Ballots and Bedlam

Leonard Downie Jr. on leading coverage of the Gore vs. Bush recount — and much more — during his years running The Washington Post
(Illustration based on photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

It was just after 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2000, when we realized that the historically close presidential election was not over. I was standing next to the nearly deserted national news desk with Steve Coll, who had become my managing editor two years earlier. We were trying to decide what to do about the new front-page plates that had just been put on the printing presses. Should the front page of the final edition of the next morning’s Washington Post report that Texas Gov. George W. Bush had won?

Our incomparable lead political reporter, Dan Balz, had written three alternative lead paragraphs for his election story. One had Vice President Al Gore winning, as the television networks had projected much earlier in the night. Another had Bush winning, as the television networks had projected just after 2:15 a.m. Balz’s third version had the election still undecided. I had sent the Bush-winning story to our production department for the front page of the final edition because sources told Balz that Gore was about to concede the election.

But now, in the final few minutes before the presses would start to print the final edition, Coll and I had doubts. Bush’s lead in the decisive state of Florida was shrinking. I had chosen Coll to be Bob Kaiser’s successor as managing editor when Kaiser stepped down to write books and stories for The Post because he, like Kaiser, was smarter than I was. Coll, a trim man with a boyish face, tousled hair and schoolboy glasses, scribbled numbers on a sheet of scrap paper.

We compared Bush’s dwindling lead in Florida to the number of votes still to be counted. We realized that Gore still had a mathematical chance of overtaking him. At the very least, the narrow margin of victory for either man in the state would be subject to a mandatory recount.

I called the night production manager and ordered that the front-page plates be taken off the presses immediately. Within minutes, the alternative top of Balz’s story was sent through the computer system and engraved onto new printing plates. Soon the presses in our printing plants started printing papers with a new front-page headline: “Presidential Cliffhanger Awaits Florida Recount.”

At about 4 a.m., a Bush aide told reporters that an hour earlier Gore had called Bush to concede the election, but had just called again to retract his concession. There would be a recount in Florida to decide who would become president.

We updated all our stories for an Election Extra edition of the newspaper that was finished for street sale in the afternoon. For the first time in a presidential election, we also updated our website hour by hour, for what became a record-breaking audience on our site.

Disaster averted. It would not have been quite as bad as the “Dewey Defeats Truman” banner headline on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1948, but I would not have wanted a wrong election night front page to embarrass The Post.

Nearly 20 other major newspapers erroneously had Bush winning in big headlines at the top of the front pages of their Nov. 8 final editions, including the Miami Herald, New York Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and Dallas Morning News. The television networks projected the wrong winner twice. But who was counting?

Leonard Downie Jr., left, with Don Graham, then chief executive of The Washington Post Co., after Downie announced that he was stepping down as executive editor of The Post in 2008. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Downie in 1991, shortly before taking the reins of The Post with Bob Kaiser as managing editor. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Leonard Downie Jr., left, with Don Graham, then chief executive of The Washington Post Co., after Downie announced that he was stepping down as executive editor of The Post in 2008. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Downie in 1991, shortly before taking the reins of The Post with Bob Kaiser as managing editor. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

By this time, I had been executive editor of The Post for nearly a decade, after effectively running its newsroom for seven previous years as managing editor under Ben Bradlee. I had come to the newspaper as a summer intern in 1964. I was an investigative reporter, one of the editors on the Watergate story, local news editor, London correspondent and national news editor. I was a hands-on leader, getting out of my office to roam the newsroom much of each day. Don Graham, The Washington Post Co.’s CEO, and Bo Jones, its publisher, entrusted me with all decisions about running the newsroom and covering the news.

Newsrooms are not democracies. Someone must make final decisions about what goes into the newspaper, on the air or online. I made countless such decisions during my quarter century as managing editor and executive editor of The Post. What stories should be displayed on the front page? When was a potentially controversial story ready for publication? Was it accurate and fair? Were there potential libel issues? When might a story’s language or photographs offend readers?

I delegated many decisions to the smart, talented editors working under me. But I was an unusually involved top editor, constantly asking questions, making suggestions, reading story drafts, and engaging editors and reporters in decision-making discussions. While the stories came from those reporters and editors, I saw myself as a catalyst that made their best work possible. But I always believed that the buck stopped with me, and I enjoyed the challenge and adrenaline rush of that ultimate responsibility.

With almost no formal training in managing a newsroom that grew to 900 people, I learned by doing. As executive editor, I established a relationship with each of my managing editors, beginning with Bob Kaiser, of complete candor with one another, especially when we disagreed. I asked Tom Wilkinson, my closest personal adviser, who had become a senior editor for newsroom personnel, to bring me all the bad news that no one else would tell me.

Each year, Wilkinson also was tasked with asking a representative sample of journalists throughout the newsroom to anonymously evaluate me. I was both praised for being an activist editor and criticized for sometimes being too “intrusive in the coverage and editing of stories.” Staff members found me to be open, direct and willing to change my mind, yet too often ready to say what I thought before listening to them. I learned that I played a disproportionately important role in their professional lives. As hard as I tried to discourage it, what “Len says” too often ruled the day, even when I was not around.

