Hearing Is Believing: Fulton Lends, Jr. — Upton Close
The influence of the radio reporter and the news analyst has been explored for the Atlantic by an American historian, DIXON WECTER, in a series of three articles. In our June issue, Mr. Wecter examined the relationships between the FCC, the networks, the radio stations, and those companies which sponsor the commentators. Last month he scrutinized the individual records of a number of the commentators, their reliability, their prejudices, and their mistakes. In this third article, he continues that scrutiny and comes to his conclusions.
by DIXON WECTER
THE strength and weakness of Fulton Lewis, Jr., as a radio commentator arise from the fact that he has always lived and moved in the national capital, the son of “a Republican who never cast a vote,” a member of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants. Each Christmas Eve, Fulton Lewis, Jr., accompanied by Fulton Lewis III, now aged nine, and Betsy, thirteen, in response to “many hundreds of requests from every nook and corner of the nation,” broadcasts a program from the little church in Georgetown where the present commentator at the age of eight first lifted his voice in public as a chorister.
After a brief interval at the University of Virginia, young Lewis began his long career in Washington journalism. He is and always has been a tenacious reporter, hard-working and persistent. In 1934, with the reluctant consent of his employer, Hearst, and at the insistence of Senator Black, Lewis delivered to the Senate committee investigating air-mail contracts and ship subsidies a mass of valuable material he had unearthed. In those days the columnist of “Washington Side-Show” might have been taken for a mild crusader against the interests.
Eager to break into radio, Lewis substituted for a vacationing analyst, and in December, 1937, won a regular nightly job over Mutual’s WOL, which is still his base of operations — although his $25 a week salary has long since multiplied a hundredfold, thanks to more than sixty sponsors and an audience numbering three to four million. His coup of getting Lindbergh on the air in September, 1939, brought Lewis national fame but left him with an isolationist repute.
Lewis has ventured occasionally into military matters outside his ken. His Mutual broadcast, “Pictures Can Lie,” later carried by Scribner’s Commentator in November, 1940, scouted photographs of inductees drilling with broomsticks as part of “a vast propaganda movement [that] seeks to impress the nation with the mistaken conception that its armed forces are pitifully equipped.” We had enough Enfields and Springfields to equip the 150,000 riflemen that might be put into the field in a crisis, “not with one gun, but with nineteen guns! . . . America’s defense depends not on publicity photos dreamed up by a high-priced press agent, but on cold steel and the calm determination of her people.”
With respect to the war effort directed from Washington, Lewis has made some sound criticisms. His sharp arraignment of General Somervell’s Canol project seems fully to have been justified by developments. More recently, he began a series of shocking disclosures about government expenditures on the Latin American highway. Certain aspects of the manpower shortage have probably been bettered under Lewis’s needling. But not infrequently he seems to assume that any change of policy means a confession of error, and his conclusions are sometimes disputable.
The old Liberty League fun of the thirties — boondoggling in Mr. Ickes’s department, the theorizing of “professors” and statisticians, the jargon of Federal reports and questionnaires — never loses its charm for Mr. Lewis. His repeated attacks upon Federal housing in 1944 drew at last a long letter from the Administrator, John B. Blandford, Jr., explaining to Lewis that he had badly confused the war housing program with the old New Deal slum clearance project, and supplying facts that invalidated much of what Lewis had charged.
“A great many of you believe,” Lewis said in May, 1944, “that the President should be elected for a fourth term . . . and it’s entirely possible that I may believe so, too, as the campaign develops.” Republicans who heard these words with a sinking feeling might have recalled that in past times Lewis has pretty consistently overestimated Republican chances, that he left the payroll of the National Association of Manufacturers as recently as June 9, 1942, and that his father-in-law was once Republican National Committee Chairman.
From the start of the 1944 campaign, when he stood on the rostrum at the Republican National Convention, smoking a long cigar, with one arm around Mr. Hoover, — the commentator looking blissful and the former President slightly uncomfortable, because he does not take easily to such bonhomie and besides the weather was tropical, — Lewis left some doubts about his political neutrality. In his broadcast of June 28 he announced that Dewey “is regarded by radio professionals as having a radio personality and delivery that is fully the equal of President Roosevelt himself” (and added a bulletin from the other camp: “I have very authoritative information from Washington that the President has finally stated that his first and only choice as his vice-presidential running mate is Vice President Henry A. Wallace”).
On July 4, in a solemnly facetious broadcast reporting the day’s news as of July 4, 1776, the commentator lauded Jefferson, the brilliant young Tom whose only handicap was youth, forecasting that when he “gets a little seniority, you may hear quite a little from him in the future.” But, when October came, Lewis was frank enough to admit that his latter-day Tom had proved a forensic disappointment: his first radio address fell flat, and his Los Angeles speech was “not an inspirational performance.” Although he kept overrating this candidate’s vote through the nation, Lewis broadcast on October 30 that the Hearst papers had killed his column reporting that Dewey’s chances on the West Coast were slim, adding that “it puts me in a false light,” and promising to announce by radio any such suppressions in the future.
