In Print

Giving Harry Hell

 

Harry S. Truman and the News Media: Contentious Relations, Belated Respect by Franklin D. Mitchell University of Missouri Press, 1998, $34.95


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The greatest crowd of spectators in Omaha’s history – an estimated 160,000 people – gathered June 5, 1948, to get a glimpse of Harry S. Truman as he marched through town in a parade. Yet when Life magazine reported on Truman’s “whistle stop” tour, it highlighted the “acres of empty seats” in the city’s 10,000-seat Ak-sar-ben auditorium, where Truman appeared later on.
“Of course the auditorium wasn’t full,” says USC historian Franklin Dean Mitchell. “Much of Omaha had already seen Truman earlier in the day.”
The slight is part of a pattern that, according to the Truman scholar, explains the Chicago Tribune’s infamous post-election headline: “Dewey De-feats Truman.”
In Harry S. Truman and the News Media, Mit-chell attributes what he calls “the greatest miscalled election in journalistic history” neither to a race too close to call, nor a fickle electorate.
“The 1948 upset was the result of a deliberate bias on the part of the news media against the man,” he contends, arguing that Time, Life and Fortune owner Henry R. Luce, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick unleashed their considerable media might in an effort to break a 16-year Democratic lock on the White House.
They were so successful in belittling Truman and his chances of being re-elected that they ended up blinding much of the mainstream press to the candidate’s mounting popularity in the late summer and fall of 1948.
“The book shows how truly vulnerable a president can be to a smear campaign,” Mitchell says. “But it also shows that the real victim of biased reporting is the press itself and the interests of the public. Had the campaign of vilification succeeded, the voters would have been cheated of what history now considers one of our top 10 presidents of all time.”

When Truman assumed the presidency after Roosevelt died a scant 82 days into his fourth term, the man from Independence won high marks for drawing World War II to a close. But shortly thereafter, the president launched a 21-point liberal agenda that infuriated the three media titans.
“Hearst, who operated a dozen big-city newspapers that reached 9.1 percent of the nation’s readers on a daily basis and 16.1 percent on Sundays, faulted FDR’s successor for continuing the New Deal and other FDR policies,” Mitchell says. The others followed suit.
The Chicago Tribune headline is the blunder that sticks in people’s memories because of a photograph taken on the day after the election. “Truman ensured that the erroneous headline would be immortalized by posing for photographers with a copy of the newspaper,” Mitchell says.
“The photograph’s circulation exceeded the Tribune’s limited, recalled edition by several million.”

Meg Sullivan


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Book Photography by Rick Szczechowski

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