Friday, November 20, 2015

After Truman defeated Dewey

Hotel President, Saturday, November 20, 1948: Two blocks and seventeen days from Truman's victory and journalism's loss.

Sixty-seven years ago tonight – just a couple of weeks after what we now consider the biggest screw-up in the history of American newspaper headlines – 300 or so journalists filed into a ballroom at the Hotel President expecting to hear something about what had gone wrong.

"The newspapers' big job was and is to tell the news," the evening's speaker told them. "And, looking at the press as a whole, I believe we came through with flying colors."

The man was E. Palmer Hoyt, editor and publisher of The Denver Post, speaking to members of the Missouri Press Association at their annual dinner. This was happening two blocks down Baltimore avenue from the Hotel Muehlebach, where Harry S. Truman had celebrated 17 days earlier, on the morning of November 3, 1948, the same day the Chicago Tribune's front page prematurely declared DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

The Tribune had gone to press before the returns were complete, but editors had decided to run with the widely expected outcome, as predicted in national polls.

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Flogging the news media for perceived political bias is sort of an American tradition. In the last few decades most such criticism has come from Republicans finding a liberal Democratic slant in news coverage, a charge we've already heard in these early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. It's interesting to recall a time when print media ruled and when that shoe was on the opposite foot.

"The Republicans have nearly all the newspapers and magazines on their side," President Truman said in 1952, citing figures that showed only about 10 percent of the nation's 1700 or so daily newspapers supported him in 1948. "Newspapers – especially daily newspapers – have become big business, and big business traditionally has always been Republican."

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As Election Day 1948 dawned, newspapers of all political stripes had predicted victory for New York Governor Thomas Dewey. The New York Times, which had endorsed Dewey, saw a probable 345 to 105 electoral-vote advantage for the Republican nominee. Like other news outlets, the Times had deferred to public opinion polls. The final Gallup Poll showed a 5 percentage-point edge for Dewey.

"We have never claimed infallibility," George Gallup had said a week before. "But next Tuesday the whole world will be able to see down to the last percentage point how good we are."

Not so good, actually. As it turned out, polling had stopped weeks too soon and did not track the last-minute swing in Truman's favor, which gave him a 4.5 percentage-point margin of victory. The news media also stopped too soon, apparently content with the truth of the polls.

Afterward The Kansas City Star editor, Roy Roberts, who like many other editors had endorsed Dewey, did some soul searching.

"Frankly, the mass public doesn't like to be told by newspapers or anyone else, for that matter, what they should do and think," he said. "I have sort of come to the conclusion that you serve your purpose more effectively by setting forth the facts and letting the public make up its own mind than by overstressing your own conclusions and expecting the mass public to accept your opinions."

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Down at the Hotel President on November 20, E. Palmer Hoyt offered his defense of the press.

"The answer to those who scorn us because the people, in their votes, flouted our editorial judgment is to ask them simply, 'Well, where did you get the information on which you compared the position of President Truman to that of Governor Dewey?" Hoyt told his audience.

"The American people voted on the basis of the campaign expressions of the two candidates as reported in their newspapers. I think that any honest critic must give the responsible press credit for fair and accurate news coverage of the campaign."

What Hoyt didn't say was that the news coverage included a lot of stories about the coming Dewey victory the polls were foretelling. Nor did he speculate on whatever effect those polls might have on democracy.

But he added:

"We need less reliance on mechanical substitutes. We need more plain, down-to-earth reporting with insight and human understanding."

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