Hearing Is Believing
by DIXON WECTER
IN AUGUST, 1939, a Roper poll found that half the Americans queried picked radio news as the freest from prejudice. On the score of popularity, radio analysts outstripped editorial writers and columnists combined. The number of analysts and commentators over the networks alone (not counting overseas reporters or local talent) has grown from half a dozen at the Munich crisis to about sixty. Millions of Americans clustered around their radios when Hitler invaded Poland and when France fell. Half the total population of the United States hung upon radio news and comment the afternoon of Pearl Harbor, according to a Hooper survey. D Day and election night in 1944 set later floodmarks for listening, the latter surpassing even Pearl Harbor.
In tabulating the growth of the listening public, Columbia University’s Office of Radio Research adds two significant facts. First, increasing numbers of people say that radio is “more important” than other channels of information in helping them to make up their minds on public issues. Second, listeners on the lower cultural levels — a large segment of the newer public for current events — “are apparently more suggestible.” IN MOST countries — ranging from Britain with her benign, rather stodgy BBC to the totalitarian states offering the listener his choice of approved propaganda or the risk of losing his head — government rules the air waves. But the United States is pledged to private enterprise in radio, and the majority of Americans, despite moods of irritation with soap operas, middle and singing commercials, and egocentric commentators, will agree that this way is best. Yet a minimum of Federal control is necessary, to allocate wave lengths and to see that one station does not interfere with another. Here, according to the most rugged apostles of free enterprise, the authority of the Federal Communications Commission should stop. But, long ago, an Act of Congress defined the licensee as a steward, whose use of that frequency must promote “public interest, convenience, and/or necessity.” Later the Supreme Court hold that a license to broadcast on a certain wave length does not constitute property; in effect, the radio spectrum remains forever the property of the people.
The ear is less critical than the eye. It cannot go back and review the imperfectly understood, as in the reading of a book or paper; it comes to trust the fleeting impressions or ideas presented under the warmth, intimacy, and hypnotic conviction of the human voice. Plato’s remark, that the size of groups in which men can be governed depends upon the range of the human voice, echoes today with unsuspected irony.
Radio finds itself saddled with heavy social obligations to keep open the channels of public opinion. So long as it traffics in news and views, it cannot escape this duty. Public opinion in a democracy deserves the most respectful treatment. Those who aspire to lead it, whether politicians, editors, or commentators, need the soberest sense of responsibility.
Do the voices of radio merit the high vote of confidence they receive? I shall try to answer that question in three articles, first by looking at the safeguards and controls that surround the industry — through Federal regulation and self-regulation — and then by scrutinizing the possible sources of interference, manipulation, and bias in the handling of news and comment. A survey of the best-known commentators and analysts will be necessary before we can judge how well or ill our system works.
Every station’s need to renew its license from the FCC, at intervals of one to three years, is a reminder of this basic law, and to some licensees a pretty irksome act of fealty. Colonel Robert R. McCormick, speaking over Station WGN and the Mutual Network, over whose directorate he wields a powerful influence, recently compared the tenure of wave lengths to the holding of land in the Middle Ages. “Just as feudal ownership of land turned into private ownership, so I believe will the ownership of wave lengths,” he declared. “Wave lengths will become property and will be protected in the courts like other property.” This undoubtedly is the way that the Colonel and others would like to order matters.
The FCC, set up in 1934, is the main regulatory body in whose shadow American broadcasting operates. An outsider who talks to station owners and executives of the four networks is somewhat puzzled by the ogreish reputation accorded the FCC. One official expressed himself in wistful words about “freedom from fear—of the FCC.” The perennial dread of every station is the loss of its license. Yet for many years the Commission has not revoked a single license, although in dimly prehistoric days (as radio history goes) three stations were barred, two for peddling nostrums over the air to prostate and cancer sufferers, and one for reckless abuse heaped on law courts and municipal officials. The majority of licenses are renewed year after year, without challenge, even though stations fail to live up to their original promises in such matters as allotting a generous amount of program time to educational and other public service features.
