radio

Broadcast News As National Communicator

The most impressive result of two decades of news and commentary broadcasting was, by the time of World War II, the development of an informed and better-educated citizenry. This was demonstrated immediately after the beginning of the war when a poll conducted by Time-Life Publications showed that while only one percent of those questioned favored American involvement, an overwhelming eighty-three percent desired an Anglo-French victory over Germany; only sixteen percent were undecided, and one percent favored the Nazis.

Of course, radio was not the only popular medium informing Americans of European developments and of the significance of fascism. But a large percentage of Americans received their news through the air. And in times of crises, when information was desired quickly, most Americans turned to radio. Unlike the confusion that typified public opinion in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, radio played an important function in unifying public sentiment in 1939. It was an educational achievement that would only be enhanced by the performance of radio newsmen a few years later when the United States became actively involved in combat.

As the storm of global warfare gathered in early 1939, a promotional film for The Esso Reporterthe name given to news programs sponsored by Standard Oil of New Jersey for its Esso gasolineillustrated the state of radio news casting at the time. In News in the Air, viewers encountered the institution, broadcast journalism, on which they would most rely for information about the life-and-death events during the next six years.

Perhaps the most dramatic display of the potential of radio news occurred in 1939-1940 as American correspondents broadcast the Nazi onslaught as it raced across Europe. Especially from CBS broadcasters such as Eric Sevareid in Paris, William L. Shirer in Berlin, and Edward R. Murrow, Robert Trout, and Charles Collingwood in London, listeners in the United States heard bombs and bullets tear apart European civilization. With a style that was objective and informed, these and other reporters sent their descriptions to the networks for airing on scheduled and special newscasts.

In one moment Shirer might be analyzing the movement of German troops on the Eastern Front, and in the next he might talk about the dejection of the German people now that war had arrived, or about the beauty of visiting Amsterdam with the lights on after eight months of blackouts. Murrow might be outside, microphone in hand, describing Trafalgar Square as German bombs fell from the London sky. Or, he might be explaining, as he termed it in a broadcast in January 1940, "what this war is doing to men's minds, for this is a war for the conquest of men's minds."

Sensitive to strong isolationist sentiments in America, radio newscasters were hard pressed to remain objective as they reported the spread of Nazi militarism. Although journalistic ethics placed a premium on delivering the news in a vocabulary free from prejudice, it must have been a strain for network correspondents to remain implacable in the face of unchecked fascist aggression. Nonetheless, one listener writing to Radio and Television Mirror magazine in late 1939 suggested that for the most part, American broadcast journalists were meeting their responsibilities. According to her,

Reports of bombings and such have been given in a cool, calm, objective manner with no attempt to draw conclusions or place the finger of blame, only to giving reports from the various sources as reported. Of course, there have been several commentators who let their prejudice and emotions run away, but on the whole, the war news has been delivered to us in a highly satisfactory manner. If our radio can continue in this vein, we Americans will be better prepared to throw off propaganda. America must stay out of this war! This is one of radio's prime responsibilities.

The debate over impartiality, or lack of it, in network news reportage became moot after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following day the United States responded with a declaration of war upon Japan. And several days later when, as a function of their alliance with Japan, both Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S., Americans found themselves in a two-front war for survival. In this critical time, network radio, and its journalists in particular, played a fundamental role in focusing the national response on the home front. Even before President Roosevelt came to Congress to request a formal declaration of war against Japan, network newsmen were on the streets communicating to the country an emergent national consensus that was at once dedicated and confident.

For the next 46 months broadcast journalists kept the nation informed regarding the progress of the Allied effort to defeat the enemy. The flow of information came from Washington and from network reporters on-the-spot. It was delivered authoritatively, on a regular schedule, and without exaggeration. There was no panic and no deceit. Radio provided instantaneous information with which to combat rumors and with which to follow the relentless progress toward military victory. Its newscasts kept the nation balanced and optimistic. And when V-E Day in May 1945 was followed by V-J Day in August, radio journalists broadcast the celebrations of a citizenry that knew this day would arrive because of what they had been following on the radio for years.

It was not an easy task for the new form of journalism. Once most of Europe and East Asia were under the control of the Germans and the Japanese, and the United States had entered the battle, the role of the broadcast reporters became more difficult. Transmission facilities were frequently unavailable overseas, and jamming and other types of interference often prevented broadcasting. So-called "mobile" transmitters were usually heavy and cumbersome, and broadcasters complained regularly of equipment failure. Nevertheless, newscasters went to the fighting fronts and transmitted their observations to a public grown accustomed to being well-informed.

In covering American military action in Southeast Asia in 1943, for example, Eric Sevareid parachuted with troops into the jungles of Burma. Commentators from the United States, like Cecil Brown of Mutual, often travelled abroad to interview soldiers and dignitaries for their broadcasts. And the actions of George Hicks of the Blue network epitomized the activities of frontline broadcasters. On the evening of June 6, 1944, while aboard an American warship off the coast of Normandy, Hicks recorded the reactions of crewmen as they came under enemy air attack, the din of anti-aircraft guns and airplane engines punctuating his commentary. For his coverage, Hicks received a Peabody Award in 1944.

