July 24, 2015

1957. "The Rise and Fall of the Radio Commentator" by Quincy Howe

"The Rise and Fall of the Radio Commentator"
John Daly (left) and Quincy Howe (right) covering the 1956 Democratic National Convention for ABC Television. August 12, 1956 (source)
From The Saturday Review, October 26, 1957:


Less than twenty years have passed since the conjunction of the radio industry and the Second World War brought about the news analyst, or commentator, into sudden being. Now the conjunction of television, peace, and prosperity threatens him with gradual extinction.

Some news analysts, it is true, still remain in business at their old stands, but none who has dropped out has been replaced by a postwar product. Television has produced newscasters, interviewers, masters of ceremonies, and assorted experts, but no new name, face, or voice has appeared in the field of network news analysis. What happened?

In the 1920s Graham MacNamee and Floyd Gibbons pioneered the field of reporting news events by radio. Lowell Thomas and Boake Carter pioneered the field of newscasting; by the mid-1930s their names had become household words. And then came World War II, offering new challenges to a medium which rose to the occasion with a new kind of expert: the journalist who had learned to talk, the lecturer who had learned to write, the broadcaster who had learned to read—something more, that is, than the script before him.

H. V. Kaltenborn, Elmer Davis, and Raymond Swing—the first three radio news analysts to win and hold national reputations—all possessed the rare blend of talent, character, and experience that their new calling demanded. In 1899, before he had entered Harvard or come of age, Kaltenborn was already working for a newspaper. After graduation from Harvard he served as an American exchange professor in Germany and as tutor to young Vincent Astor on a round-the-world tour. Then began a twenty-year stint with the Brooklyn Eagle as a reporter, editorial writer, associate editor, and drama critic. Kaltenborn made frequent trips to Europe, built up a wide following as a lecturer on current events, and in 1922 delivered his first news broadcast. In 1929 the Columbia Broadcasting System set him up as the first news analyst in the business. Nine years later his round-the-clock coverage of the Munich crisis made him a national reputation.

Elmer Davis's proficiency in the classics helped him win a Rhodes scholarship at Queens College, Oxford, in 1911. He had already taught school for a year in his native Indiana. After returning to the United States he served as a staff member of The New York Times. But from the mid-1920s until the eve of war in Europe Elmer Davis spent most of his time writing short stories, essays, and humorous novels—"Friends of Mr. Sweeney," "I'll Show You The Town," and "White Pants Willie" among them. At national conventions and at occasional seasons of other years he also assumed, in The New York Times, the character of Geoffrey G. Gloom, the Indiana Democrat. In 1939 he became a full-time news analyst for CBS, where he performed with such distinction that his journalistic colleagues persuaded the Administration to put him in charge, in 1942, of its newly created Office of War Information.

Raymond Swing got his first newspaper job in Cleveland in 1906. Seven years later he was Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, remaining in Germany until 1917 and returning, in 1919, for the New York Herald. During the war he conveyed an important secret message from Lloyd George to the German Government. After the war he made Europe his news beat until 1936, when he returned to New York as correspondent for the London News Chronicle. Swing won fame on the radio reporting on the United States for the British Broadcasting Corporation. In 1935 he wrote "Forerunners of American Fascism." He appeared for a year on the "American School of the Air," over CBS. In 1939 he went over to Mutual.
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These biographical items serve as reminders that three of the first men to establish wide and firm audiences for themselves as wartime American commentators had roots abroad as well as at home, and interests that ranged beyond the news of the day. Swing composed music as well as books. His first wife was a Frenchwoman. Kaltenborn married a German baroness. Elmer Davis was as much a man of letters as a journalist. But all three had come rapidly to the top as newspapermen. All had likewise gone beyond daily journalism to more lasting literary and artistic pursuits. All had savored the taste of Europe, as it used to be before the First World War. And they had seen enough of the twentieth century to be able to view the events of the 1920s and 1930s in perspective.