Legally the FCC has what its former chairman, James L. Fly, called “the right of general review.” That phrase means an overall survey of a station’s program log, to determine whether it is in the public interest. The only specific taboos given the FCC by its charter, to enforce on behalf of this interest, have to do with lotteries and obscene or profane language. The censorship of free speech by radio is expressly forbidden, by terms of the Communications Act of 1934. No program, no commentator or news analyst, has ever been driven off the air by Federal pressure, direct or indirect. But if a station or network converts itself into a special pleader, losing all pretense to balanced output, then the FCC may challenge its claim to be operating in the public interest.
Actually, the enforcement of this principle is rare, and is provoked only by flagrant violation. In May, 1940, the FCC rebuked the Yankee Network for taking sides two years earlier in local politics, observing in a classic declaration that “the broadcaster cannot be an advocate” — but allowed the warning to suffice. An important precedent was set in the summer of 1944, when the Commission’s routine decision to renew the license of Station WHKC, Columbus, Ohio, was challenged by the CIO-UAW because of alleged discrimination against labor, in refusing radio time to unions and in censoring scripts. It was charged that while Fulton Lewis, Jr., freely attacked on the air the Federal housing program for war workers, this station balked union labor’s attempt to present the other side of the argument.
At a public hearing, WHKC promised to abdicate as censor and to strike a balance between points of view. This agreement was a blow to the long-standing policy of the National Association of Broadcasters, that “discussion of labor problems on the air is almost always of a controversial nature,” and hence that radio time for that purpose should never be sold — though abundant free time has gone to the National Association of Manufacturers, and though t his proscription has never deterred commentators, whether friends or foes of labor, from speaking their minds on sponsored time. Despite the NAB’s policy, individual stations now sell time for discussion of labor problems, in some cases directly to labor organizations.
THE National Association of Broadcasters, to which the majority of stations belong, together with NBC and CBS (Mutual and the Blue, or American Broadcasting Company, currently do not), is the watchdog within the industry. Its basic conviction — that selfregulation is a better way out than Federal interference — meets with general agreement, even from the FCC itself. If stations fear the FCC’s review of their general program policies, on the score of balanced presentation, surely their best insurance is reform. They might recall that greed and mismanagement in other businesses brought on the age of trust-busting, forty years ago, and later were a direct cause of the New Deal.
The storm warnings are up. Radio has already entered the trust-busting phase of this cycle. Two years ago, on May 10, 1943, the Supreme Court upheld the FCC in its effort to break the monopoly of the RCA and CBS, and among other practical results cut the ties between the Blue Network and its parent, the National Broadcasting Company — an operation, dreaded with outcries of anguish, which has meant a more vigorous and profitable life for the Blue.
Yet the networks resented this Supreme Court decision buttressing the anti-monopoly policies of the FCC. On the advice of shrewd legal counsel, they focused their public grievance, not upon the loss of monopoly, but upon an issue of free speech which they claimed to discover lurking like a serpent beneath the rhetoric of Mr. Justice Frankfurter. For this decision stated that the FCC was not merely “a kind of traffic officer, policing the wave-lengths to prevent stations from interfering with each other,” but also had a responsibility for “ determining the composition of that traffic.”
The networks and the National Association of Broadcasters, hoping that Congress would take alarm and pass laws curbing the FCC, announced an interpretation of the phrase, “the composition of traffic,” which put into the hands of the FCC a bludgeon neither wanted by it nor obviously intended by the Court.
The phrase, they said, meant programs, and gave the Commission the horrendous right to say what should and should not go on the air. And so they raised a cry of endangered liberties which ran through hearings of the Wheeler-White bill in the winter of 1943-1944, and still echoes in Congress.
