When reporters were “heroes”

I have written here before about the (largely inaccurate or exaggerated) portrayals of journalists in entertainment, from the heights (“All the President’s Men” and “The Green Hornet”) to the depths (the brief CBS-TV series “Hard Copy”).

(That includes the scare quotes in the headline. Heroes should be rightly identified as soldiers who give their lives for their fellow soldiers, or police officers and firefighters who see one of the World Trade Center towers collapse, and nonetheless head into the other tower to try to save lives, or police officers who headed toward the gunshots last night in Dallas while the people protesting those same police were running in the opposite direction.)

While looking up the old radio drama “Night Beat,” which is occasionally on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Old Time Radio Drama weekend nights, I came upon an entire website, “Newspaper Heroes on the Air,” described by its creator thusly:

“JHeroes.com” or “Newspaper Heroes on the Air” is a nostalgic media-history blog and podcast about old-time radio’s portrayals of journalists, from fictional role models like Clark Kent and Lois Lane to dramatized biographies of Greeley, Pulitzer and other pioneer printers, publishers, editors and reporters. Since 2011, the site also has been a Web-first draft of what may be a printed book someday.

The phenomenon of mid-20th century radio dramatists glorifying newspaper journalists strikes me as ironic and interesting, considering that radio was the “new medium” of the day — competing with newspapers for audience attention and advertising. But, through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, radio’s dramatic writers couldn’t help reflecting just how big a part of daily life newspapers were. Along the way radio offered its listening audience lessons in newspaper history, reporting-practice, newspaper ethics, newspaper business, and newspaper romance. …

I’m interested in how the public formed its opinions of 20th century newspaper journalists: Their ethics, professional practices, personal lifestyles, and importance to society. Obviously some impressions came from what journalists said in the newspapers themselves, but images of reporters, editors and publishers were present throughout American popular culture, from Broadway to Hollywood to best-selling fiction. Numerous books have focused on movie portrayals of journalists, but radio had its own messages, delivered them right into the home, and has been mostly neglected by “image of the journalist” researchers.

Some of Hollywood movies’ newspaper characters were romanticized or heroic; others were presented as sad stereotypes — immature, sexist, drunken and unreliable. I don’t have “quantitative” conclusions, but I think radio’s portrayals of newspaper journalists were more positive, benefitting from broadcasters’ sensitivity to the living-room audience, to advertisers, and to critics who might pounce on antisocial messages.

While some of the programs discussed here are comic-book shallow or soap-opera silly, others explore  serious “newspaper drama” themes — media ethics, reporters’ loyalty to a newspaper (sometimes devastating to personal relationships), journalism as a career for women, editors’ civic spirit, citizens’ respect for their local paper, the value of a free press, abuse of media power, and more. You’ll also hear about the value of newspapers’ investigative work, political crusades, muckraking, crime-fighting, and sometimes a bit of cynical frustration about “the system.” (The sort of thing that drove Britt Reid to becomeThe Green Hornet.)

The related areas of portrayal of journalists in films, fiction, comic books, songs, or other manifestations of popular culture “pop” up from time to time in these pages, along with links to media-history research resources. (See the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project at USC Annenberg for related materials, especially concerning Hollywood film portrayals of journalists.) …

I also discovered that NPR’s All Things Considered — the best of present-day radio — had posted online 10 minutes of Walter Cronkite reminiscing about another old series I’d been listening to, one that had dramatized his own adventures during World War II.

Of “Night Beat,” it says:

Opening with a mixture of kettledrums and jazz clarinet, “Night Beat” was a Chicago-flavored 1950s drama about a newspaper columnist, narrating his own half-hour tales of writing a late-night column on deadline.

The well-written series appears to have caught the ear of professional journalists: At the end of one episode, star Frank Lovejoy stepped out of character to deliver praise and congratulations to the real-life officers of the National Press Club. Another week, the president of a fraternity for women journalists presented Lovejoy with a scroll for his “honest and convincing portrayal of a newspaperman.”

Each week, the columnist’s first words set the mood for the episode, which ranged from suspenseful “newsroom-noir” detective-mystery  to sentimental melodrama and human interest; an O.Henry twist often took them from one genre to the other. The opener usually began this way:

“Hi, this is Randy Stone. I cover the night beat for the Chicago Star. My stories start in many different ways. This one began…”

Frank Lovejoy played columnist Randy Stone with a cast of Hollywood’s strongest supporting voices, often including the very recognizable William Conrad, Gunsmoke’sMatt Dillon on radio, whose film appearances included the gruff city editor in the newspaper film “- 30 -” with Jack Webb. On Night Beat, Conrad might be a punch-drunk boxer one week, a dying mobster another — or Stone’s boss.

