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ELECTION NIGHT CLIFFHANGER? WE'VE BEEN THERE

I've been having flashbacks recently to an unforgettable night (and early morning) almost four years ago.

It was Election Night 2000, and we were approaching our production deadline for the morning paper. There's always excitement and intensity in a newsroom on election night, particularly when the presidency hangs in the balance.

But this occasion was something else altogether. The excitement was more like frenzy, and the intensity was more like panic.

Never before in recent memory were we down to the deadline without having any real idea who the winner was.

I'm happy to say that The News didn't blow it that night. Unlike many papers around the country, we did not print a headline (and story) declaring a certain winner. Most of the papers we sent out had a headline that said "Down to the Wire" with a sub-headline that noted, "Results in Florida may be decisive."

The election was, in fact, too close to call -- and it remained so for weeks afterwards as the electoral votes in Florida (and, for a shorter time, a few other states such as New Mexico) remained up in the air.

For weeks afterward, demands for a vote recount in Florida and the controversy over the way votes were tabulated -- surely no one has forgotten the wonders of "hanging chads" and "pregnant chads" -- dominated the news.

It wasn't until the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling five weeks later that the nation knew that George W. Bush was the next president. Think of it: Election night was Nov. 7 but it wasn't until Dec. 13 that Al Gore conceded the race.

Four years later, and less than 48 hours from Election Day, we may be headed down a similar path.

The race between Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush is extremely close. It's possible that we'll be putting out a paper for the morning after election day that does not declare a winner.

If there's one lesson from four years ago that ought to stand out for the media it's this: Don't try to call a race that can't be called. The TV networks and cable news stations were particularly flawed last time around. Many of them definitely named a winner -- Bush or Gore -- and then reversed themselves later in the evening, sometimes more than once.

Chaos and confusion reigned.

Take a look at today's Viewpoints cover story and graphic to see just how close this race is, in terms of electoral votes. Political analyst Patrick Reddy sees neither candidate, at this point, with enough electoral votes to win. One of the best online sources -- Slate magazine's Election Scorecard -- echoes that analysis.

Add to that the near certainty that there will be legal challenges to ballots and to voting procedures, especially in closely contested states such as Florida and Ohio. Both sides have teams of lawyers in place.

In such a fluid situation, newspapers have both a special responsibility and special challenges. Because we are a more permanent record than TV, radio or the Internet, we need to be more cautious and more certain that we have it right. Think of the infamous 1948 Chicago Tribune headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman," and you'll understand.

The challenge comes with newspapers' built-in lack of real-time immediacy. On election night, we'll have a 1 a.m. deadline for papers that you'll see in newsstands when you go to work or to the supermarket in the morning. That's a long lead time -- a great deal can change in a few hours. But the ink is already on the paper. Unlike a Web site or broadcast media, we can't simply turn on a dime and change what we're telling the public. The positive flip side is that newspapers can provide permanence and depth that the more ephemeral media often lack.

We'll do our best to meet the challenges and the responsibilities on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, Bette Davis' famous warning in "All About Eve" comes to mind: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."

You may respond to editor@buffnews.com or to One News Plaza, Buffalo, NY 14240.

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