The FCC, like a diffident schoolmaster who finds the biggest boy in class appealing tearfully to the principal to save him from a flogging, has grown increasingly self-conscious about asserting its authority in the matter of fair and balanced programs. If it had not been needled into action by organized labor, for example, it would never have summoned WHKC to a hearing last year.
After five years under the chairmanship of Mr. Fly, a Texas lawyer and outspoken New Deal anti-monopolist, the FCC has recently gained a new head in Paul Porter, former Washington legal counsel for CBS, an OPA deputy administrator, and still more recently publicity director for the Democratic Party in 1944. Appointment of Mr. Porter, more genial and politically adept than his predecessor, has helped to smooth relations with the industry. As one NBC executive expressed it, “ If Porter intends to cut your throat, he’ll ask you to have a drink first, but Fly always started by whetting the knife.”
The National Association of Broadcasters say they need no outside regulation of programs. Balanced programs are rendered more or less automatic, they argue, because too obvious bias — in such programs as news comment — loses listeners, and then of course sponsors. Competition for an audience, they say, acts as a system of checks and balances; and they make much of the listener’s sovereign right to veto the whole program by a turn of the wrist. It should be remarked, however, that this veto is by no means equivalent to a guarantee that both sides of a controverted issue will gain equal hearing on the air.
The best safeguard which the Broadcasters’ code offers against a situation where the longest purse would command the air waves is its declaration that time for controversial issues (except for political campaign speeches) shall not be sold. This is a wise policy. But it leaves a wide space under the gate, through which sponsored commentators pass in an unending stream, carrying torches in both hands. Another article in the code asserts: “News shall not be selected for the purpose of furthering or hindering either side of any controversial public issue nor shall it be colored by the opinions and desires of the station or the network management, the editor ... or the person actually delivering it . . . or . . . the advertiser.” But the selection of news, the emphasis upon details, and the blurred line between newscasting and news comment are all complex and interlocking problems.
As for commentators, the code declares that interpretation is permitted “so long as such analysis and elucidation are free of bias.” In the light of current practice, this avowal is largely bosh. The whole question of handling news and its analysis, under the Broadcasters’ code, ultimately pivots upon their contention that the analyst stands permanently on trial before the bar of public opinion. If he leans too far off center, his audience will desert him. This theory does not take sufficient reckoning of those commentators who resort to excitement, sensationalism, or reckless attack to bolster a slipping Hooper or Crosley index, or those sponsors who sometimes cling to a commentator even in the face of much popular opposition, because he is the evangel for their point of view.
Those editorial voices, the commentators, have taken at least one step toward self-regulation. In 1942, under the leadership of H. V. Kaltenborn, a dozen of the nationally known ones founded the Association of Radio News Analysts. Its members, now about twenty, try to promote good taste, accuracy, and a sense of professional responsibility, while insisting on the right to speak their minds free from censorship or editorial supervision. Their creed is that only the intelligent, honest, trustworthy commentator has any business on the air, and that once employed he should be given his head.
On the score of taste, ARNA has backed the pioneering fight, of Raymond Swing against the “middle commercial” — which breaks into the flow of world events with laxatives and vitamins— but there is still much to be done in the matter of eliminating interruptions in news programs. The Association does not propose to go to bat for all commentators on all occasions. A few months ago, without publicity, it declined to intervene on behalf of a commentator who invoked its help, in his quarrel with a national network, apparently because he had so often violated its ideals of accuracy and good taste. It is unfortunate that the Association represents only a minority of the profession, and that those who stand most in need of its code do not belong.
THE tendency to slant the news may come from at least four sources. The first is the sponsor, whose motives are almost invariably suspect. Luckily, the great majority of commentators are not for sale. Only a very few aspire merely to be mouthpieces, in rare instances pitching their voices to attract the notice of some potential sponsor known to be searching for a commentator, not primarily to sell motor cars, for example, but to purvey the pet ideas of that manufacturer. Often, however, sponsor and like-minded commentator discover each other, like romantic affinities. The commentator cannot well be accused of having trimmed his sails, but only of having caught in them the prevailing wind of patronage. A highly personalized business, such as a company under the thumb of a single owner, is likely to pick a strongly partisan commentator of congenial opinions.