Whatever the setting and cast, Stone told quite a “how I got the story” tale, from his opening summary to his wrap-up remarks, usually accompanied by the clack of a telephone receiver or the ratchet of a typewriter carriage, and a call of, “Copy boy!” Sometimes the idea of a reporter starting work at dusk and delivering his story before dawn provides a frame. …

Frank Lyons, listeners learn, was a career-driven Northwestern grad who had made himself the top newspaperman in town when Stone was “a cub,” but Lyons was set-up, given fake records and tricked into publishing a big story that led to a libel suit and destroyed his reputation.

“I was bounced and black-balled and washed up overnight,” he tells Stone. In classic film-noir fashion, a femme fatale is involved. And so is a hood, involved in the original frame-up years earlier, who slugs Stone when he isn’t looking and adds insult to injury with the line, “They’ve got the dumbest reporters in the world in this town.”

After Stone comes to, he digs up the old details with the help of a researcher back in the Star’s file room, and winds his way to a moral about the dramas and ironies of life and death, and a promise to put Frank’s byline on one last story.

Details like Lyons’ Chicago area journalism school, his reflections on the excitement of a newspaper career, Stone’s willingness to help out another newspaperman in trouble, and his reporting techniques are all examples of the series’ attention to journalistic details. …

Stone reflects on the realities of the newspaper business as well as the details of life in Chicago, from the sound of an elevated train to the jazz clubs and street sounds. Like Chicago columnists from Finley Peter Dunne to Mike Royko, he paints vivid pictures of the city and its people, even if the prose does get a bit purple at times. Lovejoy’s narration sometimes wraps a story around the story.

“Tonight is just about washed up. The sky is getting that tattle-tale grey around the edges. Another hour or so, three million alarm clocks will start yakking against the eardrums of Chicago’s dear hearts and gentle people. A goodly number of said dear hearts and gentle people will stumble to the front door for their copy of the Morning Star.

“I’m wondering what they’ll say when they read the opening sentence of the Night Beat story for today, the line that goes, ‘This is a love story with the happiest ending that I’ve ever heard.’

“I guess they’ll figure spring has got me in its perfumed clutches and more than likely I’ll wind up wrapped around the baloney sandwich and that will be that. Only if they just keep reading, maybe they’ll be in for a strange kind of surprise…”

Another WPR series is “Frontier Gentleman“:

In the 1958 series “Frontier Gentleman,” radio drama brought a cultured London Times correspondent to the American West of the 1870s — and in the process explored ethics, bravery, style, humor and a sense of adventure that might be hoped for in professional journalists in any century.

John Dehner, a character actor in films, radio and television since the 1940s, starred in the weekly CBS adult Western as J.B. Kendall, who may have looked (or sounded) like a city dude, but proved to be a man of action.

The show’s opening set the tone:

“Herewith, an Englishman’s account of life and death in the West. As a reporter for the London Times, he writes his colorful and unusual stories. But as a man with a gun, he lives and becomes a part of the violent years in the new territories.”

In the 41 available episodes, Kendall meets newsmakers like Jesse James, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, among others. He hopes to interview George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull, but with less success. From the scripts and acting to the cinematic musical score, Frontier Gentleman was an example of mature state-of-the-art radio storytelling just before American radio drama as a genre disappeared in the glare of television. …

Despite the series title and Kendall’s cultivated accent, this mild-mannered reporter was no London dandy. Described as a former British cavalry officer in India, he was shown to be handy with a six-gun, a knife and his fists, while he spun his prose poems from Missouri to Montana Territory. He even had a flair for language when getting the drop on the bad guys:

“You may very slowly and carefully unbuckle your gunbelt and let it drop to the floor. If you try to be foolish and brave, I shall be delighted to shoot you in the stomach.” (Remittance Man)

Alas, “Night Beat” was on for only two years, and there were only 41 “Frontier Gentleman” episodes. Another series was on for 15 years:

“The power and the freedom of the press is a flaming sword; that it may be a faithful servant of all the people, use it justly. Hold it high. Guard it well!” — Edward J. Pawley as “Steve Wilson, fighting managing editor” of the Big Town Illustrated Press

That motto was announced at the start of eachBig Town episode for most of the series’ 15-year run. With such a lead-in, it may seem the most outspokenly “pro-journalism” radio drama, although most episodes involved more crime-fighting than news-reporting.

