Book report: The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism

It’s hard to imagine, especially for those of my generation or younger, but broadcast news was not always a wasteland of vacuous celebrity gossip, shallow political “analysis”, or crude sensationalism.  There was in fact a time when the men and women who called themselves broadcast journalists were actually journalists first, broadcasters secondly.  A time when networks valued the insight and knowledge these broadcasters brought, with not nearly as much regard for profit.

And for a period of almost 20 years starting in the late 1930s, there was one group of broadcast journalists more insightful, knowledgeable, professional, and popular than all others.  They were the Murrow Boys, started and led by the legendary Edward R. Murrow.  While most people still know his name, the names of the crack team he assembled have been largely forgotten – they were Mary Marvin Breckinridge, Cecil Brown, Winston Burdett, Charles Collingwood, William Downs, Thomas Grandin, Richard C. Hottelet, Larry LeSueur, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, and Howard K. Smith.  Under Murrow’s leadership these men (and woman) wrote the rules of modern broadcast journalism, risked their lives to bring the story of World War II to millions, and set standards of professionalism that seem to have been largely abandoned since.

The stories of each of the Boys is told (some in more detail than others, naturally) masterfully in The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism by co-authors Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  After reading it I have a much greater appreciation for and knowledge of this group’s accomplishments in journalism, but additionally I was fascinated by how much they were able to accomplish in spite of their numerous vices and flaws.  Truly there was strength in numbers with Murrow’s Boys.

The book picks up in 1937.  While radio had already woven itself into the fabric of Americans’ lives, it offered little else besides entertainment.  News, such as it was, amounted to nothing more than uninformed commentary delivered by the likes of Boake Carter of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).  When Carter’s anti-Roosevelt, diatribes became too much for CBS owner William S. Paley, he was taken off the air for good.  Paley and his executive team understood the rising threat posed by Adolph Hitler, as did two recently hired CBS employees – Edward R. Murrow and William L. Shirer.

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Book report: The Worst Hard Time

The Worst Hard TimeYou ever talk to one of those annoying people who always feels compelled to one-up your tales of woe?  You try to get a little sympathy for spraining your ankle, and all they can do is go on about the time they broke their leg twenty years ago.  Then there’s the other variation, where you try to talk about a difficult situation with an older relative and they bust out the “back in my day…” line to trump you.  It’s like, enough already old timer.

Well here’s the thing about the folks who lived through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s – their stories really are worse than your stories.  Every time.  And they don’t have to embellish or exaggerate.  The trick is to make those stories readable and engaging, which isn’t as easy as it may seem.  Fortunately we have Timothy Egan‘s 2005 work, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.  It’s a skillfully written book that captures the tragedy and pathos of the time even better than I expected.

Egan sets the stage with a fascinating history of the region, which wasn’t always the brown, desolate place it would become.  A few hundred years ago the Midwest was a great expanse of grassland, and was home to millions of bison as well as large, thriving Native American tribes.  European settlers explored the area but found it unfit for farming.  In fact, the region was known for a long time as the Great American Desert (although it wasn’t what we think of as a desert, it did contain vast stretches of treeless, semi-arid land).  Eventually the white man started moving into the more hospitable parts of the Midwest, but left the High Plains largely alone.

Fast forward to the Civil War period, and what was a trickle of settlement became a steady stream with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862.  Pretty soon all the prime real estate was taken, leaving the formerly undesirable High Plains (essentially the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado, and western Kansas).  Successive legislation made even harsh land seem like a good opportunity, and within a few decades towns popped up in places they had no business being.

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The ’30s and ’40s in living color, Part 1

One of the really cool things about the internet is that now everyone who can get there can get access to a treasure trove of historical documents and photographs that were previously the domain of hardened researchers or supergeeks.  All you need is some time to spare and the desire to take a look at our country’s not-so-distant past, and some great stuff is there for the asking.  Case in point, the Library of Congress WPA poster gallery I highlighted a few years ago.

This time we’re going to look at something even cooler – highlights from a LoC collection of photographs from the 1930s and ’40s… in color!  While the subject matter isn’t necessarily scintillating on all these, the opportunity to see life as it really looked back then is a rare treat indeed.  Something about seeing a scene as pedestrian as a quiet street in color brings it to life in a that black and white photography can’t always do.  I find it a lot easier to immerse myself in the past when looking at it this way.