On the other hand, a corporation with authority divided among many persons, or a firm whose directors feel that the main end of advertising is the selling of goods and good will to a huge, diversified public, is prone to hire a more balanced commentator. This is an important safeguard of impartiality. Lowell Thomas, for instance, is in no sense a mouthpiece for Mr. Joe Pew, although, at the extreme of speculation, it is unlikely that Sun Oil would ever have hired William Gailmor to begin with.
Sometimes the theory of merchandising itself, as conceived by the sponsor and his advertising agent, helps to pick the commentator. Goods sold in a big, brisk, competitive market — like patent medicines, dentifrices, and lotions — need friendly, folksy voices, reducing the complexities of the day into news flashes or human interest stories, while advertisers who need no wartime sales promotion, but spend to keep up good will and keep down excess profits, incline toward dignity and prestige. A new departure among commentators, begun by Fulton Lewis, Jr., and followed by Raymond Swing, is to sell their broadcasts to different local sponsors over the country — a clothing firm here, a drug concern there, a chain of grocery stores elsewhere — to the pyramiding of profits and the decentralization of sponsorship.
In justice to most commentators, let it be said again that contamination from the sponsor is clearly the exception, not the rule. Some of the most reputable analysts, after years of service, testify to complete freedom from pressure. Yet potentially the power of sponsored news is so great — with one national network and most independent stations willing to accept any commentator whom the sponsor or advertising agent may bring into the studio — that Senator Burton K. Wheeler, chairman of the Interstate Commerce Committee, has long favored abolishing all sponsored programs of news or comment. In reply, the networks say that their present costly coverage of the news at home and abroad is possible only with the aid of commercial revenues.
A second source of pressure, in the interpretation of news, comes from the local station. Actual legal responsibility for whatever goes out over the air rests with the station broadcasting it — whether the program comes from a network or from the local studio. Many stations, whether network affiliates or not, have newscasters and analysts of their own. The independent station naturally is freer to work out its own news policies and, save for gross abuse of the public interest, is seldom challenged by any agency in Washington.
We hear reliably of one station owner who frequently sends snippets from Hearst editorials up to his newsroom ordering that they be read on every newscast that day; who commanded that Henry Wallace’s name never be mentioned over the air; who sent his music department an order “not to play anything by that damned Communist choir,” referring to the Cossack Male Chorus, and banned songs by Paul Robeson, who offended both on the score of politics and of race. When one of his commentators interviewed on the air an officer sent by the Navy, a Commander Goldberg, the owner administered a tongue-lashing. “Next time,” he growled, “tell the Navy to send us somebody named Casey.” It is worth remark that in the past three years he has fired seven successive news editors — the last one for answering a query about his politics by saying, “When I’m in this newsroom, Mr. R—, I have no sympathies either for or against the President.”
In March, 1945, one of the country’s largest, independent stations, KFI in Los Angeles, announced that it was fed up with “personal opinions and interpretations,” and after a house cleaning would make all its sponsored commentators employees of the station, directly under its control. Understandable as the attitude was, it showed poor handling from the standpoint of public relations. If this announcement had been phrased in terms of the listener’s deliverance from crusaders, crackpots, and others trying to make up his mind for him, or if a gradual change in the line-up had been made without fanfare, the policy would have met little challenge.
Instead, this curt decision and the immediate firing of six more or less liberal commentators, and the wellknown anti-labor bias of the station’s owner, Earle C. Anthony, provoked vigorous opposition under the flag of free speech. It was also unfortunate that KFI, in eliminating commercial programs that personalized the news in favor of “neutral” ones, did nothing to counterbalance the effect of its violently reactionary sustaining commentators — notably Rupert Hughes, scenario writer turned foreign-affairs expert, who continued weekly to assail Russia from the studios of KFI over a national network.
