"DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" — the untrue banner headline of the Chicago Daily News the morning after the 1948 presidential election— was made famous by re-elected Harry Truman grinning as he held the paper aloft for photographers at his morning-after press conference. An equally untrue headline — "HUNDREDS DEAD IN HUGE QUAKE," which the San Francisco Chronicle published the morning after the Loma Prieta earthquake — is forgotten.
This 30th anniversary of the quake has provided the Chronicle and Bay Area media with a week's worth of reminiscences and where-are-they-now stories. The Giants had been playing the Oakland A's in the World Series so the sportswriters had ample material, too. If I had saved the Chronicle from October 18, 1989, I would hold it aloft for you and take a picture. Instead, a few retro paragraphs as dispatched back then to the Anderson Valley Advertiser:
In the hours after the quake, radio and then TV reporters described the city's three obvious disaster sites — the Bay Bridge, the Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway, and the Marina District — plus the scene at Candlestick Park. The general impression created by these scattered vignettes was that a major tragedy had been miraculously averted. The earliest estimates of how many people had died on the collapsed freeway were in the neighborhood of 40.
Around 10 p.m. the broadcasters reported that the Chronicle was about to come out with a headline reading "HUNDREDS DEAD IN HUGE QUAKE." From that point on — such is the authority wielded by the mediocrity of the morning — "hundreds dead" became the accepted story. The national anchormen jetted out, with Dan Rather in combat fatigues. The vice-president came. The president came. They all shook their heads and put on grim faces.
The fact that the death toll was lower than initially reported was not quickly acknowledged. After a week Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson let it be known that 41 people had died on the Nimitz Freeway — much lower than the sheriff's early estimate. (It was a true miracle because that stretch of road was almost always bumper-to-bumper at rush hour. Everybody who could get off early must have been watching the ballgame on TV.)
The Chronicle responded to the emerging reality by assigning William Carlsen to write a long, analytical piece entitled "How Estimates of Quake Dead Grew in the Media." Not a word of self-criticism did it contain. "Police and rescue workers" were blamed for issuing false estimates. Singled out for responsibility was Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer, "whose office gave out the most-quoted first estimates after the quake, which was that 100 to 200 may have been killed."
The truth is — as we all knew from the radio, and as Carlsen's piece begrudgingly mentioned — the earliest estimate of how many had died on the Nimitz was 40. This remarkably accurate figure was used in the Sacramento Bee's morning-after story. It was the job of the Chronicle reporters to make their own estimate by first-hand observation, or to give their readers a sense of the range of estimates coming from the scene (from 40 to "100 to 200"), which would have conveyed the uncertainty of the situation. Instead they took the high end of Sheriff Plummer's tentative estimate and made it definitive. They could have but didn't use a qualifier like "Hundreds feared dead" to hedge their bet. They were poorly served by the editors working by flashlight at their bunker of 5th and Mission.
The paper came out with a magnitude 7.1 exaggeration.
The Chronicle's lead story Oct. 18, written by two capable reporters, Randy Shilts and Susan Sward, asserted flatly: "A terrifying earthquake ripped through Northern California late yesterday afternoon, killing more than 200 people…" Nowhere in the article was it noted that some observers on the scene had provided much lower estimates than the one they chose to report as fact.