Even a December 1948 episode titled “Deadline at Dawn” that opens with a star reporter being sent to Washington to cover preparations for President Truman’s second inauguration becomes a typical battle against “racket rats.”

By the end of the half-hour, Wilson is holding a gun on one crook and his photographer is apologizing for slugging another with “$280 bucks worth of camera.” “Cheap at twice the price,” the editor replies.

In its later years, the show’s “fighting managing editor” punched bad guys more than anyone punched a typewriter at the Illustrated Press. Editor Steve Wilson also had a habit of calling his star reporter “Lorelei, my lovely” and inviting her to sit on the corner of his desk for a chat, with a “What’s on your mind, beautiful?” (At least he didn’t ask her to sit on his lap, like Walter Burns did with ex-wife Hildy Johnson in “His Girl Friday.”)

Judging by the episodes available for online listening, “Big Town” may have spent less time on reporters doing interviews, shouting across the newsroom, or heading off on assignment than “The Green Hornet” and “The Adventures of Superman.” But “Big Town” was still the best known of radio’s newspaper-focused series for much of its 1937-1952 run, according to On the air: the encyclopedia of old-time radio by John Dunning.

“Writer Jerry McGill had been a newspaperman himself but took great creative license, slipping into high melodrama,” Dunning said. Still, he called McGill’s reporters “diligent sober champions of justice.” (p.89)

Instead of showing Illustrated Press reporters tracking down stories with tips, interviews and shoe-leather in a “newsroom procedural,” McGill told newsworthy stories about rackets, wrong-doing and risks to public safety — all woven into dramatic half-hour episodes. His “Big Town” stories used an economically small cast and were limited to a confining half-hour format, unlike daily serials like “Front Page Farrell,” “Wendy Warren and the News,” “Betty and Bob,” or even “The Adventures of Superman,” which took weeks to tell a story in 15-minute installments. It’s no wonder Steve Wilson came off as more two-fisted detective than pencil-pushing editor.

Well, that’s how you know it’s fiction. What overweight editor (the result of too much sitting and not enough getting out of the office) could be two-fisted when he only needs one fist with which to drink his daytime coffee and nighttime adult beverage? For that matter, I know of no journalist who is remotely handy with firearms. Notebooks and cellphones are not lethal weapons. (However, a UW–Madison classmate of mine used a 400-mm telephoto lens as a weapon when, while shooting photos of a White House protest, one of the protesters got too close to her. She, however, was an Army veteran.)

What about my favorite superhero, the Green Hornet?

Clark Kent’s Superman was not the only superhero on radio to take advantage of the information flow of a “major metropolitan newspaper.” The Green Hornet’s adventures almost always kept one foot in the newsroom of The Daily Sentinel, a newspaper that offered a reward for his capture — but had an even closer relationship than that.

The original Green Hornet answers the question, “What can happen when a publisher gets frustrated with the failure of his editorials to Bring About Change?”

Almost 30 years after The Green Hornet’s first success on radio, a TV version was launched in 1966 by the same network that had been running the “camp” pop-art juvenile Batman series. The two shows even had cross-promotion episodes, although The Hornet generally attempted a slightly more serious tone. A 1966 cameo, stored at YouTube, has Batman and Robin encounter The Green Hornet and Kato — probably  the only time the Hornet said he was “on special assignment for The Daily Sentinel.

The Hornet, after all, was newspaper publisher Britt Reid’s secret identity. On TV as well as radio, The Daily Sentinel‘s star reporters considered the Hornet a menace — a masked mystery man who always seemed to escape just as the police arrived to corral other racketeers and gangsters.

Radio listeners knew the secret: The Hornet was really The Daily Sentinel’s young publisher, donning a mask and pretending to be a crook to bring down criminals who operated “inside the law,” despite the paper’s editorial campaigns against crime and corruption.

Assisted by his brilliant inventor/valet, Kato, who had provided him with a super-fast car and a sleeping-gas gun, radio’s Green Hornet brought criminals to justice by hoaxing, blackmailing or trapping them in contrived “sting” operations.

The TV version relied more on James Bond or Batman style gadgetry, plus actor Bruce Lee’s martial arts expertise as Kato. The radio series and the quickly spun-off 1940-41 movie serials had Kato deliver a karate chop now and then, but fighting was never his main function until the TV series came along.

Like TV itself, that 1960s Hornet was about visual action, and the newspaper played a smaller role. In fact, by then Britt Reid’s media empire included a TV station as well as the paper; he even had a remote studio in his home, the better to broadcast emergency editorials.

