John Harris: Newspaper reporter: ‘A cascade of surreal moments’

John Harris: Newspaper reporter: ‘A cascade of surreal moments’

Harris, John

‘A cascade of surreal moments’

It was 2:20 A.M. on November 8, and for some five hours we at The Washington Post had been intrigued, irritated, and – I admit it, vastly entertained – by the chaos of Election Night 2000 and the difficulty our colleagues in television journalism were having in getting the story straight.

Now, suddenly, it was our turn to panic. I caught a glimpse of political editor Maralee Schwartz racing by my desk, her voice calling out with alarm to executive editor Leonard Downie across the newsroom. There was a brief huddle, then a blur as Schwartz raced over to the national desk. By moments only, the Post had avoided joining the pack of embarrassed newspapers that prematurely published Bush Wins headlines on their front pages.

Schwartz’s astonishingly fleet newsroom dash may be the lasting image of that night as far as Washington Post lore goes. But for me it was only one in a cascade of surreal moments.

Just after 9 Pm., after the usual flurry before deadline and after my first-edition story had been put to bed, I recall thinking, “I’ll be damned, so it’s going to be Gore after all.” The evening seemed to be on a clear trajectory. The networks had declared Gore the winner in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and … stick a fork in Bush with this one … Florida.

Like a lot of colleagues, I was surprised but not surprised. After spending the final weekend on the campaign trail with the vice president, I was torn between my head, which told me there seemed to be little chance for Gore, and my gut, which told me the energy in his crowds and the effectiveness of Gore’s own presentations were cresting at the right moment.

Little did I know. I soon learned that the networks were recanting their initial Florida prediction. Newspaper people often speak a touch condescendingly about network news, but the fact is that on election nights we have come to rely heavily on it. A board listing states and the projections made by each network hung on the wall by the national desk. All around me, some of the best names in this business – Dave Broder, Dan Balz, Tom Edsall – were having conversations on the theme of What the hell is going on?

After covering President Clinton for five years, my role on this election night was to watch a number of contests the race for Senate in New York and the battles to win the House and Senate, as well as the presidential race – and write an analysis of the 2000 elections as a referendum on the Clinton years. My first edition story was mush: we were able to write definitively that Hillary Clinton had won easily, but could say nothing about the other races. Soon enough it became obvious that the clarity missing in the first edition might not arrive in time for the second edition either.

Most outsiders, I suspect, have a mistaken image of what a newsroom is like on Election Day. Like most climactic events, from battles to childbirths, this one is marked mostly by vast amounts of waiting around. Only in the few minutes before an approaching deadline was I especially frantic, as I scrolled wires, kept an ear cocked to the TV, and pressed news aides for the latest information while crafting a lead that captured the most up-to-date information. I hadn’t even bothered to come in until mid-afternoon. When I did, my voicemail was filled with messages from friends and vague acquaintances all pleading for the same favor: exit polling data. Bending the rules, I tried to share the few nuggets I had, but these numbers for the most part illuminated nothing. Then I plunged into the B-matter, the background material that can run no matter what the result.

My frustrations were the least of the newspaper’s challenges on November 7. But my seat in the Post’s fifth-floor newsroom did offer a fascinating perch on both the old world of print journalism and the brave new world of digital journalism. I sit two desks away from Balz, the Post’s chief political correspondent. I sit one desk away from Chuck Babington, lead political writer for the Web site,

All through the night, Babington was on sprint. He filed story after story for our Web site – often new leads every ten minutes or so, as Bush crept up over the top in one state, or Gore cinched another. Immediacy was his pre-eminent value.

All evening long, Balz was in a quandary. While his deadlines were less frequent – essentially four major deadlines between 9 P.M. and 3 A.M. – the consequences of his judgments were more profound. Once something appears on the front page of The Washington Post, it lives forever.

When Schwartz raced over to Downie to report her concerns, he was initially not all that worried. The headline, he noted, did not definitively anoint Bush. But Schwartz warned that they still had a crisis; the lead of Balz’s story had no such hedge. Typing furiously into his computer, a copy editor spiked one story and retrieved the earlier version of Balz’s story that said the election was too close to call.

In the roughly hour-long limbo between thinking Bush had sealed victory and learning he had not, I got a call from an old friend, a Democrat and veteran of the Clinton White House, who was literally in tears of anger over the apparent result. For someone like me, steeped in the journalistic ethic of detachment, the call was a bracing reminder that for some people the race was something more than an exciting contest, more than just a baseball game in extra innings.

John Harris covers the White House for The Washington Post.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jan/Feb 2001

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