Lewis’s prejudices blind him to the good such agencies as the OPA have done. “The common complaint of all business,” he reports, “is that it is humanly impossible to conduct ANY business operation, without making mistakes in the highly complicated ration coupon system.” Early in 1943 he berated the “ fundamental unsoundness” of the rationing of canned goods: “Nothing will do but that we try the same thing immediately just because England is doing it.”
A year later, in espousing the cause of the meat packers, he declared that it would be “perfectly safe to remove all price-ceilings, and let prices simmer down to their own level.” His confidence that prices would fall rather than rise, and that in such case purveyors would not hold back their stocks, may or may not have been warranted. More recently he has spoken of the “guilt” of OPA, run by “theorists and statisticians.” And he regarded the cancellation of some food stamps last December as a monstrous betrayal of American housewives. Some will disagree with the emotional nature of these conclusions, without questioning Mr. Lewis’s right to explore and present the facts.
Two favorite techniques of Lewis should be noted, as illustrations of radio partisanship. The first is that of skirting direct statement, by use of quoted opinion on only one side of a controverted topic — for example, adverse comments on Lend-Lease by Senators Ellender and Tydings. The second is more subtle, and is fair to the extent that its cases are truly typical. This is the championship of some small citizen against the government, when his cause happens to be the same as that of much bigger citizens. Such names and cases have studded Lewis’s programs for many months.
Nuances of intonation play an important part in Lewis’s broadcasting technique, so that the printed record of his remarks and the impression the listener gets may vary considerably. With heavy irony he will say, “The National Selective Service headquarters made another final decision tonight as to the drafting of men in certain age groups.” Both the word “final” and the emphasis he gives it are Lewis’s own addition. The forte of Lewis often lies in amplifying the small wartime irritations of farm, home, and local ration board until they expand into matter for noble anger and significance — and, one might add, until they are intelligible solely upon the premise that Washington is a madhouse. Lewis’s mission is to describe “this Washington maelstrom of government, where no department ever seems to know what any other department is doing, nor cares, and in which days and weeks and months usually pass before any bureau or agency ever shows the initiative to correct weaknesses that develop in government procedure.” The topheavy structure is honeycombed by “termites,” those three and a half million Federal employees whose bosses spread confusion far and wide.
At the beginning of April, 1945, for example, his microphone picked up civilian complaints from Honolulu, where government contractors have long been a special target of his wrath, and from Boston, where S. S. Pierce with Federal approval allows customers to send bundles of rationed food to Britain without giving up coupons. “For whose benefit,” he asks plaintively, “our own or other nations’, is this government being run?”
THE passage of news through a commentator’s personality achieves its sharpest refraction with Upton Close, pseudonym of Josef Washington Hall. A native of Kelso, Washington, he went to the Far East as newspaper correspondent during the last war, and presently found himself in charge of the United States Legation espionage service in Shantung during the Japanese penetration of 1916-1919. His experiences in that Oriental welter of spying and counter-spying, conspiracy, and distrust appear to have left their stamp upon him.
As a radio commentator his manner is to raise questions as if he knew all the answers, and knew they were very shady ones indeed. The Chicago Tribune, which admiringly calls him “the Marco Polo of news commentators,” not long ago described his appearance at a Lake Shore cocktail party as that of “an intellectual, even pious face, a mass of fuzzy dark hair round a bald spot, and a dynamic personality.” On the radio Close is a smooth, fast talker.
Millions of Americans heard him for the first time on the afternoon of Pearl Harbor, when NBC in San Francisco called upon him as a Far Eastern expert to interpret the news that was flooding in. “Hello, Americans!” he began. “The most fantastic thing that has yet happened in this fantastic world is the bombing of Honolulu. . . . There is more behind it than meets the eye. . . . I think I have just received the most interesting and perhaps the most important sidelight on what has happened. . . I have just been in touch with the San Francisco Japanese Consulate. The Consul was not able to talk, but his representative and secretary said that the attack is a complete surprise . . . and he implied that it is likewise a complete surprise to the Foreign Office in Tokyo and the Japanese Government in Tokyo.
“It is very possible,” Mr. Close went on, “that there is a double double-cross in this business ... a coup engineered by German influences and with the aid of German vessels in the Pacific . . . [or] a coup engineered by a small portion of the Japanese navy that has gone fanatic . . . [or] a coup engineered by the group in Japan that wants the group that wants war kicked out of office.” Close apparently thought, in any case, we had received the comeuppance we asked for, whether by Secretary Hull’s sternness in handling Japanese pride, or by Roosevelt’s “very sweet and very humble message” to the Mikado — take your choice.