Two other wartime commentators, who made names for themselves shortly after Kaltenborn, Swing, and Davis made theirs, first saw the light of day just after the turn of the century. On graduation from Coe College, Iowa, in 1925 William L. Shirer went to Europe, where he landed a job with the Paris bureau of the Chicago Tribune. And at the same time John W. Vandercook, who had spent a single year at Yale, was turning from newspaper work to exploration and authorship. For the next fifteen years Shirer devoted himself to foreign correspondence, living in France, Germany, and Austria and visiting India, from which he returned deeply impressed, like many others before and since, by Mahatma Gandhi. But Shirer's interests, like Elmer Davis's and Raymond Swing's, always extended beyond the daily journalism at which he made his living. He experimented as a novelist and a playwright. He spent as much time with authors as with politicians. He belonged to the Lost Generation, which had come through the First World War only to find a Second already on its way.

But it was not until this war came that Shirer, covering Germany for CBS, and Vandercook, commenting on world news from NBC's New York headquarters, found themselves caught up in the same kind of fame that had already come to Kaltenborn, Davis, and Swing. Indeed, it was not as a radio commentator but as the author of "Berlin Diary" that Shirer first won the popular recognition that his radio broadcasts later enhanced.

America's outstanding wartime commentator did not graduate from college until 1930 and had never worked in any medium except radio. In 1932 Edward R. Murrow began visiting Europe, first as president of the National Student Foundation, later as assistant director of the Carnegie Corporation's Institute of International Education. In 1935 he was appointed head of the Columbia Broadcasting System's department of talks and education; in 1938 he again returned to Europe as chief correspondent for CBS. During the 1940 Blitz his London broadcasts seized the interest of American listeners. His coverage of other wartime stories held that interest, and he has proved himself not only a great reporter, but a sensitive interpreter of world news. In 1945 his radio colleagues did him an honor no radio commentator ever won before, when they elected him president of the American Correspondents Association of London. By this time Murrow had gathered, organized, and developed an outstanding team of young war correspondents: Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, Larry LeSueur, Bill Downs, Richard C. Hottelet. These men belonged to a later generation than Shirer and Vandercook. Most of them had done some newspaper work. All of them knew Europe as well as the United States. And all of them who first made names for themselves with Murrow in Europe during the war continued to function in postwar radio and television, at home and abroad.

In addition to developing the outstanding wartime radio news staff, CBS also developed the bulk of commentators who, during the war or afterward, transferred their talents to other networks: H. V. Kaltenborn, Elmer Davis, Raymond Swing, John Daly, Chet Huntley, Bill Henry, Cecil Brown, Edward P. Morgan, Joseph C. Harsh. All these men received their basic radio news training at CBS. It is a record no other network can duplicate or even approach.
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In one respect at least, the radio and television industries have developed along familiar American lines. The same trend toward bigness and concentrated control that has become so marked in the automobile industry operates in radio and television as well. Network broadcasting on both radio and television can absorb certain costs, both of production and transmission, that individual stations cannot bear. These costs are far greater in television than in radio, but even before the postwar, mushroom growth of television, the government had ordered the National Broadcasting Company to divest itself of one of the two radio networks—the Red and the Blue—it then owned. The Blue Network became the American Broadcasting Company, but the radio interests that acquired it could not meet the skyrocketing costs of postwar television, and Paramount Theatres Corporation purchased control. This made the American Broadcasting Company, in effect, a subsidiary of a chain of motion-picture houses, just as the National Broadcasting Company had always been a subsidiary of the Radio Corporation of America.

The Columbia Broadcasting System, on the other hand, came into being and continued to exist as an independent corporation which sought to make profits from broadcasting only. William S. Paley, whose well-to-do father set him up in the business, retained control and gradually expanded his operation and his holdings. CBS sold stock to the general public, but the Paley family always held a controlling interest. It likewise so happened that William S. Paley himself possessed a social conscience as well as business ability and a keen interest in news, education, and public affairs as well as in entertainment and the popular arts. He regarded the news department at CBS as something more than a means of fulfilling certain minimum obligations to the FCC. He saw it as a source of pride, prestige, and perhaps eventual profit. Even before the Munich crisis he had hired Edward Klauber, one of the top executives of The New York Times, to set up a comparable news-gathering organization in the radio field. Whatever superiority the CBS news department may still enjoy over the news departments of NBC and ABC goes back to the head-start it gained during those prewar years.

