Twenty years ago this week, I begged my bosses to stop the presses so we could avoid reporting a huge story that wasn’t true: that Texas Gov. George W. Bush had won Florida, and the presidency.
It was election night — specifically, the early morning hours of the next day — in November 2000. I was covering the media’s serial missteps for The Baltimore Sun and realized The Sun was about to be caught up in it all. In the newsroom, I fought through throngs of colleagues who were mapping out the front page to warn Managing Editor Tony Barbieri: You don’t know. You can’t know.
Under duress to publish, Barbieri nonetheless paused to confer with Washington Bureau Chief Paul West. He soon called down to the presses, which had started to print front pages bearing a headline affirming Bush’s win. It would have been “the kind of mistake that can follow you to the grave in journalism,” West recalled Tuesday morning. “And so, by stopping them and telling them that it wasn’t over there yet, we actually did our jobs.”
Right now, many experienced journalists are thinking back to that fateful night in 2000 and wincing as they anticipate covering Tuesday’s election returns. What happened that night has lessons and echoes for what to expect, what to hope for and what to fear from the media today.
The television networks made their now infamous “calls” — which is to say projections — four times that night in early November 2000. First they called Florida and hence the election for Vice President Al Gore, which was then pulled back, and then the same for Bush, which was then pulled back. Television news, contrary to public perception, holds no formal place in the constitutional process for electing a president. Yet like everyone else, newsroom editors around the country are heavily influenced by what they see on TV. Even if they work for TV.
At that time, I had been on the media beat just five months, after three years of covering Congress and politics for The Sun. I rewrote versions of my story about the media that night for each of The Sun‘s five separate editions. I was flipping around, watching what I could in the most quiet place I could find on a small television in Barbieri’s office.
Fox News had been the first to call Florida, and hence the election, for Bush, at 2:17 a.m. The other networks followed suit. Sometime before 4 a.m., I saw Mark Halperin, now disgraced but then the political director of ABC News, pop up on camera, pointing to numbers on a small screen. The webpage belonged to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Its running tally of the vote count showed Bush’s margin withering as minutes ticked by.
At a certain point, it had shrunk to less than 700 votes — in a state where 6 million were cast. There was no way to know the results. I no longer was worried solely about meeting my newspaper’s deadlines. I was worried about my paper.
Top editors were preparing the front page for the final edition declaring Bush to be the victor. I verified the reports, called West, who had been my boss for three years, and said, “This is just too close. There’s no way to say there’s a winner.” West told me he had tried. I spoke to the page one editor, Paul Moore, who agreed but pointed me to Barbieri, an experienced and sage editor.
By the time I reached him, Trish Carroll, who helped oversee production of the print edition, was holding up a phone. The crew at the press needed to know which front page to publish. They had to push the button to let the papers fly.
Barbieri pulled away and called West. “He said it was too close,” Barbieri reflected on Tuesday. “He knew by instinct stuff that most of us would have had to serve for 20 years to know. He was so uncertain the whole evening. It just had a funny feel to him.” (Barbieri says his only regret is failing to utter those famous words, “Stop the presses!”)
The Sun had dodged a bullet. Many newspapers did not. The U.S. Supreme Court would determine the victor more than a month later.
“Of course, everybody in my position that night had the same nightmare in our heads, which was the headline ‘Dewey Defeats Truman,’ ” Barbieri said.
Our final edition read: “Election too close to call with Fla. in the balance.”
In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to executives at all five major television news organizations and The Associated Press. All say publicly and privately that they intend to be incredibly careful with what they project in the 2020 race. First is less important than right. They are on the guard against misinformation. They are poised to report on the competence and the integrity of the election process.
All of this is to the good.
But President Trump has repeatedly challenged — without any basis — the integrity of voting by mail. He has repeatedly claimed — without any proof — he will only lose by fraud. So new and tough questions arise for the networks in particular: How do they cover him on election night, and in the days ahead? Will they cover his speeches live? How will they fact-check his claims? What will they do if he says things that could incite violence by his more voracious supporters?
The media are likely to be outmatched once more. And everyone — everyone –is looking over at Fox News.
“They have remarkable influence over a large portion of the American public, obviously almost exclusively Republican and heavily pro-Trump,” West said. “That’s something that didn’t exist in the year 2000.”
He notes that Fox has had a strong track record for its performance on election night in recent years.
Even before the 2016 election, the network bound itself to the fortunes of Trump. For years, it has served up elaborate discussions of unfounded conspiracy theories and claims about the president’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, and his family. That’s only become more intense in recent weeks. What Fox News does and reports will frame events for its viewers and his most loyal supporters, especially if results are close or favor Biden.
Its coverage is to be presented Tuesday evening by figures from its news side, including political anchor Bret Baier and anchor Martha MacCallum — both of whom tend to be sympathetic to Trump but grounded in news — and Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, one of the network’s most straight-ahead journalists. Its polling and decision desk operations are highly respected. Trump has expended a lot of time trashing Fox’s polls. Even when he appears on Fox News. Especially then.
There’s no better example of that than on election night 2012 when Republican strategist and then-Fox News pundit Karl Rove refused to believe the network’s projection that GOP nominee Mitt Romney would lose Ohio. Fox’s then-star host Megyn Kelly strode down the corridor from the studio, camera trailing her every step, to the decision desk, which calmly explained its conclusions that President Barack Obama had won the state.
A Fox News colleague told me this week that nothing was left to chance. And Kelly confirmed for me that her televised walk — though not her confrontation with Rove — had been carefully choreographed in advance, just in case.
Back in 2000, The Sun had assigned a former international exchange fellow working in New York City, Deborah Bach, to embed with Fox’s decision desk to provide color for our reporting. Among those on Fox’s desk at the time was John Ellis — George W. Bush’s first cousin. Later that week, The New Yorker reported Ellis had been the one to make the network’s fateful Florida call for Bush.
Rob Zimmerman, then a spokesman for Fox News, pressured me to get Bach, then at just the start of her career, to participate in a conference call with reporters from other newsrooms to disabuse them of the idea that Fox had let Bush’s cousin make that kind of weighty decision.
The two problems with his idea: Bach had left just before 2 a.m., that is, before Fox projected Bush the winner, because she had had to get up early for her new job. And Ellis had boasted to her that the decision would be his to make. (“That was such a crazy time,” Zimmerman said Tuesday. “I have no recollection of that, which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” Bach also says she is now hazy on the specifics.)
Fox’s decision to bestow Florida, and hence the election, to Bush had a ripple effect on other networks and on how many Americans interpreted what had transpired. The way they understood it, a win had been taken away from the Republican.
It may all work smoothly this time around. The polls may hum efficiently. The candidates may behave themselves. The media may show civic responsibility.
For election night 2020, Fox (along with others) promises restraint. And I hope they’re right.
Back on Election Day 2000, for the first time, the media were one of the main stories for the night, and not for good reasons. The Sun was one of the lucky ones. We’d hate to relive the infamy of that night this week.