Upton Close’s broadcast was so wide of the mark that NBC promptly dropped him from its staff on account of it. Almost, three years later, in speaking at the Chicago Athletic Association on October 23, 1944, Close expressed suspicion that Vice President Wallace, listening in Washington, had brought pressure to bear upon NBC to effect his removal. Close recently wrote me that the only proof of his allegation lay in a caution he later received from an NBC official, to say nothing to offend Wallace, after Close made a quip on the air about the former Vice President’s having been away too long from the corn of Iowa — although when Close subsequently called to see Wallace, the latter laughed off this jest.
Judging that this proof seemed a little tenuous, I wrote to Mr. Wallace, who replied: “Of course I have had nothing whatsoever to do with barring Mr. Close or anyone else from the radio. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know that Mr. Close had made such a broadcast.”
The other side of the story maintains that Close was dropped because of irresponsibility, but that, following his earnest vows of amendment, he was shortly reinstated as NBC’s Far Eastern expert. At all events, Close was heard regularly afterwards on a weekly sustaining program, “Events and Trends of the Week.” A rather temperate, objective news analysis, it was printed and distributed by the University of California Press as “a public service.” Here was not the Upton Close who in the twenties had lectured to ladies’ clubs on Oriental poetry, under the title of “Cherry Blossom and Pear Orchard,” but neither was he the passionate pleader of present broadcasts.
He liked to style himself “a historian.” Even though he referred to “Commodore John Dewey” as the victor of Manila Bay, and to Thomas Jefferson as “the man who phrased our Constitution,” Close did talk knowingly about Pacific geography and the war itself— which he interpreted idealistically, while lauding British productiveness and Russian tenacity.
IN TWO new series, beginning in the autumn of 1942, Close’s growing recognition landed him commercial sponsors, Northern Pump and Sheaffer Pen. About this time a new note of dissatisfaction crept into his broadcasts, to grow steadily stronger. Perhaps it arose from sincere conviction that our war policies needed criticism, or from the publicist’s desire for more pungent copy, or from the commentator’s occupational egoism, or from the unconscious bias of an analyst whose dependence no longer lay with NBC as a public service feature but with industrial sponsors.
At any rate, Close began increasingly to worry about “the war’s spiritual aim,” to criticize the Renegotiation Act, and joyfully to hail the 1942 elections as proof “that Fourth Term ideas were farfetched” and “conservatism is in the saddle . . . the American voter’s Battle of Midway . . . is turning the tide of bungling.” Thereafter he grew steadily more bitter toward Britain and Russia, the war in Europe, and the Roosevelt administration.
Most of us, no doubt, have changed our attitudes toward some nationalities from time to time, and are in no smug position to criticize a simple about-face. But the reader and auditor of Upton Close’s views can hardly escape an extraordinary sense of flexibility. For instance, respecting Japan, Close in 1935 published Challenge — Behind the Face of Japan, suggesting some of the sinister aspects borne out by events, and this book he never tires of mentioning.
But as late as March 4, 1941, in a speech he does not often quote, Close told San Francisco’s Town Hall: “I see less reason for having a war with Japan who is frayed out, eaten out at the heart, who has the blind staggers — no, I see less reason to have war with Japan today than I have at any time in seven years. . . . Japan is licked to a stalemate in China. The Japanese are trying daily to negotiate with Chiang Kai-shek to get him to come back to Nanking and for God’s sake to help them out. He has just played a very canny Chinese game and has let them get in worse and worse and offer him a better and better bargain.” Close warned that if we went to war with the Japanese, “by the time we get through probably the Chinese would be feeling very sorry for them and trying to help them out against us.”
Yet, despite Close’s view in the spring of 1941 of an impotent Japan, late in 1942 he was calling her the “roughest, toughest, most unyielding enemy in the world,” freely predicting her planes would soon start bombing the West Coast and Great Lakes factories from the Aleutians. However, in his broadcast of last September 17 (in announcing, unluckily, that MacArthur would begin his reconquest of the Philippines with Mindanao), Close remarked, “In the Pacific and Asia, we are not up against superior organizing and fighting power, and never were. What we were and are still up against is geography, race touchiness, and our own carelessness and ignoring of fundamentals.” In fact, Close has talked so much during the past twentyfive years that occasionally he has been most regrettably right, and at other times most regrettably wrong.
At the height of German resistance in France, on July 9, 1944, Close said over Mutual: “Certainly the hard-boiled German generals and the palace guard, as well as the German people, do not prefer the Russian conqueror. Quite the contrary. They would prefer to surrender to the Anglo-Saxons.” But repeatedly in January and February, 1945, after the Russian winter drive began, Close explored “the theory that someone in the German high command is deliberately letting the Russians in. My only guess about this would be based on the thesis that if I were a German general, I would see more of the future for me in a surrender to Stalin than in surrender to Roosevelt and Churchill.” These shifting intuitions may be all right in their place, but just what validity they have on a news program is hard to discover.