I made mistakes. I also made story decisions with which members of the newsroom staff or readers strongly disagreed, such as stories about the private lives of politicians.

Sometimes, I got caught up in the media competition on a big breaking story without putting it in better perspective for Post readers. Like much of the rest of the news media, for example, The Post covered the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson too much like a legal soap opera. I was stunned by African Americans, including those in our newsroom, loudly cheering for a not-guilty verdict. But I soon realized that it reflected their deep resentment of racism, particularly what they saw as racist law enforcement in Los Angeles, something we had not adequately reported.

For many African Americans, the Simpson case was all about race. And race had long been an issue in the Post newsroom, especially because of the large African American population in the Washington area. Although The Post had long ago been among the first major American newspapers to hire Black journalists, their numbers had grown slowly. Women also were underrepresented in the newsroom when I became executive editor.

While I was still managing editor, with Don Graham’s backing, I set up and oversaw a new, generously funded newsroom merit pay system. I designed it to rationally reward performance, while shrinking unreasonable salary discrepancies between White men and women and minorities. To do so, I regularly reviewed with senior editors the performance and pay of every Post journalist, which enabled me to monitor more closely the work of the entire staff.

As executive editor, one of my priorities was increasing the number of women and minority journalists in the newsroom, as well as their opportunities for good assignments and supervisory positions. I frequently put race and gender issues on the agendas of staff meetings and the annual off-site retreats for senior editors. I created newsroom diversity task forces and acted on their recommendations to improve recruiting, hiring, training and career development.

It was a slow process, with setbacks along with progress. But it steadily increased the number and success of women and minorities in the newsroom. During the 24 years I was managing editor and executive editor, the proportion of women in The Post newsroom increased from 34 percent to 45 percent, and for journalists of color the share doubled from 12 percent to 25 percent. Women and journalists of color became a majority of the top 40 editors in the newsroom.

“If we have a bias,” I wrote in an editor’s column two weeks before the presidential election, “it is our love of a good story. And there can be no better story in this town than a hard-fought election that appears to be going down to the wire.

This was not only the right thing to do — and good for newsroom morale. It also was essential to have a diversity of backgrounds among our journalists to most effectively and fairly report on a wide variety of people, places and subjects.

As Ben Bradlee had, I insisted on complete nonpartisanship in The Post’s news coverage and noninvolvement of Post journalists in political activity or advocacy of any kind. The newsroom’s Standards and Ethics policy, which I strictly enforced, required our journalists to “avoid active involvement in any partisan causes — politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations — that could compromise our ability to report and edit fairly.” That meant that members of the news staff could not contribute money to candidates, parties or causes; sign petitions; or participate in any of the many protest marches in Washington.

I stopped voting when I became managing editor in 1984, although I did not require other Post journalists to do the same. As the final decision-maker on The Post’s news coverage, I did not want to decide, even privately, who should be president or hold any other public office, or what position to take on policy issues. I wanted my mind to remain open to all sides and possibilities. I believe that my open mind made it easier for me to pursue and direct aggressive reporting that held all kinds of officials and institutions accountable.

In 1989, when I was still managing editor, some Post journalists wanted to participate in a huge march for abortion rights in Washington. I visited the various newsroom staffs to remind them that it would be a violation of our ethics policy. A few marched anyway. Ben and I did not discipline them, but we forbade “those who forgot about this on Sunday” from violating the policy again. Some of the journalists were unhappy, but it was the last time the policy was knowingly violated. I periodically explained in memos to and meetings with the staff how important it was to not compromise the independence and credibility of our news reporting.

At the New York Times, U.S. Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse had participated in the 1989 abortion rights march, in violation of the Times’s similar policy, even though she covered abortion issues at the court. Decades later, in her memoir, “Just a Journalist,” Greenhouse insisted she had a right to march as a private citizen, separate from her role as a journalist. She also acknowledged making monthly donations to Planned Parenthood. I believe that should have disqualified her from continuing to report on the court, although the Times left her on the beat.

Today, especially, with all the accusations of news media bias, it is more important than ever for truth-seeking journalists to avoid all appearances of bias and to let their work speak for itself. It needs to be all about the story.

Demonstrators protesting George W. Bush’s inauguration clash with Republican Lee Brade, dressed as “hanging chads” (the incomplete punches on a number of ballots in Florida) outside the Supreme Court on Jan. 20, 2001. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)
Election workers check ballots by hand in Florida on Nov. 20, 2000. (Marc Serota/Reuters)
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, right, and running mate Joe Lieberman after a briefing in Nashville the day after the elections in 2000. (Doug Mills/Associated Press)
TOP: Demonstrators protesting George W. Bush’s inauguration clash with Republican Lee Brade, dressed as “hanging chads” (the incomplete punches on a number of ballots in Florida) outside the Supreme Court on Jan. 20, 2001. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Election workers check ballots by hand in Florida on Nov. 20, 2000. (Marc Serota/Reuters) BOTTOM RIGHT: Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, right, and running mate Joe Lieberman after a briefing in Nashville the day after the elections in 2000. (Doug Mills/Associated Press)

In late October 2000, two weeks before the presidential election, I had written an editor’s column reminding readers of the strict separation at The Post between news coverage, which I directed, and editorials, opinion columns and candidate endorsements, supervised separately by the editor of the editorial page. I explained that the editorial page’s endorsement of Al Gore for president did not affect our coverage of the campaign, and that the camps of both presidential candidates had complained at times about coverage they did not like.

