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Media's Tradition of Wrong Calls
Nov. 9, 2000 4:52 AM
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) - A close election. A confused result. And a revolutionary, wireless technology meant to bring news to people instantly.
The year was 1916 and from New York, Lee De Forest, an inventor and radio pioneer, made the first radio broadcast of presidential election results. The new president of the United States, he announced, was Charles Evans Hughes.
De Forest's second unintended milestone was becoming the first broadcaster to get it wrong - Woodrow Wilson actually was the winner.
The incident was one of many media faux pas concerning presidential elections found by researchers at the Newseum, a museum focused on the news media. Inspired by the 2000 election and the news media's premature declarations of victory following Tuesday's voting, the researchers found seven elections in their archives in which the media announced the wrong winner, said Eric Newton, a news historian.
"The fundamental problem is you can't report what hasn't happened yet. No matter how fast news gets, you can never get faster than live," Newton said. "These kinds of mistakes have always been made, and sometimes it's the rush, the speed of trying to get a scoop, sometimes it's bias, sometimes it's an accident."
In addition to the famous Chicago Daily Tribune headline "Dewey Defeats Truman" in 1948, Newton cited other examples, such as when the Bay State Democracy of Boston gave the 1840 election to Martin Van Buren instead of William Henry Harrison and the El Paso Times incorrectly reported that William Jennings Bryan had defeated William McKinley in 1896. A more thorough search would find even more examples, he said, especially in close elections.
Newton spent Wednesday discussing past and present media mistakes with visitors to the Newseum, which displays the front pages of newspapers from around the world.
"The information explosion gives us this chance to look behind the scenes of news," he said. "Now we're able to see how chaotic election nights really are, and everyone gets to feel like they're part of the crazy newsroom that can't quite figure out what's going on."
Newton said De Forest wasn't alone in picking the wrong winner in 1916 - the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a banner headline proclaiming "Hughes wins Election."
Now the 2000 election has contributed dozens of examples - of the 46 American papers on display at the Newseum, 15 initially declared Texas Gov. George W. Bush the winner on Wednesday, said Tim Kenny, the news history director. By next week, the museum should have a new exhibit dedicated to those papers and their subsequent corrected editions.
The Wednesday edition of The Oakland Tribune cried "It's George W." from its front page, and el Nuevo Herald, a Miami Spanish language paper, blared "Victorioso George Bush."
The Rockford (Ill.) Register Star conducted an emergency punctuation transplant between editions, transforming "Bush Wins!" into "Bush Wins?"
That switch drew the attention of Mike Crump, 12, of McLean, Va., who was visiting the museum with his father.
Crump, the editor of his school's monthly newspaper, the Knapsack Notes, said he planned to cover the election in his next edition and had learned a lot from the professional media coverage.
I thought it was pretty funny how most of the headlines were wrong," Crump said. "You shouldn't always believe everything you hear on the news."
On the Net:
The Newseum: http://www.newseum.org
Copyright 2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
-- Chicken Little (firstname.lastname@example.org), November 10, 2000