About Soviet Russia there is no ambiguity in Close’s view. Even in April, 1941, he foretold the day when “influences out of Russia may be more dangerous to democracy and Americanism than Hitler’s fraying threats.” Russia is treacherous, cunning, powerful. In August, 1943, Close averred: “We have arrived at the stage where our Russian allies have openly paved a way, ready for use if they shall see fit, for a separate pact with the enemy they are fighting.” It has been almost impossible for Stalin to please Close. If Russia paused to collect her strength, she was stalling; if she rolled forward, the great Red menace was growing still more ominous.
TOWARD Britain, Close is not much friendlier. He is perennially suspicious of Churchill, whom he upbraided in November, 1944, for having aided Roosevelt’s reelection by predicting that hard fighting still lay ahead, whereas the commentator knew better, and even ventured the guess that “Santa Claus Eisenhower will have Germany in the bag before Christmas.” But when the Rundstedt offensive opened, a few weeks later, Close tore into the President for lulling us with complacencies about early victory. “Virtually they [the voters] had been promised that the European war would be over in November.”
As to Churchill’s Empire, Close also finds himself of a divided mind. Sometimes the British lion appears to his vision as arrogant with power, at others as retreating before the Russian bear with almost contemptible weakness. Over the radio on December 10, 1944, Close obligingly wrote a new ticket for British imperialism, a Drang nach Süden toward peoples too feeble to make trouble. “I think,” he said, “that Britain should make her future area of interest and exploitation the continent of Africa, where she will be out of the way of Russia and the renascent peoples of Asia.”
In earlier stages of the war, Close’s suspicions of Britain helped make him an isolationist. His San Francisco speech of March 4, 1941, called “the kicking around of Lindbergh . . . the most shameful page in American history,” and he deprecated the reckless sympathy for England and hatred for Germany displayed by “the Anglophiles and the Jewish people on the umbilical coast, east of the Hudson River.” Now that we are more than three years deep in war, Close in his broadcast on February 11, 1945, scolds the “Protestant chiselers” and “Jewish opportunists” for calling attention to racial and sectarian prejudices.
Quite possibly, in the sincerity of his heart, Close does not regard these utterances as biased. For, only a few months ago, Close offered a thousand-dollar War Bond “to the person who will bring the first authentic quotation from my writings or broadcasts which is ‘anti-British’ or ‘anti-Russian’ . . . [and] to any person who will produce anything I have ever written or said in public that is anti-Jewish.” Lest the offer seem too generous, contestants should note the phrase “in public,” along with the fact that Close himself presumably is judge and jury.
In his broadcast of January 21, 1945, Close quoted with hearty endorsement the words of Merwin K. Hart, that great friend of Franco: “Let us not pursue the suicidal policy of cruelty to Germany because she has been cruel.” In April, 1944, Close termed Allied insistence upon unconditional surrender “a harmful exhibition of petty vanity,” and in the same month was quoted by the press as calling the European war “that bloody strife between people a little different from each other.” More recently, on March 11, 1945, Close told his listeners that “the shocker of the week” was Mr. Roosevelt’s possible approval of “Stalin’s plan of putting 10,000,000 young Germans to forced labor in Russia!” Mr. Close questioned the “morals of this” as well as its aggrandizement of Stalin,
The grand secret of Close’s point of view is not hard to discover. Whatever happens, he is against it. Internationally, the dominant fact is the war; at home, governmental red tape. No doubt both need salutary criticism from time to time, on radio controversy hours, if not in so-called “ Close-Ups of the News.” But when all the world looks sallow week after week, we may ask whether the eye itself is not jaundiced.
To Upton Close, bad news from the fronts was always an indictment of Roosevelt’s or Churchill’s or Stalin’s bungling; as for good news, in this phony war it is mostly an illusion. Things are never as they seem, for this country is always being sold a bill of goods, like Teheran or Yalta or the San Francisco Conference. “The nation,” Close will say, with his gift for metaphor, “is baffled by the cloying sweetness of a honeyed idealism which more and more fails to dovetail with reality.” Often he becomes the reproachful voice of “the paying and dying citizens” of America, who “are fighting for we know not what.”
As a “ War Dad ” — a role of which he never tires — Close clamors for the boys to come home just as quickly as possible, predicting that they will return “confirmed isolationists.” The magic phrase “America first” runs like a charm through his latter-day utterances. As early as October, 1943, Close told an Iowa teachers’ convention, as reported by the Chicago Sun, that “it is time for the United States to pull out of the European conflict. . . . America is waking up and wondering why she got into this war.”
