Sunday, November 3, 2013

Never Assume

Today is the 65th anniversary of the appearance on the news racks of physical proof of perhaps the most spectacularly bad headline decision ever.

As I have mentioned before, I used to work on newspaper copy desks, and I understand the temptation to write a headline for a story when you already know — or think you know — how it is going to turn out even though it isn't official.

I worked on sports copy desks, and there were often times when Super Bowls or something similar became lopsided early and, even though much of the game had yet to be played, it was clear which team would win. On such occasions, we felt we had extra time to work on our headline, and most of the time we were right.

(I always felt that we held ourselves to somewhat higher standards at those times, given that we had the luxury of time to reflect and come up with just the right headline. I have always been proud of a headline I wrote at the Arkansas Gazette about a college football game that got out of hand early.)

That is one of the biggest differences between writing a sports headline and writing a news headline, I suppose. Most team sports events are rigidly timed. When one team grabs a big lead over another, the game eventually reaches a point when it is no longer possible for the other team to come back. (Baseball is the sole exception to that rule, I guess. In baseball, as Yogi Berra said, it really ain't over until it's over.)

But news doesn't work that way — as the folks at the Chicago Tribune found out on this day in 1948. They probably knew it already, but what happened 65 years ago was a reminder to them and a cautionary tale for the generations of editors to follow.

It was a banner headline about the 1948 presidential election, which was held 65 years ago yesterday. It famously proclaimed "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" in big bold letters on Page 1.

History remembers the 1948 campaign as Harry Truman's "Give 'em hell, Harry" campaign, the greatest political comeback ever. The 1948 election made Truman the patron saint of political lost causes. I can't remember a single political campaign in which the underdog failed to invoke the memory of Truman and his upset win as evidence that anything is possible (regardless of whether the cause was really lost at that point or not).

When I was a journalism student, they told us about the 1948 election and the Tribune headline — and I'm sure it is still this way in most schools — as a reminder never to assume.

Sixty–five years ago, the folks on the Chicago Tribune's copy desk made a huge assumption. They assumed that Tom Dewey, Truman's Republican opponent, would win the election, and it was a reasonable assumption to make. Truman was the incumbent, but he was unpopular. In June 1948, Gallup reported that only 39% of respondents approved of his job performance.

It may have been due, in part, to wishful thinking on the part of the Tribune. It was a Republican–leaning paper and had called Truman a "nincompoop" on its editorial page.

And there is no doubt that still–primitive polling methods played a huge role, too. There were flaws in polling methodology that would be corrected after the election, but the flaws were firmly in place before the voters cast their ballots as the polls persistently predicted Dewey's victory for months. Pollsters were convinced that most voters had made up their minds in September and stopped polling weeks before the election, thus missing a late shift in Truman's favor.

It has been estimated that as many as 14% of voters who originally intended to vote for Dewey decided in those final weeks to vote for Truman or someone else — or not at all.

And part of the reason was due to deadline pressure.

As Tim Jones of the Tribune writes, "a printers' strike ... forced the paper to go to press hours before it normally would." The accelerated deadline forced the managing editor to make the kind of judgment call that no editor wants to make early on an election night. He had to choose a headline for a story that wasn't over when he made the decision — but would be when the readers picked up their papers the next morning.

Obviously, he made the wrong choice. He relied on polling data that was weeks old and made the pollsters his scapegoat — even though he had also depended too much on the judgment of the Tribune's Washington correspondent, who was almost never wrong, as well as the fact that LIFE magazine had just published a picture of Dewey with the caption "the next president of the United States."

It was a huge mistake, but remember, this was in the days before the internet, before cable TV. Heck, TV was still in its infancy in those days, anyway. Few people outside the Chicago area knew of the headline faux pas — until Truman, who was returning to Washington by train, made a stop in St. Louis and was handed a copy of the Tribune with its erroneous headline.

"He had as low an opinion of the Tribune as it did of him," Jones wrote. "Truman held the paper up, and photographers preserved the moment for history."

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