Since then the rapid growth of television, some of it at the expense of radio, and changes in public taste, some of them engineered by the industries that cater to that taste, have brought radio and television news commentary to a state of uniform confusion. In the case of television news, production costs far exceed what any sponsor can pay for the audience such programs attract. In the case of commentary, fifteen minutes of a radio news analyst plus a camera add up to something less than television—and it has taken a dozen years for some television news presentations to find a place for even a few minutes of straight commentary. But local radio stations, including those that carry network programs, can still find audiences and sponsors for news, sports, and music all around the clock. There are also many hours of the day when network radio news can still find audiences and sponsors.
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The news analyst, however, faces two handicaps. First, if he is worth his salt and goes in for controversy most local sponsors and stations will have none of him. Second, the news analyst who is worth his salt will not voice his own commercial.

Few postwar commentators, I must add, have had to grapple with the temptation to read their own commercials, for the simple reason that few sponsors wanted them on any terms. The news itself had lost its wartime urgency and flowed less abundantly. And there was an oversupply of wartime and prewar commentators to cope with it. John Daly, who had begun covering Roosevelt in 1936, came to the 1948 conventions and campaign with a background that no newcomer possessed. Radio's Bob Trout, who has earned for himself the title of "Mr. Convention" over the years, still covers those political rituals in the medium which made him famous, imparting a sense of continuity to the proceedings. And when war suddenly broke out in Korea Edward R. Murrow—who had reported the Battle of Britain from housetops of London and the bombing of Berlin from the belly of an American bomber—reported the Korean War from the cockpits of American jets. The familiar and trusted figures of Murrow and Davis again exerted powerful influences at the height of the McCarthy madness. Night after night on radio Davis waged a tireless war of words on the Wisconsin Senator. Murrow delivered his most effective attack by way of television. But no new Murrows, Davises, or Dalys have come to the fore during the postwar years, with the single exception of Walter Cronkite, who came to CBS television news with long newspaper experience plus a rare natural talent for the new medium. And though Murrow has kept up his program of radio commentary, he owes much of his present prestige to television.

But why no younger men? For one thing, the new shape of the postwar world and the changing shape of the radio and television industries have narrowed the range of news analysis. Nor have the postwar years witnessed any such outpouring of intellectual, artistic, and literary creations as occurred during the first dozen years after the First World War. Criticism, scholarship, and the sciences have recently come of age in the United States—and that is much. But the Beat Generation has produced no Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, or Thomas Wolfes; no H. L. Menckens or Walter Lippmanns. The new mass media of motion pictures, radio, and television have reached new heights of technical excellence, but the "seven lively arts," as Gilbert Seldes called them, have produced no such men and women of talent as Seldes admired thirty years ago. Every radio or television news analyst with a national reputation today still draws inspiration from the earlier decades of this century—and it's the same story in other fields of journalistic effort. Whether there is no longer and room at the top, or whether the young men and women of talent prefer more secure or highly paid work, I do not know. Perhaps, in the case of television, so much has to be learned so fast that its greatest opportunities lie in the technical rather than the creative sphere. But a career in radio, with its declining audiences, profits, and influence, has lost much of its former allure. All of which makes the way of the news analyst harder and harder, no matter where he turns.

This applies even to the CBS organization. When the war ended and television overtook and overwhelmed radio NBC entered the competition with most of the top-rating shows of radio entertainment under its banner. Whereupon CBS, with smaller financial resources and greater financial daring, borrowed enough money to buy away half a dozen of NBC's top stars and outdistance NBC in entertainment as it had already outdistanced NBC in news. And this impetus carried over into television, where CBS went to the top almost at once. NBC presently hit back by putting Sylvester L. Weaver in effective charge of programming, and within a few years Weaver stood the whole industry, including NBC, on its collective head. For Weaver, single-handed, broke down two taboos that had straitjacketed radio since its inception and that hamstrung television even more severely. The weekend radio program "Monitor" shattered the pattern of programming all radio time in fifteen-minute units. "Monitor" adopted the revolutionary practice of giving each feature as much or as little time as that feature might be worth, without regard to sponsorship and time-breaks. It proved an immediate success—financially and every other way—and nowhere did this innovation make for so many improvements as in the field of news reports and news analysis.