Not even the Pacific war is anything to be very proud of. Close now avers that prior to Pearl Harbor, America “outraged” Japan by demanding that she move out of Indo-China, and asserts that Roosevelt in those days “missed the greatest gift to men since the teachings of Christ . . . the opportunity to bring about a meeting of the East and West without violence.” Sometimes Close explains that Pearl Harbor happened, not on account of our aid to China, but because Japan “became a threat to the British and French Asiatic empires,” or, as another theory, “because we had been entirely European-minded and our guards were down.” Close’s intuitions about Pearl Harbor are still almost as obfuscated as they were on that fatal day itself.
THE United Nations alliance, above all, is a “sour mess.” We are pulling everybody’s chestnuts out of the fire. The idiom in which this disillusion is cast varies with the occasion. On Sundays, when Close is prone to quote Scripture and clothe his thoughts in the garb of our native idealism, it finds expression in his sad resignation that good Americans will “continue as Christians to bear much more than their own share of the cost of man’s destruction of his civilization and man’s inhumanity to man.”
On other occasions, as in a luncheon speech last year before the Chicago Executives’ Club — in the congenial company of General Robert E. Wood, Werner Schroeder, and Close’s own sponsor, James S. Kemper—it took more jovial tones. “Usually,” said Mr. Close, “our war governments make the fool mistake of trying to convince the American people that their Allies, whoever they happen to be in bed with militarily, are saints, and because they are in bed with them politically they have got to fall in love with them; and perhaps have a few bastard children. [Laughter.] ”
A word about Close’s sponsor, now Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Republican National Committee, is not amiss. Between Mr. Close and Mr. Kemper the bond is staunch, and the latter has printed and mailed several million leaflets of the broadcasts paid for by his mutual insurance company — in effect, by its policyholders. Mr. Kemper, the only Chicagoan to earn more than $200,000 from salaries in 1942, inclines to conservatism in his general outlook. In September, 1932, for instance, under the regime of Herbert Hoover, he told a national insurance convention: “ I feel that our recovery from the Depression has been delayed rather than hastened by not permitting natural forces to have full play . . . [by] too much emphasis upon the responsibility of government for stimulating business activity.”
In January, 1941, as President of the United States Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Kemper over a nationwide NBC hookup praised the America First Committee, declared that we had no need of a vast, expensive rearmament program because “America could be defended with an adequate supply of long range bombers alone,” and asserted that “if we keep our heads, we won’t be in the war.”
Although Close calls himself “a contemporary historian, not a party man,” at least some listeners in 1944 suspected that his impartial balance trembled a little when he contemplated the Fourth Term. Sometimes his attitude toward the President was stern. Mr. Roosevelt “bungled the draft, the manpower situation, rationing, and lend-lease.” On other occasions Close manfully resisted the impulse to be playful. His first broadcast after D Day remarked the phrase “again and again” in Mr. Roosevelt’s prayer for the invasion: “A political wag would pick on this as Mr. Roosevelt’s favorite phrase, but an apostrophe to the Deity is not proper material for wags.”
In Close’s considered judgment Mr. Roosevelt’s great weakness was “ pliability,” but that of his party is rigidity—as contrasted with the Republican Party, which is “subject to moulding, subject to leadership, ready for new ideas ... I am speaking as a historian, not as a politician.” A workable unity under Mr. Roosevelt was admittedly impossible. “This is the basic and deep reasoning which has caused such weighty, careful newspapers as the New York Times . . . to declare for Dewey.” Readers of the Times last autumn may raise their eyebrows at this last remark.
It is gradually revealed that Close objects to the Administration in toto, ranging from international matters like Dumbarton Oaks (“the dumb oaks conference”) to domestic ones like social security. Social security or any kind of security is illusion, Close tells us, as proved by “ the truth learned by us and our sons on the battlefield: that if you refuse to assume risk you remain ridden with fear . . . [we need] individual opportunity to invent and to establish businesses . . . [and] must take the risks of that decision and not bawl for the security of a child or a slave. We must risk being casualties in the field of peace as in the field of battle.”
Just what connection the risk of battle has with the civil risks of unemployment, accident, and sickness, or the inevitability of old age and death, is not clear. Certainly the glorification of unpreparedness against loss is as extraordinary a philosophy as ever introduced a commercial plug for casualty insurance.
Close was greeted by angry murmurs at a Republican rally in Evanston, Illinois, on April 4, 1944, when he “revealed” that the Japanese Navy in the North Pacific was convoying our Lend-Lease shipments to Russia, and “it is to be assumed that Japan gets her cut of our lend-lease materials in return for such service.” Into these waters he failed to carry with him this audience of Evanston Republicans, although a few days later he scored magnificently with a similar speech before the Chicago Citizens U.S.A. Committee, formerly the Citizens Keep America Out of War Committee, and then the Committee for Negotiated Peace. At each weekly meeting this group distributed copies of Close’s Sunday broadcasts, as did other groups, like We the Mothers Mobilize for America, the Peace Now Movement, and Gerald L. K. Smith’s Nationalists.