On radio, the Green Hornet had much more to do with traditional newspaper journalism — reporters hitting the street, providing eyewitness accounts, interviewing newsmakers, trying to get at shifty businessmen and crooked politicians. The Sentinel’s meat was the racket-busting, crusading type of journalism popular in B-movies and hit radio series  like “Casey, Crime Photographer” and “Big Town.”

Sentinel reporters were an active part of almost every Hornet story, sometimes uncovering crimes while demonstrating solid newsgathering skills, sometimes getting taken in by the Hornet themselves. One reporter, the Irish-accented Michael Axford, was mostly for comic relief — a former policeman who helped cover the police beat for the Sentinel while serving as Reid’s bodyguard. (He was also a spy for Reid’s father, the real media mogul.)

The Sentinel’s racket-busting was rarely comic book “super-hero” stuff. There were no aliens or costumed villains, but plenty of crooked dealings involving corrupt officials,  public works projects, protection rackets terrorizing small businesses, and a wide range of confidence games and swindles. During World War II, spies and saboteurs were part of the problem, along with domestic black market criminals… all topics that might be find in a hard-hitting real-world newspaper.

Whie the Sentinel never seemed to run into serious business trouble, some Hornet plots centered on competition with its sensational tabloid competition, the Clarion, and gave Britt Reid a chance to explain the differnce between responsible and irresponsible journalism. At least one story concerned an investigative reporter for a radio station, and the newspaper reporters’ attempt to investigate his murder.

That sentence “The original Green Hornet answers the question, “What can happen when a publisher gets frustrated with the failure of his editorials to Bring About Change?” is the best sentence I’ve read this week.

The website also includes my favorite newspaper movie, “Deadline USA“:

If you can’t see the film, listen to this radio version.

The newspaper is after a murderer. The founder’s daughters are after a profitable sale that will close the paper. Their mother has a change of heart, and tells her daughters, “Stupidity is not hereditary; you acquired it all by yourselves.”

A gangster is after the editor: “You’ve got two Pulitzer Prizes, they say. Are they worth much?”

Editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart in the film, Dan Dailey on the radio) has great lines about good newspapers and bad. …

Memorable scenes:

1. The Day… A 1950s newsroom full of typewriters, pneumatic tubes, rewrite men in headsets, and a AP teletype bulletin saying the paper is being sold.

2. The newspaper wake. The staff “testify” at a journalism saloon… One man remembers being interviewed by the paper’s founder:

“Are you a journalist or a reporter?… A journalist makes himself the hero of the story; a reporter is only a witness.”

Hutcheson describes the competing newspaper, ironically named The Standard:

“It’s wild and yellow, but it’s not exactly a newspaper.”

To a young man seeking a newspaper job:

“So you want to be a reporter? Here’s some advice about this racket. Don’t ever change your mind. It may not be the oldest profession, but it’s the best.”

Later, he assigns the guy to the rewrite desk on the (late-night, red-eyed) “lobster shift,” even if it is only for a night or two before the paper closes.

3. When one of his reporters is assaulted outside the Hall of Records, the editor gets fighting mad. At a meeting with the owners, he quotes the founder’s statement of Pulitzer-like principles, to publish…

“Without fear, without distortion, without hope of personal gain…”

4. Another reporter is sent to investigate the beating:

“From this a fellow could catch a hole in the head…”
“He could. That bother you?”
“Oh no. No. No.”

5. Ed:

“The newspaper has no political party. We support men for office, some good, some bad.”

Even the competing yellow sheet’s publisher is impressed, ordering his city editor to get on the story and do some good old-fashioned journalism. (Coincidentally, the city editor is played by Joseph Crehan, the same actor who — as another city editor — gave an idealistic young news photographer a hard time 14 years earlier in Here’s Flash Casey.)

6. Editor:

“I figured with a story like this they’d never close us down. Well, we showed them how a real newspaper can function.”

7. The closing conversation…

Gangster: “Print that story, you’re a dead man!… (editor holds phone at arms length, toward the roaring presses) What’s that noise?”
Ed:”It’s the press, baby! And there’s nothing you can do about it…”

That is one of the greatest final scenes in the history of film. (Not that I’m Siskel or Ebert.)

Surprisingly to me, one newspaper movie not on the website is “-30-“, the name signifying the end of a story in the pre-computer days, starring Jack Webb and William Conrad:

Everything I’ve listed so far, and all the other depictions on the website, are necessarily spiced up because, well, reporting is not very exciting to watch. How exciting is watching someone write something down? How exciting to watch is typing?

