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News And News Interpretation

May 2024
7min read

(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.

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.

As a sponsor, the Strauss firm was easy to work with. The company never tried to interfere with my editorial freedom. The commercials were dignified. There was no middle commercial and I am happy to say that I have never tolerated one. From the beginning of my radio career, I made the point that my broadcast was an entity and that the public should not be compelled to listen to a commercial in the middle of it. Much of the material that I discuss is of so serious and important a nature that to interrupt the broadcast with a commercial reduced the value of the broadcast—its value to the sponsor, value to the listener and naturally it takes away from the dignity with which I like to invest an important broadcast.*

* Mr. Kaltenborn organized the Association of Radio News Analysts, ARNA, which has set up a code of ethics to govern radio commentators. No member of ARNA may voice commercials.

Thus I made that a rule when I began broadcasting and I’ve never deviated from it, although I have been under the heaviest kind of pressure to amend it. Both Elmer Davis and Raymond Swing have the same rule. Raymond Swing recognized the viciousness of the commercial in the middle of the program on one occasion during the war, when an announcement of casualties was followed by a commercial message. Swing felt so offended that he announced then and there he would no longer allow his broadcast to be interrupted.

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