Brian Dunphy of Greensboro Community TV interviewed me a couple of weeks ago for a documentary on the News & Record. He asked me to tell him some good stories about the paper. Sadly, my mind only seems to hold onto the screw ups. (I’ve already written about my most memorable mistake.) This is the story of my biggest, most visible mistake.
Election night, 2000.
Once I was editor, I was essentially irrelevant on Election night. The plan had been made, I had approved it, all-star journalists were executing it. I could do nothing but gum up a well-oiled machine. I knew it. When I was metro editor, one of my jobs was to keep the managing editor occupied. So, I accepted my role as the person who ordered pizza.
And managed deadlines.
You remember Nov. 7, 2000. Bush vs. Gore. Hanging chads. What the hell, Florida?Court challenges. The whole bit.
Election night in the News & Record was cruising along. We got all the other races and stories out of the way. Most of the front page, of course, was devoted to the presidential race. It was a nail biter. Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon were close. But it was Florida — damn you, Florida man! — that dragged things out. The night wore into morning as we waited for the election to be called.
Several editors were gathered around our city desk where we had small televisions tuned to the major networks. Mark Sutter, our metro editor, sat at a computer and he and our national editor — Good lord, I can’t remember who it was — were worrying over the wires. TV showed that Gore was leading in the popular vote, which, by now, everyone knows doesn’t matter.
But no one was calling the election. As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, I called the press room at least twice to tell them we needed more time. (Unlike today, the News & Record was printed on the presses located about 20 yards from the newsroom. Deadlines on Election Day were malleable.)
We had a story basically ready. We just needed a couple of graphs at the top and a good, strong photo of the winner. The page was laid out. We just needed a decision.
Finally, we heard that Gore had conceded. Around 2 a.m. one of our wire services — I believe it was the now-defunct Knight-Ridder — called it for Bush. The networks started calling it for Bush. We didn’t have Florida’s final Electoral College votes, but I figured that Gore’s concession and the others were enough.
Now, normally, we call the election when AP calls the election. That’s the rule. But AP wasn’t calling the election. And the pressroom needed the front page.
I didn’t want to have a story that said, “Presidential election deadlocked” at 2 a.m. because I feared that the morning shows would have the results, and our paper would be irrelevant as soon as it hit the driveway.
So, I told Mark Sutter to write a lead that said Bush won. He did.
“George W. Bush was elected the 43rd president of the United States, defeating Al Gore and ending an agonizingly close election Tuesday, according to TV network projections.”
The headline on the front page said “Bush prevails.”
I didn’t say “Run that baby” but I should have. Job well-done, I thought.
I went to bed at 4 a.m. My wife woke me at 7 and said, “You better watch this” and she turned on the TV.
Florida was too close to call and Gore had unconceded.
Our headline and story were wrong, at that time. We weren’t alone, but that didn’t make me feel any better.
I showered and went to the office, debating whether to go to the publisher first and take my beating or to wait until he summoned. I figured it was 50-50 that I’d get fired.
The ending is anticlimatic. I told him what happened and he was understanding. (He used to be an editor.)
And eventually — in December — the headline became accurate.