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The Dallas Morning News

Nov. 9, 2000

By Charlene Oldham

Election night was rough on the nation's newspapers.

The Austin American-Statesman had to recall nearly 60,000 papers with the ebullient one-word headline: "Bush!" In Charleston, W.Va., The Gazette told its readers that "Bush Triumphs." The New York Times declared in early editions that "Bush Appears to Defeat Gore" and then retracted it.

Only the online satirical newspaper The Onion had it right from the start: "Bush Or Gore: 'A New Era Dawns.'"

Serious newspapers could hardly do the same as the outcome of the presidential race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore seesawed with Florida vote totals.

Many editors ended the night with headlines that mistakenly called the election on behalf of Mr. Bush.

"We went with 'It's Bush' when we found out Gore called him to concede," said Sal Recchi, national editor at The Orlando Sentinel, which changed its front page four times through early Wednesday morning.

The Sentinel printed about 100,000 copies of the "It's Bush" edition before Florida campaign officials decided the count was still too close to call.

"At that point, we knew we had to shut the presses down," Mr. Recchi said. "How many of those 'It's Bush" papers made it out, I don't know. But it was a significant number."

The Sentinel ended its press run about 3:30 a.m. eastern time with editions that first read "Is It Bush?" and then "Contested," Mr. Recchi said.

"I think we left here at around 20 to 6 in the morning," he said.

Several prominent newspapers, including the Hartford Courant, declared Mr. Bush the winner in all editions.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Mr. Bush was the winner in its final edition with the headline "Bush wins a thriller," then published an extra Wednesday morning that said the election was deadlocked.

The Dallas Morning News, the Austin American-Statesman, the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times stopped their presses and destroyed or recalled thousands of papers that proclaimed a Bush win.

Stuart Wilk, managing editor of The News, said no editor could have predicted such a confused election night finale, no matter how well they plan for the unexpected.

"I would not say this was one of the eventualities," Mr. Wilk said. "I've been involved in election coverage in one form or another since 1968, and I've never seen anything like it."

Editors around the country expressed similar amazement, most of them saying it was the first time in their careers that they've ever been forced to make such crucial judgment calls on election night.

"We came within one minute of getting that [a 'Bush wins' headline] on the press," said Carole Leigh Hutton, managing editor at the Detroit Free Press. "We were also plagued by a very close Senate race. That was neck-and-neck, too."

The Free Press projected Democrat Debbie Stabenow the victor over Republican incumbent Sen. Spencer Abraham in early editions based on exit polls and other information.

"So during the night, we were really edging out there declaring her the winner," Ms. Hutton said.

The paper, which wanted to definitively name winners in both the presidential and Senate races in its later editions, was confident enough at one point to call the national contest as well.

"We thought we had it, we were going to go with it," Ms. Hutton said. "But what prompted me to call it back was an AP bulletin."

At 3:11 a.m., the Associated Press warned newspaper editors that Mr. Bush's lead in Florida had dwindled to about 6,000 votes. It added that a small percentage of the votes in two heavily Democratic counties had not been counted and could change the outcome of the election.

"By midnight, we knew Florida was going to deliver the presidency to one candidate or the other, and when our TV partners called the state for Bush, the vote was in his favor," said AP executive editor Jon Wolman. "We saw that, too, but we also saw that some significant Democratic precincts were still being tallied, and our vote-count experts felt strongly that it was too close to call."

Some newspapers decided early on that they wouldn't repeat mistakes made by the television networks, which called Florida in the early evening – for Mr. Gore.

"We made a very conscious decision to say that something was being declared, not 'Bush Wins' or something like that," said Mike King, public editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which ended the night with a headline that read, "Bush said to win – but Florida vote questioned."

"We didn't want to declare him winning," Mr. King said. "But we also didn't want to say it was a tossup."

Experts say such fine distinctions illustrate the difference between newspapers and television, which is forced early on to call winners in even the tightest of races.

"I think the newspapers still play a very important role. I stayed up until 3 and got up at 6, but I still reached for the newspapers I subscribe to," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, professor of new media journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "I've always been very skeptical of calling races before the counts are in. This just reinforces that – many times over."

Some newspapers went to extraordinary measure of putting out "extra" editions on Wednesday that updated readers about the race.

The Detroit Free Press was one of them, and its headline summed up the editors' predicament and frustration.

It said, simply: "Who's the Boss?"


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