American war radio news censorship is a two part story: before and after Pearl Harbor. Through both phases, World War II changed the face of American broadcast media forever.
War in Europe started on September 9, 1939. Two days later, the National Association of Broadcasters released a War Coverage Agreement with the major networks. Broadcasters would be temperate, responsible and mature, avoiding emphasis on horrors. In particular, radio news committed to distinguish between fact, official statement, news obtained from reliable sources, and so on. Listeners would be told about which category the news fell into, and whether or not it had been censored. Propaganda needed to be identified. In short, all American listeners needed to be completely and fairly informed. (Goodness, we could use something like that today.)
NAB code of 1939 stated that news broadcasts should not editorialize and that the interpretation of the news should be free of bias. Among the networks, CBS adopted the toughest code, which attempted to distinguish between newscasters, news analysts, and news commentators: the first one read the news, the second put it in perspective without offering personal opinions, and only the last group was allowed to voice biased, editorial opinions.
In 1939, some of the American networks ceased broadcasts from Europe, ostensibly to preserve neutrality. The Whitehouse warned radio stations to be especially objective in their war coverage. Within a few months, though, the reporters went back to Europe. However, as the Nazi occupation progressed, most reporters had to leave the continent again.
American news found ways to deal with Britain’s MOI, which Ed Murrow once described as “often stupid but seldom sinister.” At first, travel was restricted, access to officials limited, and all reports had to be scripted and approved in advance. However, during the blitz, Murrow started ad-libbing descriptive reports of bombing from rooftops, and these were carried live in America. Murrow and two other journalists were given the privilege of uncensored broadcasting during the Battle of Britain. Murrow said that he would be unwilling to broadcast from a nation at war without censorship as the responsibility for human lives would be too great.
American War Radio News Censorship – After Pearl Harbor
Radio news was largely self-regulating. The NAB issued a Guide for Wartime Broadcasting immediately after Pearl Harbor and published in Broadcasting Magazine on December 22, 1941. This guide was developed jointly between industry and government. The official censorship took hold one month later.
Two organizations, the Office or Censorship and the Office of War Information were headed by the former executive news editor of Associated Press, Byron Price. He issued the first Voluntary Censorship Code in January 1942. At the same time, he delegated release of official war information down to military and government officials closest to the action. Other than guidelines, there was no centralized censorship as in Britain. The program worked, and Price resisted stricter requests for censorship by the military. After the war, Price wrote a fascinating review of the censor’s activities in American war radio news censorship.
Obvious things like troop locations and movements, ships and transportation, sea or air attacks, any information about production activities which could enable sabotage, unconfirmed reports or rumors were withheld. Emphasis was also placed on “keeping control of the microphone.” This included supervision of request or quiz programs to ensure that secret messages could not be sent. All broadcasters had to ask: “is this information of value to the enemy?”
When censorship commenced, it needed to engage 900 radio stations. News from the battle fronts was filed by correspondents accredited to the Army and the Navy, and the Office of Censorship did not reexamine their dispatches when they arrived in the United States because they had undergone military censorship at the source. But military news originating within the United States was, of course, subject to the voluntary Code.
In speaking to the nation two days after Pearl Harbor, FDR issued a message to all newspapers and radio stations: “You have a most grave responsibility to the nation now and for the duration of the war. If you feel our government is not disclosing enough of the truth, you have every right to say so. But – in the absence of all of the facts, as revealed by official sources – you have no right to deal out unconfirmed reports in such a way as to make people believe they are the Gospel Truth.” NAB said: “The broadcasting industry has been given to understand it can use news from recognized press services. News gathered from other sources must be thoroughly checked and verified before broadcasting.” Stories must be accurate and must not help the enemy. That was the essence of American war radio news censorship.
Reasonable Working Relationship Develops
Slowly, censors became convinced that radio would not harm the war effort, as long as broadcasters restricted access to their facilities. Technicians were able to transmit usable shortwave signals to the United States. When reporters were allowed in the war zones or even neutral foreign capitals, they began filing live, on-the-scene stories such as Edward R. Murrow’s 1940 and 1941 evening reports to CBS. Radio reporters with the invasion fleet off North Africa in November 1942 provided a blow-by-blow account of the troops landing. By 1944 reporters for the radio networks were covering commando raids against the coast of France, going on air raids with bomber fleets, reporting on England at war, and covering early U.S. island invasions in the South Pacific.
Of many notable broadcasts, D-Day-June 6, 1944, when the Allies invaded France-was particularly important. As George Hicks of CBS recorded troops going ashore from a Navy ship, listeners could hear aircraft and antiaircraft guns in the background. The recording was sent to the United States by shortwave for later broadcast. These types of broadcasts required close working relationships and trust between reporters and censors at the front lines for American war radio news censorship to be effective.