At home, commentators backed the American war effort, some because they felt it was the duty of American strength to right the international balance of power, others because they felt that since the United States was attacked by the Japanese and had war declared on it by the other Axis powers, it was necessary for the nation to protect itself. All domestic commentators, however, would have agreed with a broadcast in mid-1945 by Gabriel Heatter of Mutual, when he offered a prayer for the American troops.

Merciful God, watch over these men. They march in a crusade for humanity and freedom. These are not men of hate or vengeance. These are humble men. Men whose hearts will never forget pity and mercy. They fight to give all the children of men peace on earth. They fight to banish tyranny and fear. Merciful God, our homes are empty—our hearts are torn with this desperate vigil. Into your care we give our prayers—our lives—our sons—all that we are and can ever hope to be on this earth. Send these men back to us, home to us, for they are part of man's spirit, of man's dream of a world which is free and where kindness lives. Watch over these men—who are meek and humble—we whose faith is strong ask this. Send these men back to our hearts and our homes—this is our prayer.

Despite the heroics and resourcefulness demonstrated by broadcasters in obtaining war news, one of the chief concerns for newscasters and commentators was the threat of governmental censorship. Even before the war had begun, many in radio felt that once the United States entered the battle, commercial radio would be appropriated by the federal authorities and converted into an arm of the national war effort. Such considerations were not new for as early as 1933 the question of radio and the next war had been discussed in a radio fan publication. Although a federal takeover never occurred after American entry into the war, two governmental organizations were quickly created to supervise broadcasting on the home front: the Office of Censorship and the Office of War Information. They were kept busy overseeing commercial radio for, as Variety reported, by mid-1942 there were 202 weekly broadcasts of war news (CBS, 72; NBC, 40; Blue, 52; Mutual, 38) , and 173 war-related commentaries per week (CBS, 49; NBC, 26; Blue, 41; Mutual, 57).

Although censorship was distasteful to broadcast journalists, it had been a fact of radio life for the years since the Federal Communications Commission had banned blasphemy, profanity, obscene allusions, and the like. During the war, moreover, the Office of Censorship (OC) specifically proscribed strategic information from radio. Information about weather conditions, ship and troop movements, war production and related developments was not allowed. Occasionally, the OC moved against specific speakers, as in November 1943 when it refused to allow King Carol of Rumania to deliver an address on CBS.

For the most part, however, American censorship was voluntary. The OC reviewed scripts, but only from those commentators who desired it. According to media historian Erik Barnouw, only Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell—both of whom broadcast sensational news and commentary—regularly offered their scripts for perusal. Broadcast journalists, for their part, loyally adhered to the voluntary standards. According to statistics from the OC, of the seven thousand network news broadcasts in 1942, slightly more than two percent violated the voluntary code, most of these mistakes being an inadvertent mention of weather conditions. By the first quarter of 1943 only seventeen of the two thousand network news programs had had such infractions.

Rather than overseeing actual radio operations, the Office of War Information (OWI) was created to coordinate all government-sponsored broadcasts, and to provide radio and newspapers with information regarding the course of the war. The agency was headed by the respected former CBS news broadcaster, Elmer Davis, who had left commercial radio to assume this post in 1942. As a former broadcast newsman, Davis was aware of the dangers of censorship. Yet, he probably would have agreed with the group of newspaper editors who admitted on American Forum of the Air in February 1943 that because of wartime conditions occasional censorship was necessary.

If the OWI desired to censor information, it accomplished this simply by delaying the dissemination of its news to the media. In most cases, however, what appeared to be censorial conduct by the OWI actually emanated from military officers who refused to keep Davis' organization fully and rapidly appraised of the latest wartime developments. More than once, Davis clashed with military officers in defense of the right of the public to be informed.

The voluntary position on censorship taken by the government was a reflection of both the consensus within the country regarding the war, and the confidence of the New Deal administration that it could withstand a critical appraisal of its war efforts. Thus, in 1943 when officials at CBS, on its own prerogative, exerted restrictive controls on its newscasters, criticism was forthcoming from all corners. In late September 1943, apparently anxious about the influence over public opinion of its broadcasters, officials at CBS ordered its commentators—among them, Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, Quincy Howe, Ned Calmer, and George Fielding Eliot —to desist from injecting personal opinion and editorialized news into their broadcasts.

Such an edict, of course, violated the essence of broadcast journalism as well as the faith of the federal government in commercial radio. Within days it had become a cause célèbre. One of the most stinging rebukes of this policy came from Dorothy Thompson in her commentary on the Blue network on October 3, 1943. She appealed for public support to condemn the CBS policy.

This question doesn't affect me, because it's not the way the Blue Network works. We on this network are subject to the censorship of the Federal Communications Commission, barring obscene or blasphemous statements or allusions. We are also subject to the Office of Censorship, code of wartime practices, in protection of American security. And the network imposes on us only these additional regulations: that we must be accurate in news statements, observe good taste, and use common sense. The public is the real censor. If it doesn't like the news commentators, those that employ them soon hear about it, and there is no more contract. The question affects you as listeners. Do you want to hear fearless viewpoints or don't you? Are all broadcasters to become mush mouths? Are you afraid of being unduly influenced or aren't you? And if men whose background and insight is recognized can't express opinions, who should express them?

