Trump, Truman, and truth in media

Donald Trump did it. He won. He overcame the Clinton political machine and much of the media. He overcame almost every published poll. And now, in January, he will become the 45th President of the United States.

A couple of friends and I were discussing the election in the days leading up to the vote. We all assumed Clinton would win, but I made the comment that if anyone could topple widely-accepted polling practices and algorithms, it was Donald Trump. This wasn’t a case of genius political prognostication—it was an easy observation that he was running his campaign in an unorthodox way. And I added, maybe this could be our generation’s Dewey defeats Truman moment.

In 1948, after assuming the duties of the President following Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Democrat Harry Truman faced an uncertain re-election campaign. Facing criticism from both his political opponents and his own party, Truman was urged to quit by liberal magazine New Republic. Southern Democrats were not pleased with his civil rights campaign. Some saw the former haberdasher with the folksy delivery to be unqualified and underprepared. Others simply didn’t like him because he wasn’t FDR.

But Truman patched together enough support from diverse factions of the Democratic Party to run for re-election. Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey, governor of New York.

Truman’s primary mode of campaigning was a 31,000-mile whistle-stop train tour of the country, visiting towns large and small. The electricity of his rallies was undeniable, except to those who never saw them. After a supporter in Harrisburg, Ill., yelled “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” the phrase became a rallying cry amongst his supporters. Truman had a magnetism, but no one from the national media was taking notice.

A poll released just after Labor Day showed Dewey leading 44.3 to 31.4 percent. Internally, some of Dewey’s team were urging the candidate to come out “slugging,” but were drowned out by those preferring a campaign above the fray. Why should Dewey consider changing a strategy that he was proving to be so effective?

Truman, despite the polls, was confident.

On the eve of the election, The Chicago Tribune published a story that predicted Dewey would win in a landslide, tallying over 400 electoral votes. As early voting returns came in, the same newspaper, pressed to get its early edition to print, printed the now infamous headline: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

The problem, of course, was that he didn’t. It was Truman who claimed 303 electoral votes to Thomas Dewey’s 189. Truman also won the popular vote by more than two million. And he shocked a nation. Well, at least, the national media.

Leslie Biffle, a Democratic Party official, was perplexed by the polls showing the nation’s dislike for Truman. So he loaded up in a pickup truck, and posing as a chicken buyer, began driving from farm to farm discussing the election. He became convinced that Truman would win.

The rural vote, accessed by the whistle-stop tour, was the key to Truman’s win. It was also the vote that was ignored by polling methods. Those methods relied upon contacting voters using landline phones, silencing rural residents, who did not own phones at the same rate as urban dwellers. But the rural voice was certainly heard on Election Day.

Information is vital to a democracy, which is the primary reason for the protection of the press in our country. In a nation as large and complex as ours, we must rely on media, but examples like these two elections (in addition to a plethora of others), show the vulnerability of the institution. I highly doubt Donald Trump overcame a 12-point deficit in the final two weeks of the campaign; rather, the reported 12-point deficit never existed. These errors give me pause when I consider a whole host of other reported “facts,” from President Obama’s approval rating, to Trump’s surprise at the scope of the President’s job, or Clinton’s email contents . Or what any of the candidates’ tax plans will really do to the economy. I don’t ever feel confident that I can, with great authority, discuss the certainty of any of these things.

We’re all humans and therefore prone to error, bias, deceit, and downright conspiracy. Even if we’re objective journalists. But we, as engaged citizens of a (somewhat) democratic process, must demand better. And if we are going to uphold and value the institution of the press, it must do the same. News has become a product that needs to be sold and therefore is presented as stories and narratives. Stories and narratives, to be done well, require themes, heroes, villains, and the like, which the facts don’t always provide.

I feel like Sgt. Joe Friday of Dragnet, imploring the media to report “Just the facts ma’am.” But, as I found out recently, even that phrase isn’t quite the actual one uttered by Jack Webb–it’s “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” So maybe I’m more like the dispatcher from another classic police show, but instead of asking for Car 54, I’m calling out “Truth, where are you?”

  1. Grossman, R. (2016). It’s happened before: Truman’s defeat of Dewey had hints of Trump-Clinton. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-truman-defeats-dewey-1948-flashback-perspec-1113-md-20161111-story.html
  2. Truman defeats Dewey. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2016, from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/truman-defeats-dewey
  3. Snopes. (2010). Dragnet ‘Just the Facts’ Retrieved November 18, 2016, from http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/dragnet.asp
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