WASHINGTON — Journalism, as it has long been said, is the first rough draft of history.
That’s why we see every so often a “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” type story.
That first happened 72 years ago. Members of media were getting things wrong then — and likely long before then. They still make mistakes today.
Not that journalists want to be wrong — because once the mistake is known, the mistake can become nearly as newsworthy as the facts. And that becomes a professional embarrassment, or worse, for journalists. And their bosses.
When there is breaking news, mistakes can happen amid the chaos of a newsroom. Consider the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
ABC News’ live coverage from its newsroom exemplified the chaos. First, Frank Reynolds reported that Reagan had not been shot. Then came word that he had indeed been hit in the left side of his chest. Later came a report that presidential press secretary James Brady, one of four wounded in the attack, had died — but he wasn’t dead.
Reynolds erupted in controlled fury live on-air. “Let’s get it nailed down … somebody … let’s find out! Let’s get it straight so we can report this thing accurately!”
There also is the issue of bragging rights for whoever is first with the news. Associated Press and United Press International, the top U.S. wire services for daily newspapers, had a series of bells on their machines to alert editors that breaking news was happening, to the point that either wire service would interrupt a story to be first with a bulletin. Those kinds of contests seem to have migrated to the Twittersphere.
But with the explosion of websites providing news and information, one must choose wisely in determining which sites are trustworthy. Are they coloring the news to conform to their own worldview? Do they choose to report some news and not others if it would be inconsistent with that worldview?
The same is true for any and all news media, print, broadcast or otherwise.
And that’s what will make Election Day this year an eye-opener.
As if voting during a pandemic isn’t enough, this year’s election will be the first one with so many mail-in ballots, coupled with the Postal Service’s many woes and partisan wrangling even at this late hour on how and where people will be able to cast their ballots.
When will the tally be known? In 1960, when the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was elected, it wasn’t known until the middle of the night. Much was the case in 2016, when Donald Trump pulled out a win over Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College even though he lost in the popular vote.
In 2004, the final results weren’t known until late morning of the next day, when Ohio went for incumbent President George W. Bush over John Kerry, his Catholic challenger. But four years before that, it took a Supreme Court ruling in December to determine how Florida’s decisive Electoral College votes would be cast.
The number of mailed ballots being cast will likely play havoc with exit polls, as pollsters will be less certain whether they’ve been able to take a representative sampling of voters that helps determine the TV election forecasters’ own predictions.
The speed at which those mailed ballots can be processed also will be a factor in how soon any news organization can call a state for either Trump or Joe Biden. It once was the case that as soon as a network or wire service knew how a state was going to go, the state would be called in the presidential sweepstakes.
In 1980, though, states were being called before the polls had closed there. Even though the incumbent President Jimmy Carter was beaten by Reagan that year, Democrats complained the early calls made other races in the state a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the early calls discouraged would-be voters from going to the polls.
Being first and fast is fine, but haste makes waste.