May 6, 2015

1946. Downs Selected to Cover Bikini Atoll; Wire Agencies Protest

The Nuclear Tests at Bikini Atoll

From Broadcasting magazine, July 1, 1946, p. 17.
Radio at Ringside of Atomic Blast
Word of Demolition First Broadcast To World


RADIO last night was to have the choicest ringside seat at the biggest and unquestionably most significant show on earth, and the press, confined irritably to the bleachers, didn't like it.

As matters stood when Broadcasting went to press, the first report of the display of atomic destruction at Bikini Atoll was to be carried to the world by a radioman, Columbia's Bill Downs. Unless orders of Joint Task Force 1 were reversed in the 48 hours before the scheduled touch-off of The Bomb, the press would get its first bulletin from Mr. Downs' pooled broadcast.

It was a predicament to gall any wire service man. To Navy Secretary James Forrestal, the three greatest press associations—AP, UP and INS—made strong protests.

What the AP and UP wanted, they told the Navy's boss, was the substitution of a neutral and official voice for Mr. Downs in the critical period of the bomb dropping. Their transparent argument: Mr. Downs was human and therefore presumably fallible. He should be replaced by an official of the joint task force. What AP and UP failed to recall was that a Navy man would also be human and, untrained in on-the-spot reporting of significant events as Mr. Downs was,  perhaps even more susceptible to error.

INS requested no more than communications equality between radio and press. Let Mr. Downs broadcast for the networks, said INS, but let the Task Force also provide an equally speedy deliver of a neutral report for the press.

Mr. Forrestal rolled with the broadside. The communications plan was set, he said. A neutral voice would be substituted only if the networks agreed to it. Network news chieftains, targeted with this proposition, turned an even thicker hide to it than the Navy had.

At week's end, the wire services still were chafing. UP's West Coast vice president, Frank Bartholomew, was with the Crossroads Fleet. A compelling talker in any argument, Mr. Bartholomew was doing his best to convince the Navy on the scene to give his and presumably the other services an official communique instead of the report from Mr. Downs.

It was to be radio's show, and radio expected to make the best of it. The hour of the explosion had been tentatively set for shortly after 6 p. m., Eastern Daylight Time, or 8 a. m. the next day across the International Dateline at Bikini.

The four networks planned to begin broadcasting a series of pooled eyewitness reports from correspondents at strategic positions in the Crossroads area at 6:04 p. m., Sunday. Pickups were scheduled as follows: Larry Tighe, of ABC, aboard the U. S. S. Appalachian, the press ship of the fleet; Mr. Downs, of CBS, from the observation plane flying near the bomber; Don Bell, of MBS, aboard the U. S. S. Mt. McKinley, flagship of Admiral W. H. P. Blandy, commander of the Task Force; Clete Roberts, of ABC, aboard the U. S. S. Panamint, on which atomic scientists were to be stationed; W. W. Chaplin, of NBC, at Kwajalein; George Thomas Folster, of NBC, aboard the Appalachian. As the bombing plane began its run on the target, the voice of the bombardier was to be heard as he instructed the pilot. Mr. Downs was to be the only radio correspondent in position to watch the explosion.

Many New York independent stations planned to broadcast the atom test with the cooperation of participating networks.