Criticism of the CBS decision came also from the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, James L. Fly. He told a meeting of the Radio Executives Club on October 7, that this policy would accord tremendous power and discretion over news to a single person, and that it would establish an editorial policy at the network. In an effective understatement, Fly concluded that any policy that would require commentators like Murrow and Shirer to "mouth secondhand opinions would serve no good purpose."

Even before Fly spoke, however, the most effective attack on the CBS decision came from the censored commentators who refused to abide by it. Variety reported that within a week of the edict, commentators like Murrow, Howe, and Everett Holles were continuing to inject opinion into their broadcasts. The futile and embarrassing effort by a network to censor its own newsmen was effectively finished by the end of the year for, in one of the more ironic statements of the war, the director of news broadcasts at CBS, Paul W. White, criticized governmental bureaucrats for "stupid censorship" in delaying the broadcast of Eric Sevareid's accounts of his recent treks through the war zones in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations.

Given the doubts and anxieties existing on the home front, however, wartime radio news proved invaluable in keeping citizens abreast of the latest military developments. Nowhere was radio more responsive to this responsibility than in its coverage of the Allied invasion of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Even before the OWI acknowledged the landings on the coast of Normandy, network newscasters were reporting German dispatches which announced Allied parachute landings and the bombardment of the French coast from sea and air.

An example of the sophistication of American broadcast journalism by this date was the coverage offered by CBS. With Robert Trout indefatigably anchoring the special coverage, CBS began full-time broadcasting of the event at 12:40 A.M. Eastern War Time. The network utilized several of its commentators stationed in New York City to add depth to the terse reports from Washington and overseas. George Fielding Eliot explained military aspects of the invasion. Ned Calmer, who had been a correspondent in France for several years, assured anxious listeners that the beaches along the Normandy coast were smooth and easily approachable. Historical perspective was provided by Quincy Howe, and John Daly read dispatches from eyewitnesses to the invasion of "the Allied troops storming the fortress of Hitler." John W. Vandercook placed the strategy in chess terms when he called it "a Queen's move." And Quentin Reynolds, a veteran of earlier invasions in Italy, summarized the significance of the day when he noted, "If they live to be a hundred, June 6th will always be D-Day to them."

The most impressive dimension of the CBS coverage that day was the many live transmissions from Europe. American listeners were able to hear shortwave broadcasts from Allied leaders to the people of Western Europe. Such personalities as King Haakon of Norway, and the prime ministers of Belgium and the Netherlands were heard speaking live to their respective countrymen. General Charles de Gaulle was heard broadcasting to Nazi-occupied France. Interpreters provided complete translations of these foreign language speeches, and instantaneous summaries of the speech of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons were also beamed to the United States.

Enhancing coverage was provided by CBS correspondents in London who continuously fed the network the latest news and features. Edward R. Murrow, chief of the CBS bureau in the British capital, read and embellished upon official Allied statements. In a recorded feature, Charles Collingwood interviewed soldiers as they entered landing craft and prepared to move across the English Channel toward enemy territory. Richard C. Hottelet recalled his view from a warplane as Allied troops flooded the French shore. Amidst the tension and feverish activity, however, Murrow still found appropriate time for a look at the human side of the scene in Britain as he described the cramped but active quarters from which he was broadcasting, augmented by an elderly English charwoman who obliviously went about scrubbing the floor.

With the end of the war, American broadcast journalists seemed pleased with their performance. Although only a year earlier he had written of the "inadequate" performance in reporting the war, Murrow on his broadcast of September 16, 1945, summarized the satisfaction of newscasters when he declared,

I have been listening to the radio. Some of what I hear I don't like. Maybe you feel the same way. But there is something altogether unique about this American system of broadcasting... . During the last nine years I saw something of what radio can do when it is used to tell the people what to think, when it is used to dull the critical facilities, when the right to listen is denied. If you doubt that radio is a powerful medium, you should see how it can warp men's minds when it becomes an instrument of national policy. I do not believe that American radio is perfect. But I am persuaded that the listener in this country is better served than is the listener in any other country with which I am familiar.

Experience in war lent a significant heritage to American broadcast journalism. The courage and tenacity with which many radio reporters fulfilled their responsibilities created a sense of importance for the immediacy of news within society. With its speed and range of coverage, radio thus became the most reliable medium of communication through which to obtain news. Newspapers and magazines could offer only depth of coverage to rival the instantaneousness of broadcasting. Moreover, with the maturation of news analysis, radio commentaries compared favorably to those in the print media.

Murrow, again on his broadcast of September 16, 1945, epitomized the spirit and confidence of broadcast journalism as it faced America at peace:

Radio, if it is to serve and survive, must hold a mirror behind the nation and the world. If the reflection shows radical intolerance, economic inequality, bigotry, unemployment or anything else—let the people see it, or rather hear it. The mirror must have no curves and must be held with a steady hand.

Continue Reading        Previous