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News And News Interpretation
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
The most vigorous assault on my freedom of speech at WOR came from Jimmy Walker’s municipal administration. I minced no words in talking about the Walker scandals. What I said was so effective and reached so large an audience that it hurt. People associated with the mayor came to WOR and said they had better put curbs on me. If WOR did not stop me from criticizing the Walker administration the station would be barred from broadcasting municipal functions.
The WOR officials refused to surrender. They showed me the threatening letter, but imposed no curbs. They rode out the storm and rode it out successfully, as most radio stations or newspapers do when few that had complete editorial freedom, and that was they have the courage to resist pressure.
Throughout the Twenties, few voices were using radio to create public opinion. Mine was one of the partly because of my habit of speaking without script. This confronted the station with the choice of either putting me off the air, or letting me talk without previous censorship of manuscript. For years, during that period, I had a continuing struggle against the pressures that came from all kinds of organizations.
When I quoted verbatim a public official who used the word “damn” or “hell,” there always was trouble up to around 1949, when both stations and listeners learned to accept such expressions without protest. I have always felt that, if a prominent man uses one of those expressions, I am misquoting him when I change its character. I believe the original quotation should be given as it was voiced. If there is to be any blame it should fall on the man who used the word in an on-the-record interview.
I recall that once during the 1932 Democratic political convention in Chicago, we were short of good broadcast material. Paul White, director of CBS news, sent me out into the convention hall with a portable mike. The floor speeches were interminable and dull and we needed relief material.
So he said, “For heaven’s sake, Kaltenborn, scare up something! I don’t care what you do. Interview a scrubwoman or one of the fellows selling hot dogs.”
So I did. I interviewed a chap who was selling hot dogs, talked with him about business.
“What kind of people like hot dogs?” I inquired, “and by the way, what do you charge for them?”
He replied, “Fifteen cents,” and without thinking, I blurted out: “My God, that’s an awful price for a hot dog!” And in 1932 it was because five cents was the regular price.
To my amazement we began to get telephone calls from various parts of the United States and telegrams began to come in protesting my use of the phrase “my God.” I was told that I had taken the name of the Deity in vain, and that I had offended every religious person in the United States. One telegram was signed, “Florida Christians.” Fifty persons had gathered in front of a radio set in Florida to listen to the convention proceedings. They wired: “We protest most vigorously against your unjustified use of the name of the Deity in connection with hot dogs.”
They were right, I shouldn’t have said it. It is the sort of thing that occurs whenever for a moment you fail to remember your responsibility to your nationwide audience. I wrote to every complainant whose address I could get and apologized.
One must not unnecessarily give offense to any group of listeners. One must be honest in the expression of opinion, but when it comes to religious feeling and matters of that kind, we who use radio have an obligation and a responsibility.
On the other hand, radio does have the obligation to discuss all important issues and to permit both sides to be fully presented. The movies have gone too far in censorship. Their timidity is not due so much to the fear of offending groups—their timidity grows out of the fear that they may collect less admission money. Certain groups might organize boycotts.
I am a member of the Radio Committee of the Civil Liberties Union because I feel that the pressure is too much on the side of censorship and not enough on the side of freedom.
When I first considered commercial sponsorship, I was amazed at the amount of money the sponsors were willing to pay for a current events broadcast that had a following. Compared with newspaper salaries, radio fees were fantastic. I got $800 for three broadcasts a week from the S. W. Strauss Company, a big bond house with a huge building on Fifth Avenue. This was at that time the leading bond house in the United States. At the time I worked for them they were selling investment trust stock which proved ultimately profitable to most investors, but many of the bond operations of the S. W. Strauss Company involved large real estate loans which went sour after the depression hit the country in 1930. Many people lost money through Strauss bonds and even though no bonds were advertised on their radio program, my prestige suffered when the Strauss firm failed.