Sorry about that.
All over America, newspaper editors now understand exactly how the folks at the Chicago Tribune felt in 1948 when they ran the infamous headline: "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."
"BUSH WINS IT," reported the Miami Herald.
"BUSH WINS A THRILLER," said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"It's Bush in a tight one," the Boston Globe declared.
"BUSH WINS!" screamed the New York Post in red type large enough to announce the end of the world. Later, the paper hedged just a bit: "GORE WON'T CONCEDE."
The Yale Daily News--the student newspaper at a small Connecticut school where Bush was graduated in 1968--managed to write a headline that was both premature and delightfully provincial: "BUSH '68 WINS WHITE HOUSE."
It was a long, weird night, and newspaper editors across the country found themselves furiously rewriting front page headlines as television networks moved Florida in and out of each candidate's victory column. The results of all this scribbling were sometimes gloriously comic:
"It's President Bush," the Sacramento Bee declared in its first edition. The second was less certain: "It's Bush--or is it?"
"BUSH PREVAILS," announced the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. Then it switched to "PRESIDENT WHO?"
The Rockford Register Star of Rockford, Ill., fixed its erroneous headline by a simple change of punctuation. The early edition read: "Bush Wins!" The update read: "Bush Wins?"
Maine's Portland Press Herald went from "Cliffhanger" to "Bush, Barely" and back to "Cliffhanger." That was good. But the Boston Herald went them one better: Its front page went from "Cliffhanger" to "Bush Wins!" to "Cliffhanger" to "Unbelievable."
The Washington Times went from "PRESIDENT BUSH" to "DOWN TO THE WIRE" to "NO PRESIDENT YET."
In Riverside, Calif., the Press-Enterprise went from "A Toss-up" to "It's Bush" to "It's close" back to "It's Bush" and finally, back to "It's close."
(For the record, The Washington Post managed to avoid embarrassment with a headline that made up for its lack of pizazz by being true: "Bush, Gore Battle Down to the Wire With Several States Too Close to Call.")
In Austin, Tex., where Bush was watching returns in the governor's mansion, Fred Zipp, managing editor of the Austin American-Statesman, found himself whipsawed by the reversals.
At 11:30 p.m. Central time, with nothing settled, he headlined his first edition: "Florida leaves race up in air." An hour later, he recalls, "the story hadn't changed much," so he led the second edition with "Photo finish." About 15 minutes later, he recalls, the networks showed Bush winning Florida and Gore conceding the election, so Zipp ran a third headline: "Bush!"
"We sold 200 or 300 copies of 'Bush!' to people downtown waiting for Bush to make his speech," he says. "And a couple of thousand got out on trucks. But then the story changed and we called them back."
Finally, Zipp produced his final edition. The headline read: "History on hold."
In Orlando, Fla., Mike Griffin, the political editor of the Orlando Sentinel, was having similar problems. With the state still too close to call, he headlined his first edition: "Oh, so close." Then Bush surged ahead by 50,000 votes in Florida and the networks announced that he'd won the state and the election, and Griffin led the second edition with "IT'S BUSH."
"Suddenly Bush's lead dropped from 50,000 votes to 8,000 in the snap of a finger," Griffin recalls. "We said, 'We gotta stop the presses.' So we stopped the presses and changed the headline to "IS IT BUSH?"
For the final edition, he changed the head to "CONTESTED."
"It was really cool to have it happen that way," he says, exhausted but a bit exhilarated after the ordeal. "I wouldn't have done it any differently. I don't think anybody in the building would have done it any differently. It was an amazing evening."
It was not, of course, the first amazing evening in the history of presidential headline-writing. Eric Newton, the news historian at the Newseum in Arlington, reports that newspapers have frequently misreported presidential elections.
Newton spent yesterday digging classic errors out of the museum's archives: In 1896, the El Paso Times reported "Bryan Defeats McKinley." (Actually, they'd gotten the results backward.) In 1916, the Cleveland Plain Dealer declared: "Hughes Wins Election." (Actually, Woodrow Wilson had defeated Charles Evans Hughes.)
And, of course, there's the famous picture of the victorious Harry Truman smiling broadly and holding up the Chicago Tribune's "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."
"The message," Newton says, "is, you can't always believe what you read."
At the Chicago Tribune, they've learned that message well. The Tribune's headline yesterday morning read: "White House race too close to call."