DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN
The Chicago Tribune’s famous headline erroneously trumpeting Republican Thomas E. Dewey’s electoral victory over incumbent Harry S. Truman is one of the most well-known newspaper errors in all American history. There is a little more to the story than it being a simple premature error in judgment on the part of the Tribune’s editors. Nor was the Tribune the only newspaper to publish that morning reporting a Dewey victory, the New York based Journal of Commerce, a biweekly publication, led its November 3 edition with an article listing what to expect from Dewey’s incoming administration.
The Chicago Tribune – then known as the Chicago Daily Tribune – was a long-time Republican leaning publication which had excoriated Truman’s predecessor FDR in its opinion pages and had once referred to Truman as a nincompoop in print. During the campaign leading up to the election the Tribune roundly slammed the three plus years of the Truman presidency and endorsed Dewey and Republican candidates at all levels. Throughout the campaign the Tribune published articles which misrepresented the size of the crowds attending Truman rallies across the nation.
The Tribune’s publisher, Robert R. McCormick, was an isolationist and a leading financial supporter of the America First movement prior to World War II. Following the war McCormick was distrustful of Truman’s support for the Marshall Plan and the president’s own Truman Doctrine for the containment of communism. The White House correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, hardly a liberal publication, referred to the coverage of the campaign by the Tribune as “snide journalism.” Truman complained of the unfair and inaccurate coverage by the Tribune, but his complaints only led McCormick to redouble his efforts.
A year before Election Day, a strike hit the Tribune in the press room, and the manner in which the newspaper went to press changed. Rather than have type set for linotype machines, articles were photographed and then etched onto printing plates. It took longer to etch the plates than set type and the printing deadlines were moved up, meaning articles for the day’s print run needed to be completed earlier in the day preceding the first morning edition. When early returns indicated that Dewey had a significant lead in major cities, and the Tribune’s own analyst anticipated a Republican victory, the Tribune ran with the story.
Later editions the following day carried the correct story, Truman had pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in American electoral history. It was Truman who made the incorrect headline famous, holding the front page for all to see from the back of his private train car and grinning with what was no doubt a sense of vindication. The thrill of vengeance against the newspaper which had tormented him for so long can be seen in his grin. The Tribune never did become an ally of the President and continued to torment him in its pages throughout his second term in office.