May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
It seems a pity that journalism’s most memorable headline is also its most incorrect. Like every other paper in the fall of 1948, the Chicago Tribune listened to the polls and assumed New York’s governor, Thomas Dewey, would breeze past Harry Truman, the incumbent President. But because of a printers’ strike the Tribune had to choose its headlines much earlier than usual. On election night, November 2, editors at the strongly Republican paper decided to trust the judgment of its longtime reporter Arthur Sears Henning and acknowledge the governor’s impending victory with the DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN headline for its first edition. Needless to say, to the editors’ horror, within hours returns increasingly suggested that the race was much closer than they had thought. The two-star edition was changed to read DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES , while trucks scrambled to retrieve the 150,000 early papers. One, of course, got into President Truman’s hands the next day. The photo of him gleefully showing it off gave the gaffe its immortality.
As it was, though, this was no War of the Worlds , with a frenzied public duped by makebelieve. Few of the erroneous editions reached subscribers, and most were immediately destroyed. And the Tribune wasn’t alone. Life magazine had to spend five hundred thousand dollars to switch its President Dewey cover at the last moment, and several columnists gave “President-elect” Dewey advice. Thanks to that famous photo, however, the Tribune ’s headline forever symbolizes the presumptuousness of the press.
The paper grew to laugh at it and now profits from it: For years tourists have been able to buy DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN T-shirts from the Tribune souvenir store. Interestingly, though, the newspaper’s offices didn’t have a copy of the infamous edition until last December, when the director of planning and development, Owen Youngman, bought one for nine hundred dollars in an Internet auction.
While DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN seemed right but became incredibly wrong, the Harvard Crimson ’s paradoxical 1968 banner HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29 seemed wrong but was wonderfully right. Rarely has the discretion every headline writer wields been used so deliciously. In what has become the most famous contest in the fabled Harvard-Yale football series, whose annual revival is still known simply as the game, the Crimson and the Elis, both undefeated with 8-0 records, squared off for the Ivy League title at Harvard Stadium on November 23. Behind the quarterback Brian Dowling, whose heroism became the inspiration for the Carry Trudeau Doonesbury cartoon character B.D., Yale had a commanding 29-13 lead with just two minutes remaining. But Harvard somehow came back, scoring one touchdown, a two-point conversion pass, and then another touchdown as time ran out, followed by yet another two-point conversion pass, leaving the final score at 29-29. A tie, but to the 40,280 people there, particularly the swarm of Crimson fans who stormed the field, stealing the win from Yale’s clutches was equivalent to victory itself. The following evening, while preparing the headline for Monday’s edition, the Crimson editor Bill Kutik hunched over a page of scribble, dissatisfied with HARVARD TIES YALE, 29-29 . Then the photography editor, Tim Carlson, looked over his shoulder and remarked, “How ‘bout ‘Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29’?” Kutik reflexively balked but then realized how truly correct that headline was. After skeptical higher-ups were convinced, the headline ran and became an instant legend.
As bitter as Yale fans remain about the game, even they remember HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29 as coming less from ostentation than inspiration. “It was a great headline, but also it was true,” said Jeff Orleans, Yale class of 1967 and now the executive director of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents. “Any Yalie who tells you that game was in fact a tie deserves to turn in his ring.”