Until a few hours ago, I thought Harry S. Truman had been one of the worst-performing American presidents of all time. I was wrong. I’d spotted an infographic on Twitter, drawn up by FiveThirtyEight and talking about how Donald Trump might soon beat Truman in terms of having the lowest approval rating as a sitting president.
However, go through Truman’s Wikipedia page and you’ll see that though his rating dipped to 22% (the joint-lowest with Richard Nixon in 1974) when he fired Douglas MacArthur as commander of the US armed forces in 1951, he’s within the top 10 greatest American presidents of all time. The biggest reasons: he desegregated the armed forces and federal offices, founded the United Nations, executed the Berlin Airlift, enacted the Marshall Plan and chaperoned the American economy from war to peacetime.
The effect of these successes on his public image is nowhere more apparent than in the 1948 presidential elections, which he was widely expected to lose but won with near-thumping margins, especially in the eastern and southern states. All stories of this sort – including Trump’s in 2016 – feature a part or whole of the mainstream press covering the wrong stories, missing the bigger picture and generally making predictions that it sticks to even in the face of opposing evidence.
In 1948, the press’s being-caught-by-surprise was exemplified by a headline printed by the Chicago Daily Tribute (today the Chicago Tribune) proclaiming “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” and 150,000 copies of which were actually sold on newsstands. When Truman’s victory was declared, a famous photograph was taken showing him beaming into a crowd, holding up the edition to the Tribune‘s eternal embarrassment.
How was this edition even sent to print? It seems that more than editorial presumptuousness and prejudice, the chief conspirators were a staff strike and technology.
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which ironically Truman had vetoed but was still passed by Congress, had clamped down on labour unions and restricted labour actions. In response, the linotype printers of the Tribune had called for a strike and were absent on the day before the elections results were due. Around the same time, according to Lloyd Wendt, who profiled the Tribune for a 1979 book, the paper had switched to a new printing workflow: copies were composed on typewriters, photographed and finally engraved onto printing plates.
The result was that the paper required a lead time of “several hours” to be prepared before printing could begin – in turn forcing its editors to assume the outcome of the 1948 elections before the official word was out. Of course, that the Tribune had thought Dewey would win couldn’t be pegged on the Taft-Hartley Act and/or technology exclusively; there were many reasons for that, including the failure of American media at large to capture the popularity of Truman’s ‘whistle stop’ train tour. However, the workers’ strike and the technology in use conspired to preserve the Tribune‘s surprise, and subsequent embarrassment, forever.
According to a website called Chicagology, run by a man named Terry Gregory, a self-proclaimed “Chicagologist”, the Tribune‘s typesetting team once boasted that it was “more flexible as to schedule than any other paper” – a confidence born out of the leadership of one Leo Loewenberg, a seemingly noted printer and member of the newspaper’s composing room for 45 years.
Although such efficiency contradicts what happened on November 2, 1948, the cumbersome workflow was in place because the Tribune was transitioning between two prominent printing technologies of the time: from linotype to phototype. While linotype required the use of heated metal blocks to transfer ink onto paper, phototypesetting essentially photographed text from a magnetic drive onto paper.
Even though phototypesetting is clearly faster, the Tribune hadn’t yet been up to speed when Dewey and Truman were locking horns. Together with the prevailing shortage of staff that might have allowed its journalists to wait until closer to the official announcement, it was forced to call the result early. And it called it wrong.
Any journalist will tell you that these things happen. Though newspapers seldom screw up election result headlines these days, the nature of blunders has changed in keeping with the prevailing technology. The flexibility that Loewenberg boasted of in the early 20th century is, almost a hundred years later, so magnified as to be a near-meaningless consideration in the digitised newsroom.
However, what the Tribune did, rather accomplished, wasn’t any blunder. It was an inadvertent memorialisation of the constant reminders journalists everywhere seem to need to never presume familiarity with electoral politics.
Featured image credit: Bank Phrom/Unsplash.