Throughout my 44 year newspaper career, that ended with my retirement in May, I always publically professed to hate newsroom election nights, declaring them the best argument I could think of in favor of benevolent dictatorship. The truth, however, is that I really enjoyed them because of the adrenalin rush they almost always produced and because they are the best examples I can think of of democracy in action. And, of course, they also provide a great justification for gorging yourself with pizza.
In a newsroom, election nights are the stuff that memories are made of.
For me, one of those memories that always stands out is election night 1978, when I was metro editor at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
The big race that night was for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat (Dixiecrat) Sen. James O. Eastland, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. It was also a significant race in that it marked the beginning of the end of Democratic Party control of politics in Mississippi.
Although it was never stated as a reason, I still believe that Eastland -- then one of the nation's most powerful senators -- decided to step down because he saw the handwriting on the wall and feared he might lose his reelection bid. Eastland was an astute politician and always a gritty campaigner who would not have been able handle a tough campaign and a possible head-to-head defeat well or graciously at his advancing age. He was also an inveterate racist who after meeting and having a long visit with Egyptian President and Noble Peace Prize winner Anwar Sadat, summed the highly respected world leader up to an aide by saying only: "I never realized before that that man was a (N word)."
So, the race to assume Eastland's Senate seat ended up as a battle between Republican U.S. Rep. Thad Cochran and Democrat Maurice Dantin, a former district attorney, who had Eastland's blessing and backing. To get the Republican nomination, Cochran defeated State Sen. Charles W. Pickering in the GOP primary. For the Democratic nomination, Dantin defeated, among others, Gov. Cliff Finch, a somewhat goofy Democrat populist of the Huey Long variety who even then was giving off rumblings of possibly challenging President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination, which he did and lost horribly.
That election night in the Clarion-Ledger newsroom turned into a memory for me for two big reasons, both major screw ups.
First, the paper had just the day before finished installing a brand new ATEX system, then the premiere variety of newsroom computer system. It was in place along side our old computer system that included scanners that transformed typewriter written and coded paper copy into words on a computer screen. It was never very efficient, but it at least did work. Although the weeks-long installation of the new, much more sophisticated ATEX system, on which copy was generated directly into the computer, was complete, staffers had only had a few hours of training on it the day before the election. The new system, however, had never been tested in actual production of the newspaper.
Although I pleaded with him not to do it, Managing Editor Bill Seymour decided that come hell or high water, we would be using the ATEX system on election night and ordered the old system shut down and removed from the newsroom so it could not even be used for back up.
As everyone, even the ATEX installation technicians who were still on site, feared, Seymour's decision turned out the be a disaster. Fortunately, the copy desk was able to use the new system to put out all of the newspaper but the front page, some inside election news jump pages and the election special section, getting it all in early, to clear the decks for the election copy.
However, before the election results even started coming in the new system locked up and crashed. The ATEX technicians swung immediately into action, but were unable to figure out what had gone wrong. Try though the did, they were able to get only one of the copy desk terminals, but none of the reporter terminals, up and running that night.
Fortunately, even though he had ordered the old computer system shut down and removed from the newsroom, Seymour did not order the IBM electric typewriters removed. So, to produce our election pages, including all of Page 1, reporters had to type their stories on their typewriters. The paper copy was then edited and given to a our one copy editor who was also a pretty nearly impeccable typist to enter into the only operating ATEX terminal. When he finished entering the text, he wrote a headline. Then, the news editor sat down, gave the story and head a final read and hit send and we all prayed that it would go through to the typesetters that produced the cold type strips that went to the page paste-up folks in the back shop. Fortunately, that one operating terminal performed like a champ and we able to get the paper out -- out late, yes, but out.
All of this served as a backdrop for the second memorable screw up that night.
Although there were other races being covered, the main story for that evening was the Senate race between Cochran and Dantin. Because this was to be our main story -- and involved results coming in from all over the state, including many precincts that still operated on paper ballots -- I had assigned it the latest deadline. Coverage of the race had been assigned to David Bates, one of our statehouse political reporters.
Despite the fact that I spent a good part of the evening fretting over the computer crash -- and secretly gloating over the fact that I was right and we should not have done the ATEX switch over for that night -- I made my usual desk-to-desk rounds to see how reporter were coming with their stories and prodding them to get their copy out ASAP because of our computer woes.
I didn't pay much attention to where Bates was or what he was doing since his copy was scheduled to come in late and last. When Bates did show up in the newsroom, he immediately went to work writing. When I at last checked on him, he had a couple of paragraphs written and told me he was waiting on one more interview to have everything he needed. I wasn't quite sure what interview that was, but a few minutes later he got a phone call granting it, but it had to be done in person because all of the background noise coming from the campaign headquarters made it impossible to hear over the phone. Bates dashed out the door and I went back to worrying about the rest of the reporters and their stories.
Finally, with nearly all the rest of the copy done or nearing completion, I got around to checking with Bates again and found him frantically sifting through the rubble on top of his desk. That's when I noticed that, despite the fact that his deadline was fast approaching, the paper in his typewriter still had just the few paragraphs that he'd written before charging out for that last interview.
As Bates rummaged through his desk, I finally asked him what the hell he was doing.
"I'm looking for something," he replied and then began an equally frantic search of all the pockets in his both his sports coat and trench coat.
"You need to be getting your story finished," I said emphatically and then demanded, "What the hell are you looking for?"
He hemmed and hawed and finally told me that he was looking for his notebook. My jaw dropped and temper flared.
"You can't find your fucking notebook," I yelled at him. "You mean your notebook with all your election stuff?"
He sheepishly nodded acknowledgement and said, "I had it but then I don't know what happened to it."
It turned out that he last had it at the headquarters of the victorious Cochran, where he conducted the final interview. However, before coming back to the office, he'd also stopped off at a Krystal and gotten a sack of burgers and a cup of coffee, all of which was sitting on top of his desk.
I went into a tirade that would probably cause any of today's uptight, apoplectic newspaper HR people to have a massive stroke and sent Bates back to both the Cochran HQ and the Krystal in search of his notebook. About an hour later and with no luck, Bates returned and struggled well past his deadline to construct a story based on his memory. Bates was a good reporter and a good writer and apparently had a pretty good memory (except, perhaps, for where he put notebooks) because the story he finally pulled together didn't garner any misquote complaints the next day.
But, even though in the end everything turned out OK, I wasn't about to let Bates forget or get away with losing his notebook on election night.
That next morning, I called him to my desk and handed him a reporter's notebook with a string attached to its spirals and ordered him to tie the other end around his wrist.
"For the rest of this week, I'd better not to see you without that notebook attached to your wrist," I growled. He dutifully obeyed and, to the best of my knowledge, never again lost track of a notebook.
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