Here’s what TV news must do to fend off an election-night disaster

I learned about the hazards of election night the hard way. In late 2000, only a year into my job as the Buffalo News’s top editor, I had to make the high-anxiety wee-hours decision about a main headline for the paper’s first Wednesday morning print editions. The problem was that no one knew for certain whether it was George W. Bush or Al Gore who had won the presidential race.

But sometime after midnight, a major consortium of news organizations, using exit polls, called Florida for Bush. So we put out a front page with the headline “Bush Apparent Winner.”

Thankfully, only a small percentage of our readers would see that edition on their doorsteps. Those early front pages were just tumbling off the presses when new uncertainty about Florida arose. We changed the headline to one that was more accurate, if less satisfying — “Down to the Wire” — with a secondary line stating that Florida was still in contention.

Small comfort, but plenty of newspapers did much worse with headlines that declared Bush a clear winner. A few even gave the race to Gore. And the TV networks? “We don’t just have egg on our face,” NBC’s Tom Brokaw said afterward. “We have an omelet.”