A third factor in the handling of news and comment is naturally the networks. In general their record is fair to good. CBS, NBC, and the Blue have a carefully developed roster of analysts, with diverse personalities and points of view, from whom sponsors may choose. Mutual, on the other hand, makes greater concessions to the sponsor or his advertising agent, in allowing him to buy time for any commentator or “expert” he may fancy.
If, however, a commentator is once black-listed by Mutual, he is likely to find himself permanently barred from the stations of that network: Sam Balter, dismissed from his news program after pungent criticism of Colonel McCormick, was later rejected by a Pacific affiliate even when a sponsor offered him in the role of sportscaster. Mutual, as the name implies, is a loose coöperative organization, heavily under the control of regional bosses. More than the other chains, Mutual permits strong partisanship among its commentators. Speakers identified with Mutual, reading from right to center, include Upton Close, Colonel McCormick, Bill Cunningham, Fulton Lewis, Jr., Gabriel Heatter, and Cecil Brown.
YOUNGEST of the chains is the Blue Network — recently christened the American Broadcasting Company. Originally composed of second-string NBC stations, it has lately enjoyed vigorous growth and improvement. Its overseas news team, patterned upon those of NBC and Columbia, includes brilliant reporters like Leland Stowe, George Hicks, and Ted Malone. The Blue has commentators of such diversified character as Raymond Swing, Drew Pearson, Walter Winched, Baukhage, and John B. Kennedy. Somewhat like Mutual, t he Blue makes room for showmanship and sensationalism, but is more scrupulous in balancing one point of view against another.
NBC and Columbia strive for greater objectivity. NBC, pioneer of the networks, builds its news commentary around those ever popular veterans, Lowell Thomas and H. V. Kaltenborn. Its newsmen scattered over the globe — John MacVane, Roy Porter, Guthrie Janssen, Robert McCormick, and others, linked with Morgan Beatty in Washington and coördinated by John W. Vandercook in New York —glean the news with freshness and a minimum of partisan slant. Those analysts who have served time overseas, like Vandercook and Robert St. John of NBC, or Murrow and Shirer of CBS, have a better sense of proportion than those who have vegetated too long in the studios of Washington, New York, and Hollywood.
Overseas news gathered within sound of gunfire is usually more temperate, both in its optimisms and its pessimisms, than the news which floods over the teletype to local stations and their newscasters. For, between point of origin and ultimate listener, press association news passes across the cable desks of metropolitan editors. An advance of two miles becomes “a smashing punch,” and a tentative thrust a surge forward,” with competing services tending throughout the day to raise the emotional ante. These lurid assessments are passed on to radios all over the nation.
The blue ribbon for overseas reporting of this war goes to Columbia, with its veteran team of correspondents led by Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Bill Downs, Winston Burdett, and Charles Collingwood, with New York support from Quincy Howe and a battery of returned correspondents like William L. Shirer and Quentin Reynolds, and a résumé by Joseph C. Harsch. A sense of partnership, the integration of a system, and a common philosophy of news values — these things have their advantage in keeping CBS newsmen, however good, from blossoming into prima donnas.
The star of this outfit is Ed Murrow, the first radio man to be chosen president of the American Correspondents Association in England. A North Carolinian who grew up in the tall timbers of the Pacific Northwest, young Murrow stepped from student federation work into getting jobs for European professors in exile, for the Institute of International Education. He gained further international perspective as a protege of Professor James T. Shotwell, League of Nations expert at Columbia University. Ten years ago he went into radio, and since 1937 has been chief of the CBS European bureau. While resisting a British accent and a British outlook, Murrow has won considerable prestige in Downing Street, and in fact in his mid-thirties looks like a budding career diplomat.
