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For many newspapers, election headlines read, 'Oops'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Whipsawed between presidential election returns that turned on a dime, and production schedules that couldn't, newspaper editors crossed their fingers in the early morning hours yesterday and started their presses.

And many got the story wrong.

From New York to San Francisco, from Chicago to Orlando, thousands of morning newspapers rolled off the presses after 2 a.m. EST with headlines like the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman's: "Bush! Florida Seals It: Texan elected 43rd President."

USA Today printed several hundred thousand papers with the headline, "Bush appears victor as Florida delivers key votes.

In Boston, the Globe declared, "It's Bush in a tight one." The Tampa Tribune said, "Florida Elects Bush."

In huge type that recalled the famous 1948 "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline in the Chicago Tribune, papers all across the country told their readers, "Bush wins!"

The New York Post said the same thing - in red.

Unhappily for the editors, by 4:30 a.m., the news had overtaken their headlines.

Even as the presses rolled, the presidential contest in Florida, whose 25 electoral votes had become decisive in the national race, had grown too close to call.

The networks put the state back in the undecided column. It would take a statewide recount to decide, for the rest of the nation, whether Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush would be the next president.

"This was one of those evenings when I was glad I wasn't in the newsroom anymore," said Tom Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland School of Journalism and a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News. "There's no worse feeling in the world than having to put a paper to bed with a big story and not knowing how it was going to turn out."

During national elections, most daily newspapers rely on several sources for their national returns and projections, including the television networks, wire services such as the Associated Press, and the contacts, experience and instincts of their own reporters and editors.

Unfortunately, the networks and wire services rely in large measure on the same numbers and projections, which come from a research service they created, called Voter News Service.

VNS had already reversed itself once on election night, giving Florida to Gore just before 8 p.m., then taking it back two hours later.

Early editions of the daily papers reflected the uncertainty. The Chicago Sun-Times headlined "Bush and Gore Fight to Finish." The Orlando Sentinel said, "Oh so close." In Baltimore, early editions of The Sun read, "Bush, Gore in Cliffhanger."

But shortly after 2 a.m., Voter News Service and then the networks and AP gave Florida to Bush, seemingly clinching the election.

In Austin, the American-Statesman's final edition was already rolling off the presses. Its headline read, "Photo Finish; Bush, Gore and History Await Florida's Decision."

But now, "the consensus had developed that Bush would win Florida," said Managing Editor Fred Zipp. "All the networks were reporting it, and Gore had made his concession phone call. So we replated that edition with a new front page that updated the main story and replaced the headline with 'Bush!'"

Soon, hundreds of copies of the "Bush!" paper were being sold in Austin, where Bush supporters had gathered to hear the governor's victory speech. Another 59,000 were being printed, packed onto trucks and dispatched to the hinterlands. Then the roof fell in.

"At 3:15 [a.m., Central Time], we realized that Gore had retracted his concession and there was going to be a recount in Florida," Zipp said. The trucks were recalled, and 59,000 copies of the "Bush!" edition were scrapped. The front page was replated at 3:30 a.m. local time. This time the headline said, "History on Hold."

That was the headline that 180,000 American-Statesman subscribers and single-copy buyers received yesterday morning.

Similar scenes were being played out in newsrooms across the country, and the agonizing was apparent in the headlines on successive editions. At the Chicago Sun-Times they read, in chronological order: "Bush and Gore Fight to Finish," "Bush," and, finally, "Recount."

At the Orlando Sentinel, "It's Bush," evolved into "Is it Bush?" and finally "Contested."

At The Sun, editors had written their own headline declaring Bush the winner. "We were five minutes from putting the plate on the press," said Managing Editor Tony Barbieri.

But key Sun reporters and editors in Washington and Baltimore began to notice that the vote gap between Bush and Gore in Florida was evaporating. Between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. EST, even as the Bush camp was reporting Gore's concession, the Republican's lead in Florida, as reported on the wires, was plummeting from 55,000 votes, to 11,000, then to 5,000 and less.

It was way too small to support a headline and a story declaring Bush the winner. The Sun's final editions said, "Election too close to call with Fla. in the balance."

Other papers, too, pulled back. The Wall Street Journal called it "... a nail-biter in Florida." The New York Times had "Bush and Gore in Extremely Close Race." The Los Angeles Times said, "Bush, Gore are Neck and Neck."

The bad headlines never should have happened, press critics said yesterday.

"It was a really bad night for the press," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"This is a gut-wrencher," he said, "but the fact is, it is better for a journalist to have a story that's incomplete than to have a story that's wrong."

Given the bad call by Voter News Service early in the evening - the one that gave Florida initially to Gore - editors should have been on guard against the same agency's call at 2 a.m., which gave it to Bush.

In Austin, Zipp admitted the embarrassment felt in many other newsrooms across the country.

"We can't point the finger at the networks," he said. "We had a conflicting set of goals. The first was to be cautious and rely on the AP. The second goal was to give readers a paper that was conclusive. And when those two collided, conclusiveness won.

"Gore conceded and we went with it," he said. "We didn't hedge it. We just did not use good newspaper practices."

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