Dissatisfied with most Democrats and Republicans, Close finds his true love in General Douglas MacArthur — for which, of course, that eminent soldier is in no way responsible. In an NBC broadcast shortly before Christmas, 1943, Upton Close dedicated a jingle all his own to Republican hopefuls: —
And MacArthur for President might be the label;
So Santa, go easy in handing out plums,
For we’ll be in the White House when next Christmas comes.
Visions of MacArthur on a white horse have long danced through Close’s brain, linked with his dream of “a new and fervent American nationalism.” In April, 1944, he pronounced MacArthur the man who can lead the United States “out of the woods of confusion.”
In his first Mutual broadcast after D Day, Close foretold that, from the way things are now going, our soldiers will come home disgruntled and “ask what comes out of this for America, as well. If they find our politicians still ignoring this prime cause they may go at it in a mistaken way, or overdo it, actually giving the final blow of destruction to that American society which in their hearts they wish to save.” The implications of this statement are dark. A soldiers’ and sailors’ revolution, of course, can be either fascist or communist — as one should remind himself before even a gloomy satisfaction is taken in the prospect, seemingly so alien to the context of American life.
IN A notification sent him in late October, 1944, but not publicized until mid-November, NBC dropped Close from its network. According to the victim, “The flood of protests, by letter and telegram, and the number of newspaper editorials and comments descending upon NBC have far exceeded any such public reaction previously in the history of radio, in the case of the removal of any commentator from a major network.” Michigan’s Congressman Woodruff called it “terrorism on the radio.” Merwin K. Hart’s National Economic Council issued a leaflet, “Why Was Upton Close Dropped by NBC?” accepting Close’s belief that the FCC and Robert Hannegan were guilty. And in Chicago his old friends the Citizens U.S.A. Committee urged the faithful to flood Congress with their protests.
This incident obviously was responsible for Close’s plaint that “voices of opposition” have been eliminated since election day. (The only other cases one recalls are those of Boake Carter, dead of a heart attack, and Henry J. Taylor, bound abroad on newspaper service, who testified in his farewell broadcast that he had always “been as free as a bird on the Blue.”) Close is sure that “terrific pressure” must have been exercised upon NBC to remove him.
The explanations supplied by his brooding ego are, as always, dark, complicated, and conflicting. In a December broadcast over Mutual—when he foretold that his one remaining program “is going to be the top rating Sunday program on any network,” although his Hooper rating since that date has ranged between 4.7 and 6.3, whereas Winchell’s averages 25 — he blamed a persistent consumers’ boycott of his sponsor, the pen company, “the most dastardly, most antiAmerican thing that, has yet hit America.”
But in press interviews Close said “pressure from various sources” had removed him because, in his broadcast of November 5, 1944, he had exposed a “secret Communist meeting” in Mexico City which had ordered Hillman and the CIO to throw their weight into the 1944 Presidential election. (“It is well understood,” explained the Chicago Tribune, “that the broadcasting industry is subject to government control.”) How a broadcast on November 5 could have influenced a decision that NBC announced to him on October 31, Close did not pause to explain.
The real reason for the dropping of Upton Close is not uninteresting. It involved his NBC broadcast of July 9, 1944, about the Tyler Kent case, concerning which Close, Gerald L. K. Smith, and others have had much to say. Kent, it will be recalled, as employee of the American Embassy in London, in October, 1940, was convicted by British courts of delivering information to the Axis, after Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy had waived diplomatic immunity for this “traitor,” as he later termed him.
When caught, Kent had in his possession over 1500 confidential documents lifted from the Embassy files, so gravely damaging the security of the secret ciphers that a new code of American diplomatic communications had to be worked out. Kent was known in London as an anti-Semite, a friend of British fascists, and the intimate of a White Russian girl in Axis pay. Friends of Kent never mention these facts in seeking to prove that his abstraction of the documents was inspired by the highest motives — namely, his distress over the secret correspondence of Roosevelt and Churchill, which allegedly was drawing America ever deeper into the war against Hitler.
Over Mutual on June 25, 1944, Upton Close argued that Kent “properly should have been brought to America for trial,” and suggested there were “oldfashioned Machiavellian politics in the motions that carried the United States into war.” Later he reported portentously to his listeners that Kent from prison had cabled his mother: “Kennedy’s statements false.” Close was not alone in this view. Still more bluntly the Chicago Tribune aired charges that “Kent was railroaded to prison to conceal behind the scenes dickering between Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt before the former became prime minister of Great Britain.”