Murrow takes personal risks — as in his epochmaking broadcasts of the London blitz, or the bombing missions he has shared over Berlin, or paratroop flights to Holland. The servicemen’s endorsement of his reportorial accuracy is what he most prizes. Murrow’s ability to distill the spirit of an event into a few graphic details is unexcelled. As a born reporter, he has shown good sense in avoiding the pundit pose. “Any man is an expert if he is sufficiently far from home,” he said a few months ago, in accepting by radio an award from the School of Journalism at Syracuse University.
MURROW, Shirer, and Quentin Reynolds — who contrive to present the democratic idealism of the war in a vehicle of tough realism — offer a ready answer to those critics who insisted two years ago that the “no opinion” policy promulgated by the CBS news editor, Paul White, would drain news comment of its vitality and personal color. Perhaps, also, in revulsion from the vagaries of radio egoists, Mr. White overstated his own case. In September, 1943, it will be recalled, he started a hot debate by inveighing against “a sort of super-editorial page in which a limited number of news analysts were permitted to exhort and harangue and to preach and to tell the public just what to think and what to do.”
This outburst followed White’s dismissal of Cecil Brown for broadcasting “nothing but an editorial.” Cecil Brown, a very able newspaperman, haunted by the memory of Singapore’s downfall through blundering apathy, in August, 1943, sought to rouse his listeners by saying that recent samplings of public opinion had convinced him that “a good deal of the enthusiasm for this war is evaporating into thin air.” His partisans also insisted that Brown’s recommendation of the motion picture Mission to Moscow had displeased his sponsor, Johns-Manville. At all events, he left Columbia and went to Mutual, where (as if to confute easy generalizers) he has attacked with impunity, on occasion, the Mutual Network’s angel, Colonel McCormick.
Paul White’s policy of “no opinion” was at first bitterly criticized. Fulton Lewis, Jr., protested attempts to create “journalistic eunuchs,” while Morris Ernst for the American Newspaper Guild predicted that “the end will be insidiously deceptive and corrupt.”
Now that the dust has settled, CBS policy has not proved so stringent as both Paul White and his critics led us to expect. Its analysts — a term favored by Columbia to the exclusion of “commentators” — have won a higher reputation for objectivity in handling news than those of other networks. Special pleading, crusading, and controversial discussion have been pretty successfully sifted out of the news and left to the 2316 sustaining programs of talk and discussion that went out over the network last year, such as “The People’s Platform,” “This Living World,” and “Congress Speaks.”
An obvious example of Columbia’s objectivity in treating the news occurred recently. Monitors of the PAC, listening to thirty-three daily programs of news and comment over the four networks, for seven weeks prior to the 1944 election, to catch references favorable or unfavorable to itself and to labor, found that Columbia was the only network that kept an even keel between pro and con, in terms of “moral judgment, and that, like NBC, it achieved a high ratio of fact to opinion and quoted opinion. Even so, CBS proved to have remarkably few references of any kind to labor, according to the same compilation. Of course, monitors of the PAC are not wholly objective themselves, but the general drift of their findings agrees with the reputation of CBS within the industry.
And yet the practice of the best analysts of CBS has never reached such impersonality as to be bloodless. Certain assumptions about the validity of the war, the need for coöperation with allies and neighbors at home, and the major premises of American democracy—these points of view can be detected in almost every broadcast of Murrow or Shirer. As an even franker avowal of a point of view, take Quentin Reynolds on D Day: “There arc no Democrats or Republicans at the front — only Americans. There are no Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans; there are no Jews, Catholics, or Protestants at the front; there are no New Yorkers or Californians or Texans or New Englanders; there are no white men or black men at the front — only Americans purged of the artificial barriers we still make so much of here at home.”
The essence of this fine plea for tolerance was repeated by Mr. Reynolds at the request of the Democratic National Committee, at the Chicago Convention in July, 1944, except that the phrases touching on black democracy were expunged — omitted surely not by the man who had spoken them to the nation, but by certain political solicitudes for the Solid South. Not all the censorship of public speech in America is exercised by radio.