In 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune incorrectly posted that Republican Thomas Dewey had defeated incumbent President Harry Truman in the presidential election. The front page even famously carried a headline that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman”. The reality of the situation, however, was that Truman had won by quite a large margin. So how was this mistake even made? What made people think Dewey defeated Truman?
How Newspapers Run
To understand why this headline was printed in the first place, it’s important to understand a little bit about how newspapers run. To ensure that they are printed and sitting on people’s front porches first thing in the morning, they have to go to press at a specific time.
Back in 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune was having some issues with their staff. A year earlier, the Taft-Hartley Act came into existence, and it limited the power and activities of labor unions. This, in turn, had ripple effects on the paper’s staffing. The Tribune had been using a linotype machine, but without people who had the knowledge and ability to run it, they had to find a different way to print their paper.
They decided to use a method that involved typewriters and photographs. This information was then organized onto printing plates. Newspapers already had a tight deadline for when a copy had to get to the printer, but this alternate printing method required the news to be ready several hours earlier than normal.
The 1948 Presidential Election
Printing news of presidential elections is a big deal. People all around the nation want to know who won, and what direction the country will be heading. Since newspapers like to have the latest and greatest news, and at the time they were the primary method of how people received that information, they had to deliver.
Since the Chicago Daily Tribune had to get their information to press on a tight deadline, they decided to make a prediction about the winner of the election. The paper itself leaned toward the Republican party and it wasn’t a secret that they didn’t like Truman. Conversely, it appeared that Truman wasn’t particularly fond of the paper either.
Ultimately, the Tribune made a decision to assume that Dewey would defeat Truman. Their prediction wasn’t necessarily crazy, as many people believed that Dewey would win. They also believed that the Republicans would take control of the House of Representatives and the Senate—another prediction that didn’t come true.
Dewey Defeats Truman – The Tribune Goes to Press
Arthur Henning, who was a political analyst, veteran Washington correspondent, and had correctly predicted the outcomes of four out of five presidential elections over the last 20 years, was asked his opinion about the outcome of this election. He was sure Dewey would win and with the press deadline quickly approaching, the paper ran with his news.
The paper went to press several hours before the election results from the East Coast had even been counted. As the evening wore on, it became apparent that the race between Dewey and Truman was closer than people predicted, but Henning held true to his belief that Dewey would be victorious. As more election results came in however, it was clear that Truman was on a path towards keeping the presidency.
The paper had printed 150,000 copies with their erroneous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline before the print run was stopped and the information was corrected. More than likely, the incident would have faded into history, but while on a victory tour, someone handed Truman a copy of the paper. He was more than happy to hold it up for the world to see, and the famous picture of him holding the paper is forever part of history (see image above).
When Newspapers Get It Wrong
Interestingly, the Chicago Daily Tribune isn’t the only newspaper to have printed the wrong outcome in a presidential election. That same year, The Journal of Commerce printed eight articles in its November 3rd edition of what would be expected of President Dewey. In 1916, the San Francisco Chronicle also attempted to predict the outcome of the presidential election, and claimed that Charles Hughes had defeated Woodrow Wilson, which wasn’t the case.
Even though times have changed and the news is more often read online, papers still have deadlines for when stories are due. Most newspapers have more than likely learned from mistakes made in the past and do their best to report correct and factual news. However, it is still reported and printed by humans, so the possibility of mistakes happening always exists.
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