- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2000

ON MEDIA

That's egg, not ink, on a lot of faces in newsrooms from here to there.
The editor of one newspaper this one blames the eagerness of editors to substitute the judgment of television news for their own.
Whatever, it took just 69 minutes to rock the media world.
Early yesterday morning, newspapers across the country burned through several sets of headlines in search of the bottom line: Who was president? Between 2:16 and 3:25 a.m., television broadcasters pronounced, retracted and finally hedged their way to a conclusion.
Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Across most of the land, earnest editors followed suit, reconfiguring their front pages in grim accordance with the changing reports.
The Boston Globe and New York Times each tried on four different headlines, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald three. According to editor Anne Gordon, the Philadelphia Daily News considered changing its front page eight times, but did nothing.
"We look like geniuses this morning," she noted.
"We never put a Bush victory headline out, more lucky than good, I'd say," said Steve Coll, managing editor of The Washington Post. "We had a cliffhanger headline, and revised it as the information came in."
The final Post headline read "Bush, Gore Battle Down to the Wire With Prize of Florida Too Close to Call."
This newspaper had three different lead headlines, or "banners," in its four editions, including a 6 a.m. Election Extra. "Down to the Wire" ran through two editions, then, at 2:30 a.m., Wesley Pruden, editor in chief of The Times, ordered "President Bush" atop Page One in the third edition.
"This has become a tradition," he said, "with the name of the new president as the lead headline in boxcar type. We did it with the first President Bush and twice with President Clinton. It was a mistake this time almost at once. A few thousand papers got out of the building before we went with 'No President Yet' in the last of the three-star run and the 6 a.m. final.
"We should have known better than to substitute the networks' judgment for our own. The Associated Press, often slow but nearly always reliable and always small-c conservative, originally called Florida for Gore, but didn't take the bait at the end. I wish we hadn't."
One front page, which never was put on the press, was "President Gore," prepared just in case.
The American spirit of enterprise was in fine fettle from sea almost to shining sea. By late afternoon yesterday, over 600 copies of newspapers with erroneous headlines were for sale on E-Bay, the Internet auction site.
Things like "George W. Bush Wins!" and "Bush: A Squeaker" spelled cash for some entrepreneurs.
One Brooklyn seller was asking $999 for his "mint condition" New York Post emblazoned with "Bush Wins!" in huge red letters.
Another hopeful wanted $51 for a copy of the Austin American-Statesman and its big, terse "Bush!" A dozen people had already bid on it.
"This is an actual paper from Austin, Texas," wrote the seller. "I won't tell you how I got this paper … this is sure to be a collector's item!"
For their part, Statesman staffers owned up to their error, and moved on.
"By the time appropriate staff members were notified of developments, our press run was almost over," said editor Richard Weil. They were helpless, he said, and could only update their Web site.
Meanwhile, a media identity crisis of epic proportions loomed in the aftermath of it all. Tom Rosensteil of the Project for Excellence in Journalism blamed speed and technology for the errors of both print and broadcast. The factors had combined to make the media a mere "conduit" for information rather than a delivery system for truth.
"We're reminded that the mystical process of calling votes is not an exact science. We've given it too much credibility," said Rem Reider of the American Journalism Review. "To be wrong once in one night is bad. To be wrong twice is scary."
Some wronged with greater fanfare than others, however.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced that "Bush Wins a Thriller," and was stuck with the headline, unable to correct even its last editions to reflect the Florida revelations.
Confusing headlines in the Yale University newspaper yesterday read "Bush '68 Wins White House," in an effort to honor the famous alumnus. One paper had some practice in headline faux pas. The Chicago Tribune, burned 52 years ago for its "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment of rue, offered a rambling but safe assessment this time around.
"As close as it gets. Gore offers, then rejects concession. Decision hangs on Florida outcome," the Tribune noted.
The Internet had its own trial in the meantime.
The election constituted a "monster event," according to Allen Weiner of Net Ratings, which measures Web traffic. Traffic jams and technical problems were many. The New York Times site took eight minutes an eternity in cyberspace to download a single page, according to one analyst.
Internet headlines can be updated in minutes as the news changes; cyber-journalists have long bragged about the Web's facile nature. But the Internet was subject to the same content challenges as everyone else in the wee hours of yesterday morning: There simply was none at some points.
Like their print counterparts, Internet sites also went through multiple headlines. Getting high marks from industry analysts for its speed and continuity was ABCNews.com, when all was said and done. "We were prepared," said site manager Bernard Gershon. "But we were also lucky."
Jennifer Harper can be reached at 202/636-3085 or by e-mail at harper@twtmail.com.

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