1938 __ Is Radio Censorship Necessary ?
‣ Comment : Censorship at the network level evolved gradually over the 1930s. During the first half of the decade, "hells" and "damns" were quite common in dramatic programs, along with the occasional "you silly ass." Broadcast Standards codes were becoming stricter as the decade wore on-- due in part to agitation from decency groups and in part to the networks' general fear of offending anyone. It all came to a head, however, in 1937-38. The "Mae West" affair of 1937 was only one of several censorship-related controversies to break out during that period. Even more significant was the so-called "Beyond the Horizon" matter, which involved a sustaining broadcast of that Eugene O'Neill play over the NBC Blue network in July 1938. The play was broadcast with its original language unexpurgated. — with hells and damns and adult situations intact. Two months after the broadcast, one listener in Minneapolis complained to the FCC. — and the Commission challenged the license renewal application of station WTCN, the Minneapolis Blue Network affiliate which had carried the play, on the grounds that carrying such a program was not in the public interest, convenience or necessity. Newspapers immediately jumped on this case as an excuse to continue their attacks on the broadcast industry. — they had already blown the Mae West affair way out of proportion, they did the same with the "Beyond The Horizon" matter, and later in 1938 they would do the same with "War of the Worlds." This exaggerated newspaper coverage in turn, whipped censorship advocates -- notably Senator Clyde Herring (D-Iowa), who suggested that radio was a major contributor to juvenile delinquency, rising violent crime rates, and the general decline of American family life. — into an even more self-righteous frenzy, and terrified the National Association of Broadcasters, which took steps to tighten up its own self-censorship code, because Herring and his disciples were strongly hinting that if they didn't the Government would step in and do it for them. The networks also tightened their internal censorship codes and enforced them more rigorously. Although the FCC ended up taking no action in the WTCN case, the affair was seen as a warning shot at broadcasters by the Government. As a result, the events of 1937-38 essentially marked the end of "hell" and "damn" and "adult situations" in general for years to come. (Elizabeth McLeod, 2002) — Senator Clyde LaVerne Herring’s reaction to Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast received national attention. In order to protect listeners, he urged adoption of federal legislation "inducing" broadcasters to first submit radio programming to the Federal Communications Commission before it could be aired. He declared that "radio has no more right to present programs like that than someone has to come knocking on our door and screaming." (Herring to Press Bill for Stricter Control of Radio: Programs Shown to F. C. C. First," Waterloo Daily Courier, 1938-10-31, at 1). No such legislation was adopted. (Compiled from various sources) — While the aforementioned provisions in the Radio Acts of 1912 and 1927 indicated that the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] contemplated the possibility of using the radio to send a false distress signal, it was clearly caught off guard by “War of the Worlds”. The rise of radio networks now allowed broadcasts to be heard simultaneously throughout the nation. The result was the first case of a single broadcaster triggering a nationwide panic. FCC Chairman Frank R. McNinch called the airing of the program “regrettable,” but the FCC was unsure of what steps to take. A basic obstacle that confronted the commissioners was the fact that no rule seemed to apply. The problem had nothing to do with their primary duties of preventing station interference or monopoly ownership within the broadcast industry. This was clearly not a case of obscene programming, nor could it even be termed indecent. Section 326 of the 1934 Act explicitly prohibited the FCC from regulating the content of individual programs by stating: “Nothing in this Act shall be understood or construed to give the [FCC] the power of censorship over the radio communications or signals transmitted by any radio station, and no regulation or condition shall be promulgated or fixed by the [FCC] which shall interfere with the right of free speech by means of radio communication.” (Communications Act of 1934, ch. 652 § 326, 48 Stat. 1064, 1091. This is verbatim language carried over from section 29 of the Radio Act of 1927. See Radio Act of 1927, ch. 169 § 29, 44 Stat. 1162, 1172.) [...] Commissioner T.A.M. Craven made the following cautionary note: « [T]he [FCC] should proceed carefully in order that it will not discourage the presentation by radio of the dramatic arts. It is essential that we encourage radio to make use of the dramatic arts and the artists of this country. The public does not want a “spineless” radio. It is also my opinion that, in any case, isolated instances of poor programming service do not necessarily justify the revocation of a station’s license, particularly when such station has an otherwise excellent record of good public service. I do not include in this category, however, criminal action by broadcasting station licensees ». At the time, if any pressure was to be put on stations in preventing such a panic in the future, it would have to be done indirectly through the FCC’s practice of refusing to renew station licenses for programs or actions that were not deemed to be in the “public interest.” The public interest cauldron was often used by the FCC to judge the total activities that a station engaged in, even when they might have fallen outside the parameters of an