Meanwhile a friend of Tyler Kent, John Bryan Owen, grandson of William Jennings Bryan, was found dead in his Greenwich Village room on January 2, 1944, by the New York police, from an overdose of veronal, a drug to which he was a known addict. Under the imminent approach of the 1944 election, when any and all political skeletons might be rattled, Upton Close inquired on his NBC broadcast of July 9: “Did the mysterious death of the grandson of William Jennings Bryan, just after his return from England, have a connection with all this? . . . Well, mystery of mysteries, will the former fighting District Attorney of New York pick up the thread of that death in Greenwich Village and try to untangle the snarl of this international scheme? Will Tom Dewey, the young squire of New York’s Dutchess County, ... roll up his sleeves again and get the truth for the American people?”
Beyond one minor discrepancy in the story (according to Gerald L. K. Smith’s résumé of the Tyler Kent case, distributed in multigraph, sixteen months elapsed between young Owen’s return from England and his death), Close’s inference is plain: namely, that high authority caused John Bryan Owen to be “rubbed out” because he knew too much. Upton Close has often made unsupported statements, in the clean fun of politics, — such as his flat assertion of Harry S. Truman’s “early Ku Klux Klan connections,”—but he has never gone farther than in this case, where he took the word of a convicted felon.
Close ended his most recent radio series, July 1,1945. In his broadcast of June 3, he said: “This series will terminate with the coming July 1 program. It is not ending because of any dissatisfaction from either sponsor or network, but simply because this particular advertising budget has run out. This contract would have terminated six months ago, but my good sponsor would not drop the program under the un-American and unsportsmanlike attacks made at that time.”
AN appraisal of the best-known commentators shakes down to one conclusion. Under the guise of news, or news comment, a great variety of fare is handed out by the networks and stations. Some is brilliant reporting or mature, well-balanced analysis. But a very large volume is hearsay, petulance, tattling, and the fluid emotionalism which even at its best has little place in the presentation of news or the guidance of rational public opinion.
A minor part of the output is positively bad, appealing to sensationalism, domestic suspicion, and bitterness among allies — mainly to attract notice and feed the commentator’s sense of power. Often the unwary listener tunes in for news, only to get an adulterated product with a misleading label. He may get, for instance, a generous distillation of super-nationalism or American fascism, which the uncritical may find heady, while they remain blind to its aftereffects — such as theories of race supremacy, economic autarchy, military imperialism, and war.
So far, the overseas war coverage of American radio has been magnificent, but the job done by most commentators at home has been distinctly second-rate. A few suggestions are in order. The first, increasingly favored by CBS and NBC, is more honestly to segregate news from comment, so that the listener will always know what he is getting. In the second place, let stations reserve certain periods for news analysis, seeing that the analyst assigned to a certain period is kept there whether some sponsor wants that quarter hour, and that particular analyst, or not. This policy guarantees that advertisers will have no direct control over content or personalities.
Against possible off-scene pressure or collusion, there are still stronger safeguards. Senator Wheeler’s proposal that all commercial sponsorship of news and comment be forbidden is probably too drastic; but prohibiting sponsorship of comment alone would meet the radio industry’s objection that it needs commercial revenues to pay for global news coverage. This policy would deflate considerably the movie-star scale of commentators’ present salaries.
Essential to any program of reform is closer scrutiny by network and station into the qualifications of their analysts. Is the speaker with a rich, pleasing voice an able, conscientious, knowledgeable man — or is his fine voice merely resonance in an empty head? Ability to coin a picturesque phrase, to lead crusading flurries, or to stir up local excitement is no substitute for a sound knowledge of American history and the modern world, against a background of economic and political literacy. Calmness and common sense are also important. But no commentator, whatever his record and training, has the right to make up people’s minds for them on every subject — and the closer any speaker comes to this oracular assumption the more he ought to be distrusted.
Within the pale of national security, and of those broader limits of patriotism upon which the mass of Americans agree, the duty of radio as a forum is not to take sides, but to keep the channels of debate open, accessible to those with points of view that have any reasonable claim upon the ear of the American people. A code which forbids the sale of time for the discussion of controversial issues would be well enough if unsold time during good listening hours were available in reasonable quantities. But when commercially sponsored commentators use their quarter hours week after week to vent highly debatable opinions, and when unsold quarter hours are so few and far between, the code wears thin.
A healthy symptom of listener reaction is the practice of writing commentators or station managers to question facts, challenge views, or protest obvious unfairness. Yet it is depressingly clear that the majority of letters which flood the FCC from individuals, groups, and organized blocs of protesters — saying, “Take Pearson off the air,” or “We protest the muzzling of Upton Close” — are inspired by special grievance or approval, with scant concern for the rights of free speech or for the equally important responsibilities of speakers in the public domain of the air.
