Brow Beat

Answers to Readers’ Questions About the Chicago Tribune’s Coverage of the 1948 Presidential Election

Ross Perot holds up a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline.
William Barr assures us that this photograph depicts President Harry Truman and we will not be looking into the matter further.
Sam Mircovich/Reuters

On Friday, the New York Times published an article in its Reader Center in which deputy managing editor Matt Purdy defended various decisions the paper made in covering the Mueller investigation, including the A1 print headline “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy,” which now reads “Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy, but Stops Short of Exonerating President on Obstruction” in the online edition. It turns out this was not the first time a major newspaper took a long, hard look at past editorial decisions and decided, hindsight being 20/20, that they had done everything exactly right and wouldn’t change a thing, as this conversation with Chicago Daily Tribune managing editor Pat Maloney shows:

For the better part of a year, the Chicago Daily Tribune has been at the forefront of reporting on the presidential matchup between Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and President Harry S. Truman.

After Truman won the election, we invited our readers to look back at our coverage and submit any questions they might have about it.

Directed by those submissions (we received hundreds of responses), we drafted a series of questions and passed them along to J. Loy “Pat” Maloney, a managing editor who oversees the Tribune’s headlines. Mr. Maloney’s responses are below.

Many readers who are critical of Governor Dewey have expressed concern that we were overly trusting of advance polls and the predictions of our Washington correspondent Arthur Sears Henning, and, in our initial reporting, were not sufficiently wary of the possibility that Truman might defeat Dewey. Readers have flagged one headline in particular: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Given that we later characterized Truman as the winner of the 1948 presidential election, were we sufficiently skeptical, in our initial coverage, of the election’s other possible outcomes? In retrospect, are there any articles or headlines that should have been framed differently?

MALONEY: There is no question what the top-line news was in the early returns: President Truman had not been found to have won the 1948 presidential election.

This election had been a cloud hanging over Governor Dewey’s presidency since the day he announced his candidacy, and the single fact that the sitting president had not definitively won reelection was big news. Hence, the front-page headline that readers have questioned.

The Tribune’s afternoon editions that day had a range of stories examining every aspect of the election: its implications, the many unanswered questions, the fact that Dewey did not defeat Truman, the results of the Cook County election for coroner—it’s a real mélange.

The front page of the early edition on Nov. 3, did carry that headline, which captured—in the space allowed for print headlines—the news of the day. If we had a little more space, we would have gone with our first draft, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN IN INDIANA AND MICHIGAN WHILE LOSING THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE BY RATHER A LOT, ACTUALLY, AND BELIEVE IT OR NOT, STROM FUCKING THURMOND PICKED UP A FEW ELECTORAL VOTES, SO MAYBE GET IT TOGETHER AND LEAVE THE STONE AGES, ALABAMA, MISSISSIPPI, LOUISIANA, SOUTH CAROLINA, AND PART OF TENNESSEE,” which more accurately conveyed the complexities of the situation, but we were utterly at the mercy of the space allowed for print headlines. And it is worth considering the many other words on the front page that day, which communicated the nuances of the election beneath the headlines.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the story headlined “PUTS G.O.P. BACK IN THE WHITE HOUSE: Sizeable Electoral Margin Seen,” by Arthur Sears Henning, the most experienced political analyst in Washington:

Dewey and Warren won a sweeping victory in the Presidential election yesterday.

The early returns showed the Republican ticket leading Truman and Barkley pretty confidently in northern and western states. The indications were that the complete returns would disclose that Dewey won the Presidency by an overwhelming majority of electoral votes.

It’s all still completely wrong, but it communicates more nuances. And within hours of the release of Arthur Sears Henning’s analysis, one of our other experienced reporters, Arthur Sears Henning, the most experienced political analyst in Washington, rebutted Arthur Sears Henning’s analysis in our pages and addressed the most contentious part of the 1948 presidential election: determining who won the 1948 presidential election. His story was on the front page of later editions. After pointing out that key states were still in doubt, Henning wrote:

Incomplete returns from the Presidential election yesterday gave Dewey and Warren a precarious lead over Truman and Barkley.

It looked as tho it might take the complete returns to establish whether Dewey or Truman had won.

A review of our work that day shows that we captured the biggest news as well as the complications and looming controversies behind it.

It might seem to some readers that you’re reflexively defending something we got wrong.

MALONEY: Perhaps not surprisingly, I disagree. One of the key lines near the top of the page said: “Patrick J. Hurley, Republican, took an early lead over former Agriculture Secretary Anderson in New Mexico, one of eight pivotal states.” Seventy-one years later, many of the details have been filled in, and we know that Anderson ultimately won his race. Yet that statement about Hurley’s lead in the early returns, which was our best assessment at the time, remains true.

But the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” might leave some readers with the mistaken impression that Thomas Dewey won the presidential election of 1948, which was not true then and is not true now.

MALONEY: During the 1948 presidential campaign, the press had to deal with the extraordinary circumstance of both major party candidates defeating each other. For instance, Dewey defeated Truman in Indiana, while Truman defeated Dewey in the presidential election. Coverage of both outcomes was justified as news.

We understand that readers often see political coverage through—no surprise!—their own political lens, and we thank God every day that, as journalists, we have had our political lenses surgically removed. Our job is to work hard to make our coverage appear to come from an objective news perspective. To do that, we are constantly asking ourselves the following questions, usually in a sing-songy voice: What is important for readers to know? Do our readers treat this noble institution with enough deference and respect? Who won the presidential election of 1948? Who’s to say what’s true anymore, anyway? You know?

Do you worry that Dewey supporters will go around for years to come citing the Chicago Tribune to claim that Thomas Dewey won the presidential election of 1948? Or that Dewey himself might keep repeating the phrase “Dewey Defeats Truman” any time he sees a microphone, insist that everyone address him as “President Dewey,” and eventually set up a some kind of fascist shadow government for his drooling white nationalist followers?

MALONEY: That doesn’t sound like the Republican Party I know. Did you miss the part where Strom Thurmond was in the race?