could conceivably affect the outcome.