News And News Interpretation

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(This resumes Mr. Kaltenborn’s recollections.)

I was the first person to interpret news on the air. No one else had tried it. Not until 1923 was there any regular reporting of news, much less any attempt to interpret news. All the news services were then very jealous that their material should not be used on the air, and this was one factor in discouraging regular news broadcasts.

The WEAF station was owned and operated by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, which had gone into radio because radio seemed to be allied with the communication business. They had to have telephone wires whenever they broadcast from some place that was not in the studio. They had to have telephone wires to link up stations just as soon as WEAF was connected with station WRC in Washington. As a matter of fact that was one reason I got into trouble, because certain officials in Washington heard my broadcasts and didn’t like some of the things I said.

I began to have difficulties in the course of that first winter of regular broadcasting, from the fall of 1923 to the spring of 1924. Broadcasting current events with editorial comment was absolutely new—nobody else had done it and I was ploughing a new furrow. All kinds of people listened, some with delight and some with apprehension.

I believed that the time had arrived for us to recognize, de facto , the existence of the Soviet Union. I have always argued that diplomatic recognition does not spell approval of the government or policies of the country recognized. There was no reason why we shouldn’t begin diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union if only to see what was going on. At that time the Soviet Union was weak and had little influence abroad. The Soviets were conducting an interesting experiment. True, they were trying to export communist doctrine, but I felt then and now that our democratic system could stand communist competition. At least we ought to be willing to recognize the existence of a communist country. So I came out in favor of recognition.

Secretary of State Hughes had just rejected an approach from the Soviet Union. Foreign Commissar Litvinov had written an official communication indicating Russia’s desire to be recognized. It was tactful and carefully phrased. Secretary Hughes rejected the Soviet Union’s bid with a degree of impoliteness I felt was uncalled for. I recognized, of course, that the existing regime was opposed to our democratic principles. Still I felt that since the Soviets had maintained themselves against every outside and inside effort over a period of years, they might be recognized. So, I criticized Secretary of State Hughes for the abrupt way in which he had responded to the overture from the Russians.

It seemed that Secretary of State Hughes had me tuned in while there were a number of prominent guests in his home. Then suddenly comes this voice of some whippersnapper in New York City daring to criticize the secretary of state of the United States. The Washington representative of the New York Telephone and Telegraph Company was called to the phone and Secretary Hughes laid down the law to him.

He promptly called the A.T.&T. vice president in charge of radio and reported to him what Mr. Hughes had said, adding that this fellow Kaltenborn should not be allowed to criticize a Cabinet member over the facilities of the New York Telephone and Telegraph Company.

My response was that a public official must expect to be criticized and that an editor must have the right to comment on the air as on the editorial page.

The telephone officials threatened to throw the Brooklyn Eagle off the air unless I would mend my ways. I refused to mend my ways.

When the contract expired and they were able to have done with Kaltenborn, they politely indicated that, because of the pressure of other programs, it would not be convenient to renew the arrangement with the Brooklyn Eagle , much as they regretted losing a valuable feature which had shown its popularity.

The week after I went off the air, the Brooklyn Eagle printed two full pages of letters approving the broadcasts in the most enthusiastic terms. It was perhaps the first time that there had ever been such a general public response. We were all surprised at the amount and kind of favorable comment that came. Fifteen hundred letters expressed regret at the closing of the Eagle ’s radio talks. We had so many letters from prominent citizens—credit managers, presidents, trust companies, church societies, women’s clubs; all kinds of people wrote. This was not in response to a request for letters. It was a spontaneous response to the announcement that the talks were concluded. They all expressed the desire that the talks should be resumed in the fall.

The result was that we soon found another station on which the talks were given. But there were always some protests against my spoken editorials and I was put off several stations before I found a more permanent base at Station WOR.