75-years-ago, an excited journalist smashed away at their antique typewriter, anticipating the obvious news that their paper, the Chicago Daily Tribune, was eagerly awaiting. The Republican Party was finally—after three elections and an entire World War—going to show the Democrats who was boss.
‘Dewey Defeats Truman,’ the headline proudly rang.
Everyone knew it was coming. President Harry S. Truman had dismal poll ratings and the charismatic businessman turned Governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, was destined for the presidency.
Except, that’s not how the story goes.
On the wintry morning of November 2nd, 1948, Americans rushed to the polls. The trees had long lost their colorful autumn leaves, brilliant hues of orange and yellow littering the ground. The cool air filled voters’ lungs as they decided who was going to govern them for the next four years.
When everything was said and done, the American people spoke: Truman defeated Dewey.
‘Defeated Dewey’ has a nice ring to it, but it’s not the headline that sang its song the world over. Instead, a jubilant President Truman picked a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune in St. Louis, Missouri, and posed for the camera, with nothing but glee and a look that can be summarized best as “Gotcha!” clear on his face.
President Truman, who held as low an opinion of the Tribune as it did of him, won this battle. But why was the headline so off? Why were the exalted cries hailing the ‘Age of Dewey’ so premature and wrong?
Because for all their fancy titles, Ivy League degrees, and semblance of authority, the newspapers and journalists who run them are only people. They are fallible and influenced by the sweet allure of personal bias and opinion. Ironic, coming from a staff writer, but true nonetheless.
The metaphorical pot calling the kettle black.
But if the kettle is black, why chastise the pot for its astute observation?
The Chicago Daily Tribune, nowadays called the Chicago Tribune, wanted Dewey to win. It was pro-Republican and made no effort to hide that fact. We’re all allowed our opinions, but in the race to be the first paper to report, to get its foot in the door, it sacrificed the actual “being correct” part of journalism.
The Tribune isn’t wholly to blame for the incorrect headline. There was an ongoing strike and the Tribune, as well as others, relied on antiquated printing machines. This meant the paper had to print hours in advance of news, but the burden of factuality still rests on the paper.
In 2023, accusatory roars of “fake news” over every headline and fact we disagree with litter public discourse, blurring the line between opinion and reality. No doubt the rise of Donald Trump emboldened this trend, but still it predates Trump–going all the way back to one brisk November day in St. Louis 75 years ago.
The growing disconnect between journalists and the people they claim to represent has contributed to this war over facts. Journalists with fancy college degrees operate in a world unto themselves and translate their facts into headlines for mass consumption.
College-educated journalists skew liberal, while the average American is markedly more conservative. This was seen in the 2016 election, where all the pollsters anticipated a Hillary Clinton landslide, but awoke the morning after Election Day to find themselves facing the barrel of a Trump presidency.
The college-educated journalists and other elites were surprised by the result, but peeling the curtain behind Trump’s victory reveals a trend of under-privileged white resentment. Much like in 1948, when the journalist-class anticipated Dewey’s sweeping victory, today’s journalists are disconnected from the political heartbeat of America.
The assumptions behind the 1948 and 2016 elections were based on polling. But polling isn’t always a reliable indicator of voter intentions. In 1948, polling skewed toward wealthier Americans, who were more likely to vote for Dewey than Truman. In 2016, polling similarly skewed toward liberal Americans, missing the large white underbelly of America proudly backing Trump.
Instead, these polls served to reinforce the confirmation bias in journalists: innate to every person’s worldview, but nonetheless dangerous. As the ideological bubbles of news outlets like CNN provided an echo chamber for liberal audiences, conservative audiences similarly built echo chambers like Fox News. Thus, the problem is confounded further, preventing meaningful cross-ideological discussions and protecting our preconceived worldviews from critical analysis.
In the so-called ‘information age,’ what is real or not is increasingly difficult to ascertain. “Alternative facts” were formally introduced into the political mainstream by Kellyanne Conway in 2017, fighting the proven fact that Donald Trump’s inauguration as president had low attendance. When reality wars are fought over proven facts and “alternative facts” are offered in place of a well-informed opinion, we have a dissolution of basic reality.
In the days following Conway’s coining of “alternative facts,” sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four rose 95-fold, as the hesitant soothsayer Orwell was proven all too correct. Although we’re a long way from ‘double-think,’ the cautionary tale spun by Orwell has inched closer, year by year, toward reality.
Celebrating 75 years of ‘Dewey Defeats Truman,’ we look back and wonder where the downward spiral of journalism may take us next. The war for truth doesn’t dance in only one direction: it could lead toward an age of absolute fact-based reason or total disregard for logic and the embrace of alternative facts.
If we want to live in a world where the truth matters and our opinions must be based in some form of reality, we must criticize lies when they’re uncovered and excommunicate journalists who would sacrifice principles for a Pulitzer.
Pulitzer Prizes awarded for deceit are crowns from a gutter; they make you no king or queen, but a scavenger and parasite of facts.
While the Chicago Daily Tribune genuinely believed Thomas Dewey was going to be the exalted next president of the United States, today’s journalists occasionally don’t believe what they’re saying.
Take Dominion v. Fox News Corp., a lawsuit filed in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Fox News made sweeping and blatantly false claims of widespread voter fraud. Worse yet, they placed the blame squarely in the lap of Dominion Voting Systems, a third-party used to tabulate and collect votes.
As was quickly revealed by the massive lawsuit, Fox News lied. The entire election coverage of Fox News was a top-down scheme to discredit the election because that’s what their viewers wanted to hear. Fox News was the first station to report Joe Biden’s eight million vote victory over Donald Trump, but when Fox was crucified by its audience for this ‘betrayal,’ the executives at Fox changed tact.
Fox had their day in court and the rule of law prevailed. But when we’ve danced a tango to the very edge of reality’s oblivion, we’ve taken a step or twenty too far. My plea today is simple, don’t take the news at its word.
They will distort. They will mislead. Worse yet, we know that they will lie.
Like weapons of mass destruction in the Iraqi desert, a mirage of truth provides a thin lacquer to the self-serving interests of multinational corporations behind the money machines of the news media. Your views are the lifeblood of their corporate stock price, and the news media will publish as radical a story as possible to keep your eyes glued to their home page.
First-year Richie Dockery is a Staff Writer. His email is email@example.com.