‘Dewey defeats Truman’: why headlines matter

In honor of Presidents Day weekend, I’m going to blog about my favorite president: Harry Truman. Harry Truman was a stand-up guy. He grew up working on his parents’ farm, he served in World War I, he was a judge, he was a U.S. senator, he was vice president of the United States during FDR’s final term, and upon becoming president when FDR died, he immediately had to deal with a number of decisions I’d wager most of us would run away from in sheer terror. Obviously, all of his qualifications and his commitment to his country would be enough reason to list him as my favorite. They can’t fully explain why he’s my favorite president, however.

This picture can:

 Dewey-Defeats-Truman

When Truman ran for re-election in 1948, it was widely assumed he would lose to Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate from New York — so widely assumed, apparently, that the Chicago Tribune printed its papers with the headline “Dewey defeats Truman” before the official election results came out (and proved the paper wrong). Truman’s exuberant face as he holds up the blatantly false paper is why Truman is my favorite president. As someone responsible for writing headlines on almost a daily basis, I abhor a bad headline almost as much as I appreciate a brilliant one — and this one takes the cake. We at the copy desk struggle over the implied meaning of words and what a headline could mean to the reader; we strive to make them accurate, clear and concise. It’s a job that can cause a number of stressful nights and agonizing thought processes, but it’s a job I love, because finding that right word or the right structure can make or break the front page of a newspaper — as Truman so happily reminds us.

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