explicit regulatory ban. However, even though license renewals were less certain for incumbent broadcasters in the 1930s than they are today, some in the FCC indicated doubts as to how much weight it would put on The War of the Worlds when determining if a station was satisfying the public interest during a license renewal hearing. Commissioner Paul E. Walker pointed out that, “‘probably the broadcasters are as anxious to straighten things out as anybody.’” Commissioner George Henry Payne struck a more actionable tone in proclaiming: « People who have material broadcast into their homes without warnings have a right to protection. Too many broadcasters have insisted that they could broadcast anything they liked, contending that they were protected by the prohibition of censorship. Certainly when people are injured morally, physically, spiritually[,] and psychically, they have just as much right to complain as if the laws against obscenity and indecency were violated ». Other commissioners refused to comment. The FCC promised an inquiry and requested a copy of the “War of the Worlds” script from CBS in order to study it. The investigation concerning “War of the Worlds” coincided with a broader FCC hearing into problems concerning network broadcasting as a whole. Chairman McNinch invited the heads of the then three major broadcasting networks to discuss the use of the news term “flash” in radio programming. In explaining the reasons for the summit, Chairman McNinch stated: « I have heard the opinion often expressed within the industry as well as outside that the practice of using “flash,” as well as “bulletin,” is overworked and results in misleading the public. It is hoped and believed that a discussion on this subject may lead to a clearer differentiation between bonafide news matter of first rank importance and that which is of only ordinary importance or which finds place in dramatics or advertising ». The concerned network heads expressed relief at the informal nature of the summit and made a good faith agreement to confine the use of the term “flash” in broadcasts to only those items of serious (and nonfictional) importance. Shortly thereafter, Chairman McNinch delivered a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters convention on November 19, 1938, entitled “What Our Investigation Means to Broadcasters.” He suggested that the best guidance on program standards would come from the public opinion of the listeners, rather than the broadcasters or the FCC itself. He further stressed that broadcast station licensees were in the position of trustees, with the American public being the fiduciaries of the trust. The major networks carried Chairman McNinch’s remarks live over the radio, including CBS, the same network which broadcast “War of the Worlds”. If Chairman McNinch’s position in dealing with the aftermath from “War of the Worlds” favored self-regulation by the broadcast industry, those of U.S. Senator Clyde L. Herring from Iowa represented the other side of the spectrum. The day after the broadcast, Senator Herring stated that Welles’s drama was proof that radio needed “control by the government.” Furthermore, the Senator claimed that he had prepared a bill for the then upcoming legislative session that would have allowed the FCC to screen and veto every radio program before it was broadcast. Senator Herring’s remarks represented one of the most unabashed calls for direct government control of the airwaves by a U.S. official in the electronic media age. The previous years saw a rising chorus of criticism towards radio programming, which was described by many as being increasingly indecent and incendiary. “War of the Worlds” brought the debate concerning radio censorship to a new level of intensity. [...] In the months that followed the rally against government restrictions on programming, Senator Herring’s stance on the issue developed more flexibility and nuance. In March 1939, Senator Herring authored an article entitled “Is Radio Censorship Necessary?”, where he stated: « There has been a reluctance on the part of government to impose federal censorship, and it is quite certain that it will be resorted to only if other means of bringing about voluntary censorship fail. Just as I am a staunch believer in the capacity of business to run itself and to set up, voluntarily, fair trade and labor practices for the governing of industry by management, so I believe that the radio industry is able to regulate itself. The radio companies should voluntarily establish a code of ethics binding upon all broadcasters. This would at once obviate the necessity of further efforts at governmental control and, I believe, produce results infinitely more satisfactory from the standpoint of both the industry and the public. [...] One of the most important questions constantly before broadcasters is: What should be allowable in public speeches, political and otherwise, delivered over the radio? The broadcasting companies have endeavored to keep a check on this type of radio presentation as well as dramatic productions, which by their nature might be misleading to radio listeners, such as Orson Welles[’s] presentation of “The Men from Mars,” [sic] and the “Adam and Eve” [sic] sketch for which Mae West has been so severely censored and for which, I understand, she was only responsible for reading the lines. The scripts in both instances were the products of other minds and ample opportunity should have been afforded for the ascertaining of public reactions before the public presentations were made ». (Justin Levine, “A History and Analysis of the Federal Communications Commission’s Response to Radio Broadcast Hoaxes”, In FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 52, pp. 273-320)
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