The site, however, also includes real-life journalists, including the one I’m starting to emulate in worldview, H.L. Mencken:

When Henry Louis Mencken died in January 1956, both NBC and CBS memorialized the Baltimore newspaperman who had become one of the nation’s most outspoken magazine editors. Their presentations demonstrate two very different radio approaches to storytelling.

CBS Radio Workshop’s dramatized biography, broadcast in June, was titled “Bring on the Angels.” The cast of at least 10 actors included Jackson Beck — well-known announcer for “The Adventures of Superman,” Luis Van Rooten, and Mason Adams, who was back in a newsroom as editor Charlie Hume on the Lou Grant TV series 20 years later. The program was described as an affectionate revival of Mencken’s earlier writing, and — based on his own notes and published work — captured his love of newspapering, from his first job as a young man in 1899, “with a typewriter, a spitoon of my own, and a beat.”

As city editor in 1904 at the age of 24, he supervised what he called his greatest story — intense coverage of the Great Baltimore Fire — ultimately publishing the paper in Philadelphia after the newspaper building itself was burned out. The radio production is complete with sounds of crashing masonry and crackling flames… and the crumpling papers as the actor playing Mencken rummages through the remains of the office. The fire had destroyed almost everything, he said, “even my collection of pieces of hangman’s ropes.”

The caustic Mencken of later years is not part of the CBS story, but became the focus of the NBC broadcast a month later.

NBC’s Biographies in Sound broadcast its profile in a more journalistic or documentary style, as “The Bitter Byline.” It featured soundbites of Mencken himself, living up to the title of the episode, along with reminiscences and analysis from a variety of experts.

Among others, novelist James T. Farrell, journalist Alistair Cooke and Mencken biographer William Manchester discuss Mencken’s life and works, his respect for truth, his early championing of young writers, his use of language, his hand-washing habits, and his feelings about Germany and Hitler.

The website even talks about going from one disrespected profession, journalism, to another, politics:

From adventure series like The Green Hornet to soap operas like Betty & Bob, comedies like Bright Star, and serious dramatic anthologies like NBC University Theater, radio’s fictional newspaper men and women covered elections, took on political corruption, or went to work for the candidates of their choice.

The DuPont Cavalcade of America’s inspiring stories of American values often featured editors who advised presidents of the United States — Anne Royall helping Andrew Jackson take on the bankers, Horace Greeley counseling Lincoln on what to do with Jefferson Davis, William Allen White lunching at the White House. Other stories showed the political power of the press to mold public opinion: Nast’s editorial cartoons bringing down Boss Tweed, Pulitzer raising pennies to build a base for the Statue of Liberty, Sarah Josepha Hale mounting campaigns to establish Bunker Hill monument and Thanksgiving Day, and many more.

As in real life, journalists portrayed in radio dramas walked the line between covering civic life and becoming a partisan — or actually running for office.

Actress Irene Dunne seems to have been a likely candidate for such parts. As newspaper publisher Sabra Cravatt in the film and radio adaptations of Cimarron, she was elected to Congress. As newspaper editor in the series Bright Star, she ran for mayor. So did Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, after Clark Kent assured him the paper did not need his daily attention.

Will Rogers Jr., in real life newspaper publisher who was elected to Congress, settled for covering an election or two in his series “Rogers of the Gazette,” except for the episode where he gets to play golf with the president.

The strongest political novel of the era was adapted for radio a few months before it made it to the silver screen.

In the movies of All the King’s Men, starring Broderick Crawford (1949) or Sean Penn (2006), charismatic Southern politician Willie Stark is obviously the main character.

But for the only radio adaptation I’ve found of Robert Penn Warren’s novel — as in the novel itself — the burden is literally on the teller of the tale, former journalist Jack Burden.

NBC University Theater adapted the story for broadcast January 16, 1949, before the firstfilm version premiere that November and a year before its general release. Following the program’s university-of-the-air format, it added scholarly discussion of Warren and his book at the half-way point, presented by critic Granville Hicks.  …

Eight minutes into the story, Burden  explains how they met when he was covering Stark’s first campaign, trimming his fingernails during the speeches — until the key “a hick like you” speech that showed Stark’s promise as a populist leader, not unlike Louisiana’s real-life Huey Long, who met a similar end.

Burden doesn’t reflect on his shift in role from journalist to partisan hack putting his research skills to work on tasks that come close to blackmail. But students of politics, ethics and the media can read a lot between the lines of the hour-long broadcast.

In the end, Burden is almost a reporter again, lining up facts, asking the key question, “How do you know? How do you know? How do you know?” Historian or journalism student, it’s a good question to keep asking.


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