In television, Weaver shattered the thirteen-week cycle under which individual programs not only ran to uniform lengths but had to be scheduled and sold in thirteen-week periods. He achieved this revolution by scheduling a variety of so-called television spectaculars, running one, two, and even three hours. Some of these spectaculars appeared only once. Others appeared at irregular intervals. Some of them found sponsors. Others did not. All cost NBC prodigious sums of money. In any event, Weaver and NBC parted company after six years—not long enough for Weaver to remold CBS nearer to his heart's desire but long enough to leave a lasting mark on the industry. The news analyst, in particular, has felt the consequences of the Weaver touch. On the one hand, Weaver's innovations promised to liberate some news analysts from the necessity of having to fill the same time period at the same hour of every day, no matter how much or little there might be to talk about at that moment. On the other hand, these same innovations threatened to liberate other news analysts from their jobs by opening the door to assorted experts to cover special situations as they arose. But Weaver's innovations also liberated from NBC before any news analyst found himself at liberty.
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While Weaver had been shaking up NBC's competitors as well as NBC, a former newspaperman was reorganizing the American Broadcasting Company. When Robert E. Kintner came to ABC as its president in 1948, its financial stringencies forced him to make bricks without straw. (When he left, in 1956, Paramount Theatres had purchased control and proceeded to make bricks without Kintner, who had performed miracles of economy and ingenuity, especially in the news field.) Instead of seeking and claiming an ideal of objectivity of which human nature is incapable, ABC is the one network that maintains a staff of commentators of widely varying political views and gives each member of this staff his head. The weakness of this policy is that ABC has had to gather in most of its commentators from other networks or from the newspaper and magazine field, since it gives such freedom only to newsmen with established reputations. Most of the CBS commentators, on the other hand, notably its younger correspondents in Washington and various foreign capitals, have worked their way up through the CBS organization. And though CBS has several times taken strong public stands against editorialized news commentary and in favor of objective news interpretation, the public record tells a different story. Murrow, Sevareid, and Howard K. Smith owe their high reputations to the frankly opinionated views they have repeatedly expressed over the CBS network. But the candor compels this further admission. While no two CBS news analysts agree on every subject, the CBS news staff includes only those commentators whose views follow liberal patterns in domestic affairs and internationalist views in foreign affairs. Not since H. V. Kaltenborn moved to NBC in 1940 has the CBS network featured a news analyst with a frankly conservative outlook, and it has never given regular time to such nationalistic views as Paul Harvey expressed regularly over ABC or to such reactionary views as Fulton Lewis expresses regularly over Mutual.

For this record, CBS deserves nothing but praise. It merits criticism only for the occasional statements some of its executives issue on the subject of objective news analysis. Nor does CBS performance violate the rulings of the Federal Communications Commission which declared ten years ago in its famous Mayflower decision that the networks have a right to editorialize—provided they present both sides. Only CBS has ever taken this ruling at its word—and only on exceptional occasions at that. Its great merit, as compared with any other network, is the consistent effort its management has made over the years to spend time, money, and talent on news coverage and news interpretation. ABC, on the other hand, merits special commendation for having given the American listening public a wide spectrum of political opinion expressed freely, fully, and regularly by men of such differing views as George E. Sokolsky, Paul Harvey, Erwin N. Canham, Edward P. Morgan, John W. Vandercook, and Cecil Brown. Now that Kintner has moved to NBC and Paramount Theatres has taken active control of ABC's operations, what may happen next at those two networks will depend on the actions, reactions, and interactions of so many personalities as to rule out prediction.
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Concerning the present status and immediate future of the news analyst, in radio or television, this much can be said: The wonder is not that he plays a diminishing role on radio and barely exists on TV. The wonder is that he survives and exists at all, anywhere. This is due more to the durability than to the adaptability of the analyst and more to the inflexibility than to the enterprise of the industry for which he works. In some capitals, especially Washington, the new radio or television news analyst now plays the same role as newspaper and magazine correspondents and bureau chiefs in those same cities. Sometimes he must function only as a stringer, finding his main source of income elsewhere. Sometimes he functions on a part-time basis and has time for other work on the side. But he tends to become a specialist in his own neck of the woods; not the all-purpose expert who analyzed the wartime news. Only local and regional stations and networks, whose audiences have a high common denominator of interest, still hold out opportunities to the traditional commentator.