“If we have a bias,” I wrote, “it is our love of a good story. And there can be no better story in this town than a hard-fought election that appears to be going down to the wire. We have been trying to make sure that our fascination with the race does not interfere with our responsibility to give voters as much information as possible about the candidates themselves, the issues, what is on voters’ minds and how the campaign is being conducted.

“This mission is more deeply felt by our staff than readers may realize,” I added. “If we do our job well, the voters can best determine where the story goes from here.”

As it turned out, our job became trying to determine just what the voters had determined in the 2000 presidential election. We sent a dozen reporters to places in Florida where ballots were being recounted, while hordes of lawyers for Gore and Bush argued with each other, with state election officials, and in court over how the recount should be done. Dozens more Post journalists worked on it in the newsroom. A Post precinct-by-precinct analysis of voting patterns in Florida showed that significant numbers of presidential votes were never counted in some places, including predominantly African American neighborhoods, because of outmoded voting machines and confusion over how to mark ballots.

During that time Gore called me at home from the vice president’s house on Observatory Circle in Washington, where he was personally directing his camp’s efforts to win the court battles and the Florida recount. He tried to persuade me to report and publish a story that he thought might cast doubt on the fairness of the U.S. Supreme Court’s deliberations. The facts in such a story had already been reported in The Post much earlier, so I told him there would be no reason to publish another version, unless it was to try to influence the outcome of the case. I turned him down.

At one point during the recount, Bush’s margin over Gore in Florida had shrunk to about a hundred votes. Gore was still a few hundred votes behind Bush when the recount was stopped. Bush was declared the winner on Dec. 13, after a controversial split decision by the Supreme Court ended the hotly contested Florida recount. Gore lost the presidential election by five electoral votes while winning the popular vote nationwide — only the fourth time that had happened in American history.

I decided that The Post should join seven other news organizations — including the Associated Press, New York Times, CNN and the Tribune Co., which then owned the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun — in a consortium that spent nearly $1 million on our own recount. NORC, a nonprofit research firm affiliated with the University of Chicago, hired trained investigators to examine 175,100 Florida ballots that Gore wanted recounted. There were problems obtaining the relatively small number of ballots they sought. But, based on those they reviewed, Bush still would have won narrowly in Florida.

A study conducted by the Miami Herald, USA Today and the Knight Ridder newspaper chain came to a similar conclusion. Bush “would have won a hand recount of all disputed ballots in Florida’s presidential election if the most widely accepted standard for judging votes had been applied,” USA Today reported.

The Post published more than 200 stories about the long count in November and December of 2000, plus a book that was released in 2001, “Deadlock: The Inside Story of America’s Closest Election.” We also covered the story continuously online, making The Post more of an around-the-clock news organization.

Downie in 1976. He first came to The Post as an intern in 1964. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

I had first met George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. I arranged a ride on his plane to talk to him during a flight from one campaign stop to another. He steered the conversation away from issues to basic politics, which he clearly enjoyed discussing in detail. What impressed me most was his interest in people, including the Post reporters who were covering him. He gave them nicknames and shrewdly noted their working styles. He struck me as personable and politically astute, if not intellectually impressive.

Katharine Graham, who led The Post as publisher and then CEO from 1963 to 1991, staged a grand dinner party for Bush at her Georgetown mansion in February 2001, a month after his inauguration. It was a festive evening, with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Henry Kissinger, Ethel Kennedy, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer among the guests, along with Washington media folks. Bush, with his folksy manner, seemed quite comfortable.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Bush had not come to Washington as a complete outsider, despite his deep Texas roots. He had quietly spent considerable time studying the presidency of his father, George H.W. Bush, during visits to the White House. And he surrounded himself with Washington veterans at the top of his own new administration. Vice President Dick Cheney had been secretary of defense, a congressman and White House chief of staff. Secretary of State Colin Powell had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and White House national security adviser. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been defense secretary once before and White House chief of staff. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, had served in the White House and Cabinet of George H.W. Bush. They all were well known to Post journalists.

After all the turmoil of Clinton’s second term and the demanding drama of the 2000 long count, 2001 promised to be a quieter time for The Post newsroom. That would change, of course, on Sept. 11, when terrorists hijacked and flew four passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Arlington and, as its passengers revolted, a field in Pennsylvania — killing 2,996 people, including the 19 terrorists. Even on relatively quiet days, leading a newsroom resembles crisis management. On that day, and for many, many days afterward, covering 9/11 and its aftermath became the biggest test of my career.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Chicago Tribune and USA Today ran incorrect headlines about the results of the presidential election in 2000.

Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Post, is the Washington-based Weil Family professor of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School. This article is excerpted from his book “All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and The Washington Post,” to be published by PublicAffairs this month.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks and Daniele Seiss.

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