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SPECIAL REPORT / Decision 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Ghost of '48 Haunts Some Newspaper Editors Today

Coverage: 'Dewey Defeats Truman' headline gaffe is replayed several times over with mistaken calls of Bush victory.

November 09, 2000|GERALDINE BAUM and FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Never before have so many American newspaper headlines been so wrong as they were in the wee hours Wednesday when they proclaimed Texas Gov. George W. Bush winner of the presidential race.

With visions of "Dewey Defeats Truman" dancing in their tired heads, editors were trying by midday to be philosophical about their mistakes.

"I simply erred in making that judgment at 1:40 a.m.," said Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman in Texas.

Acting on projections made by the four television networks that Bush was ahead in the critical state of Florida, the paper for its third edition ran off 59,000 copies with a front page headline that bellowed: "Bush!"

A member of the newspaper's staff took about 200 copies and drove to the governor's victory celebration in downtown Austin intending to sell them to giddy Bush supporters. But editors called the staffer on his cell phone.

"Bring 'em back," they implored.

When it became apparent that the election was too close to call, Oppel, like newspaper editors around the country, got to utter those storied words: "Stop the presses." Or something like that.

"I think I said, 'Stop it,' " Oppel said, trying to recount accurately a most uncertain evening in his newsroom. The next edition headline said, "History on Hold."

Greg Moore, managing editor of the Boston Globe, said that three of the newspaper's four headlines Wednesday were on target. The paper did, however, print 4,000 copies with "It's Bush in a Tight One" before the presses were stopped.

"What journalism is about is writing what you know at the time that you know it," Moore said. "We did what we could."

Indeed, some of the biggest newspapers in America swallowed a dose of humility Wednesday morning.

The New York Times stopped its presses after releasing about 100,000 newspapers with a headline saying Bush "appears" to have won over a story that declared Bush "was elected the 43rd president of the United States. (The Los Angeles Times reported the race to be "neck and neck" but did not call a winner in the race).

But there was caution at the Chicago Tribune, which has yet to live down the famous 1948 Dewey-Truman goof.

Fifty-two years later, Tribune editors were poised to do it again, with a banner head proclaiming a Bush victory, but editors and reporters thought better of it.

"Do we really want to do this?" they asked each other as they watched Bush's lead shrink in Florida. The Associated Press advised that the election was too close to call. So Tribune presses cranked up with a breathless: "As Close As It Gets"--a banner that endured accurately throughout the night.

(The newspaper's chief competition, the Chicago Sun-Times, was less restrained. "Bush!" one edition declared, a copy of which is under lock and key at the Tribune for future gloating.)

A journalist from the University of Quebec, in town to watch how an American newspaper covers an election, declared: "The Chicago Tribune has exorcised its ghost."

"It's part of our history," said Randall Weismann, a Tribune associate managing editor. "We can't avoid it. . . . But we are not standing alone anymore."

Papers around the country have warehouses filled with erroneous headlines in monster type. Some were even becoming valuable as Wednesday wore on. The New York Post's "Bush Wins!" was selling for anywhere from $20 to $100 on Ebay.

Web sites also became a medium for some major newspapers to announce a Bush victory. For a time, the New York Times Web site announced a Republican White House victory and the Wall Street Journal's Internet front page displayed "Bush Wins the Presidency." (The Los Angeles Times' Web site continued to call the race as a close contest without a winner.)

Mistakes aside, it was a night of harrowing creativity for headline writers, and they rose to the occasion:

"A Heart Stopper," thumped the Tennessean in Nashville.

"Unbelievable," marveled the Boston Herald.

"Wild White House Battle Goes Down to the Wire," whooped the Kansas City Star.

"Bush Barely," blared the Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

Unlike the other newspapers, however, the Plain Dealer never had the chance to amend its front page. There were no later editions. "There was a real desire to say something definitive," Editor Doug Clifton said.

Tuesday night and early Wednesday, journalists weighed conflicting reports from many sources as they tried to call an election that could not be called.

They had numerous sources to consider, including the judgments of their reporters and editors, the television networks, live television interviews with campaign officials, major newspapers' Web sites, the Web site of the Florida secretary of state, various exit polls and the news wire services. (Associated Press never took the plunge for Bush, but Reuters did.)

Some editors even went with their gut instincts--and lived to regret it.

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