In this connection a personal word may be in order. Of the four news-commentator jobs I have held during the past nineteen years none brought me so wide and warm an audience response as the one I received from the comparatively highbrow listeners to New York's Station WQXR. As a news analyst for CBS, during and after the war, I received more helpful editorial guidance than anywhere else. It is this kind of guidance that all working journalists require; as a former book and magazine editor myself I know whereof I speak. In my four years as news analyst for Station WILL, operated as an outlet for educational radio by the University of Illinois, my freedom of expression was far more narrowly circumscribed than it ever has been on any commercial station or network. Which—I hasten to add— is only right and proper. A tax-supported state university, supervised by an elected board of trustees, dare not offend any substantial group of its constituents. In my present capacity as news analyst for the American Broadcasting Network, I have never felt so free to speak my mind or had so much time in which to speak it.

But the breed to which I belong is vanishing. The generation to which I belong has passed its prime. We have seen William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson as plain as the young people of today have seen Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Foster Dulles. Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin still seem as real and alive as Sir Winston Churchill. We cannot forget the marks they left upon our lives. We think and read about them more than we do about the present leaders of the world—and we talk about them almost as much. These thoughts and words mean more to our contemporaries—than to our juniors. But how large a place have these juniors yet earned in interpreting today's events—and tomorrow's? And when all of those who have come to the top of any field belong to the middle or elder generation, it means that something has happened at the roots.

Whether that something is good or bad depends upon your point of view. The younger generation either cannot see or cannot find opportunities in a type of journalism that now seems to have gone into a decline. To the extent that the popularizer, in any medium, has abused his privilege or worn out his welcome, this is all the good. It is also a healthy sign when, in a more specialized field, a George Gallup challenged the election forecasts of the Literary Digest just as Samuel Lubell now challenges Dr. Gallup's. And just as televisions "Meet the Press" has suspended radio's "Town Meeting of the Air" so the televised interviews conducted by Martin Agronsky and Mike Wallace break new, rich ground. But these innovations supplement, they do not replace the commentator with a wider view. The root of the matter may well be that only under exceptional pressures will a mass medium carry and a mass audience respond to such wide and searching interpretations of world affairs as a few dozen radio commentators brought to a vast public during World War II.
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Why has not the challenge of the postwar crisis brought forth a similar response? The blame cannot be laid at any single door—if, indeed, it is even a question of blame in the first place. As one laborer in the vineyard sees it, there has never been so great a demand as now exists for an integrated interpretation of the day's news and its wider meaning. If the public now turns more and more to experts and specialists, it is because they seem to speak some part of the truth with some authority. But a different and greater opportunity beckons. No single individual can hope to meet it. One industry—which need not necessarily be the radio or television industry—can. But perhaps some new and greater crisis must break upon us first. The history of the radio industry and the Second World War cannot repeat itself. Such histories never do. But tomorrow's history goes on from where yesterday's left off, and some patterns of the recent past may repeat themselves in the near future. Events have speeded up so rapidly in recent years that some of the same men who played outstanding parts in the First World War lived to apply the lessons they had learned twenty years on. The same thing could happen again.
QUINCY HOWE'S flat, Yankee tones constitute one of the most familiar voices in America. In part of this article, which is the elaboration of remarks he recently delivered in Boston to the Association for Education in Journalism, he gives us his own commentator-biography. At present he has a daily (and Sunday) broadcast on ABC and is serving as president of the Association of Radio-Television News Analysts. He also is a prolific author; his latest work is the monumental "A World History of Our Times."