News credibility sank with Titanic Accuracy: The New York Times was chided for reporting the Titanic had sunk, while rivals papers relied on wishful thinking and dubious facts to report the great liner afloat.

Sun Journal

December 19, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The Titanic, doomed star of the new movie "Titanic" opening today, was a disaster for newspapers as well as for the 1,517 passengers and crew who died 85 years ago. Not until the Chicago Tribune's "Dewey Defeats Truman" in 1948 were headline writers more embarrassed.

The ship hit an iceberg at 11: 40 p.m. Sunday, April 14, 1912. It sank less than three hours later, at 2: 20 a.m. Monday April 15.

For almost a day after that, much of the Western world heard the iceberg part but not the sinking and deadly results. Or they just couldn't believe the bad news.

Dining on inaccurate rumors, press competition, the White Star Line's reassurances and a modern-minded faith in the seaworthiness of mankind's great creation, people and newspapers thought the ship had survived the hit and was limping to shore.

In Baltimore, The Sun's Evening Sun for April 15 devoted its entire Page 1 to the disaster under the good-news banner and headlines: ALL TITANIC PASSENGERS ARE SAFE;

TRANSFERRED IN LIFEBOATS AT SEA

Steamship Virginian Now

Towing Great Disabled Liner Into Halifax

Years later, some Evening Sun wise guys would pull out copies of the page when readers complained that the paper emphasized only bad news.

But other newspapers had the same story. In New York, the Evening Sun (no relation) also exulted:

ALL SAVED FROM TITANIC AFTER COLLISION

The only bad news on the front page that day was that New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson lost his first start of the season to the Boston Braves.

Many papers that first day reported that all 2,200-plus passengers and crew had been transferred to the ships, Parisian and Carpathia. The Allen liner Virginian was said to be towing the stricken liner to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Baltimore Evening Sun's report was typical:

"The latest word received by wireless was that there was no doubt that the new White Star liner would reach port."

In a sidebar story, the New York Evening Sun even chided the New York Times for having reported that the ship had sunk. It would regret the finger-pointing.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized: "The gravity of the damage to the Titanic is apparent, but the important point is that she did not sink. Her watertight bulkheads were really watertight."

Based on that comforting, but inaccurate premise, the Journal ,, waxed poetic:

"Man is the weakest and most formidable creature on the earth. His physical means of protection and offense are trifling. But his brain has within it the spirit of the divine and he overcomes natural obstacles by thought, which is incomparably the greatest force in the universe."

The erroneous news reports were traced to the plight of a broken-down oil tanker and other factors, says Walter Lord, 80, of New York. He is the author of "A Night To Remember" (1955), which ignited the explosion of Titanic armchair interest that has been building ever since.

"The Atlantic was like a big town with no traffic lights," Lord says today. "The range of wireless messages then was short. People used the Morse code, not voice. Messages crisscrossed with no discipline. So they were garbled as they went from ship to ship.

"It happened that when the Titanic was sinking, an oil tanker elsewhere in the Atlantic had engine trouble and was being towed to shore. The signals were mixed up and the Titanic was being towed."

Notwithstanding the New York Sun's smug attack, the New York Times alone got the story right.

Led by the sharp instincts of managing editor Carr Van Anda, the paper listened to signals. For three days, some were relayed to the world from the roof of Wanamaker's Department Store by a young radio operator, David Sarnoff, who later founded the Radio Corporation of America.

Van Anda checked the White Star Line, its correspondents in Halifax and Montreal, the history of ships hitting icebergs and the Titanic's background. When the Titanic's signals ceased after its distress calls, Van Anda realized the essential fact: The ship had sunk.

The paper broke into its late editions with a banner that read: NEW LINER TITANIC HITS AN ICEBERG;

SINKING BY THE BOW AT MIDNIGHT.

Extra editions said:

TITANIC SINKS FOUR HOURS AFTER HITTING ICEBERG

A day later the newspapers that had been scooped set the record straight. The Sun in Baltimore bannered on April 16:

GIANT TITANIC GOES DOWN;

1,500 PERISH; 675 ARE SAVED

But it and other papers reported erroneously that "besides the crews of the lifeboats, practically none but women and children was saved."

It took a while to correct that impression, which reflected the Victorian spirit of the then-famous Birkenhead Drill: In 1852 the English paddle-wheel steamer Birkenhead sank in a storm off the coast of South Africa while taking troops to the Kaffir war there.

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