If a chain or station which presents only one side of a popular issue is not being operated “in the public interest,” neither is one which shuns or neglects its duty to inform the people about that issue. Entertainment, of course, is a primary function of broadcasting; but in so far as radio stakes out a claim in the field of current events, trafficking in news and interpretation, it has a corresponding obligation to inform, clarify, and aid discussion.
OFTEN this duty is taken lightly. As one example, through eleven months of the year 1941 the hottest issue in the United States centered on our foreign policy — Lend-Lease, convoys, bases for defense, and the whole debate of isolation versus intervention. With this controversy in mind, the FCC by questionnaire made a canvass of all programs broadcast between January 1 and June 1, 1941. Answers ranged from that of one small North Carolina station which stated that its offerings were “100 per cent American and proBritish,” to that of a Wisconsin station whose manager simply wrote the word “isolationist” across its broadcasting schedule.
These answers, of course, were not typical. But out of the 842 stations then operating in the United States, only 388 reported having originated as much as one non-network program about any of those issues. Among these 388, the average carried fewer than one such program per month. After lumping together both network and local programs, one finds that between 200 and 300 American stations did not carry a single program about this debate, during those five stormy months, while half the total number of stations broadcast fewer than one such program per week. In contrast to the press, radio played a timid, lackadaisical part in educating the public against the day of Pearl Harbor.
The major cause for this poor showing, beyond doubt, was radio’s reluctance to cede profitable commercial time to public service programs. In American radio, by a kind of Gresham’s Law, sponsored programs, often of inferior quality, tend to drive out even the best sustaining ones — notably in the zone of maximum listener coverage, the early evening hours. Well-liked public service features find themselves whittled down in time, or pushed here and there over the clock face with consequent loss of followers, or else dropped by numerous local stations free to reject what the network supplies. Their place is taken by radio serials or swing-music records which sell soap or cold cures or cathartics.
The networks, of course, sustain certain forums, but these occupy less than one per cent of their time, are carried by fewer stations than commentators like Fulton Lewis and Upton Close, and often sound stereotyped and synthetic. The line-up of their participants changes constantly, and commonly includes men who are comparative strangers to the average listener. These experts, however competent to deal with special topics, leave something to be desired in radio experience and radio personality.
Some sort of “ controversy hour,” or half hour, could be set up for the commentators themselves, and those commentators who now enjoy immunity from rebuttal might be pitted against each other. Let radio answer radio, with less of the current politeness which restrains Mr. Swing, for example, from challenging Mr. Close, or Mr. Lewis from tangling with Mr. Gailmor. Even if the present entente cordiale were shattered, and analyst began to refute analyst, each from his citadel of fifteenminute monopoly, proper debate could not flourish. We cannot be sure that the same audience which heard the affirmative will hear the negative, or that rejoinder will squarely meet the charge.
Senator Wheeler has proposed that any person or organization assailed by a commentator be allowed to go on the air as promptly as possible, on the commentator’s regular program—as did Wright Patman to answer Fulton Lewis, or Martin Dies, Walter Winchell. This scheme has one ironic advantage. Commentators jealous of their time would probably be more careful about facts and personalities. But the lapse of a day or week is no guarantee of the same listening public. Also, how shall the length and relevance of a rebuttal be fixed? Do a few tart words call for a reply as long as any Congressman chooses to make? And finally, how many facets has a question? The intricacies presented by a series of set speeches, against squads of opponents and shades of opinion, freezes the imagination.
Faced with these perplexities, one station manager in the West, Ed Craney of KGIR in Butte, has proposed an editorial “box” adjacent to news programs, where commentators could tangle and all sides of current issues could be explored by give-and-take. Surplus emotion, partisanship, and the desire to win converts would thus be drained away from the news.
Some such policy might be tried by the networks. While drawing a cleaner line between fact and opinion, it need not bar from regular news analysis those commentators whose competence and fairness are widely recognized. They should not be throttled down into mere newscasters, but invited to speak as experts about matters — like military strategy, foreign affairs, or government — where special knowledge gives perspective to the news. To the controversy hour, however, should be admitted any well-known commentator whom considerable sections of the listening public cherish, whether he be Democrat or Republican, freetrader or protectionist, friend of management or of labor, advocate or foe of Bretton Woods or Dumbarton Oaks or San Francisco.
But upon the same program he would face other experienced commentators with different views, and have the immediate obligation to answer for his words. The contrast between maturity and shallowness, good taste and bad, fact and unsupported assertion, integrity and speciousness, can best be seen when they are set parallel. The tradition of debating national issues — once a great American custom, now seldom heard by the mass of our people — calls for revival, in terms of familiar radio personalities. Their present following, and frequent reappearance in the cast, in a way not possible to current radio forums, would assure lively interest . The meeting of minds, and their collision, is an old but not outmoded method for advancing truth.