These photos were all taken between 1939 and 1944 by the United States Farm Security Administration (FSA) and later the Office of War Information (OWI).  Here’s a few of my favorites (click on a photo to see a larger version)…

I love the vividness of this one, taken in Tennessee in 1943.  The photo credit says this woman is operating a hand drill, but it looks like a rivet gun to me.

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Touring (1937)

Vintage Tabletop: Touring

Touring (1937)

For the deluxe presentation of Touring, head over to the Touring page on the main site.

In 1906, cars were still considered a luxury item in the United States, well beyond the reach of the common folk.  And yet two years before the legendary Model T ushered in the era of affordable automobiles for the masses, the now-defunct Wallie Dorr Company figured the time was right to capitalize on what was still a niche product.  And to do so they unveiled a new card game based on the expensive, newfangled horseless carriage – Touring.

You probably haven’t heard of Touring but you’ve likely heard of its successor, Mille Bornes.  The idea is the same, really.  Players are engaged in a race of X miles (the figure changed over the years), and can play delay/hazard cards to stop or slow down their opponent.  If you play a mileage card, you move that much further along.  If your opponent gives you a delay card (Out of Gasoline, Puncture, or Collision for instance) you must play its opposite card (Gasoline or Hauled In).  So on and so forth.

Touring proved popular enough to be snatched up by Parker Brothers in 1925, and they continued to produce it (with periodic updates to the images and mileage amounts) for another 50 years under the name.  In 1960 Parker Brothers purchased the rights to a similar game from France, and began marketing it in America as Milles Bornes.  The company continued to sell both games until 1975, when Touring was discontinued.  Mille Bornes is still around.

The edition I own and am sharing here has a 1937 copyright, when the goal of the race was 110 miles.  The 1906 edition’s goal was 50 miles, and by 1958 the total had increased to 590 miles.  110 miles doesn’t seem like a lot, but the highest card was 30 miles and that could only be played in certain circumstances.

But enough about the game — let’s take a look at some of the cards!

Touring - card back
The card back, a lovely shade of green.

Touring - 30 miles
The prized 30 Miles card. Dig those speed lines!

Touring - Collision
Collision! “Pardon me sir, I do believe you’ve struck my transport.”

For a slideshow of the whole set, including the box and instruction sheet, click here.  For a look at the 1957 edition, click here.

Classic Thanksgiving ephemera – Indian Gum Cards

In days of yore companies issued trading/bubble gum cards depicting not just baseball players, but even actors, U.S. Presidents, and license plates. One such manufacturer, the Goudey Gum Company of Boston, began issuing cards picturing Indian tribes and well-known Indians in 1933. This series ended in 1940, but Goudey began printing a new series depicting “Indian and Pioneer romantic days” in 1947. Shown here are two cards from that series, owned by a family member.

Huichol gum card

Luqaiot gum card

Up top is a card showing a member of the Huichol, native to Western Central Mexico (yes I know that a native Mexican has nothing to do with American Thanksgiving). Most curiously about this card is that it speaks of the Huichol as if they were extinct, but according to their Wikipedia article they are very much alive. Now if I had to choose between a Wikipedia article and a 60-year-old gum card for accurate historical information it would be a tossup I grant you, but I’ll have to chalk the gum card gaffe up as a careless error.

On the bottom is Luqaiot of the Kittitas Tribe, native to what is now Washington state (there’s your Thanksgiving connection, tenuous as it is). Most of what I found on Luqaiot (in my six whole minutes of research) backed up what his card said, so Goudey’s batting .500 so far.

Goudey Gum Company, for those still reading, ceased operations in 1962. But for all I know they could still be going strong in a remote Central American village. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Works Progress Administration (WPA) logo

Posters of the WPA

Works Progress Administration (WPA) logoBack in the day (1935 to be precise), President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an enormous government program aimed at providing employment for millions of Americans affected by the Great Depression.

The legacy of the WPA is a host of public works (bridges, roads, etc.) and cultural projects. That’s all well and good obviously, but what I really care about are the cool posters designed to promote many of the WPA’s programs.

All of these images and hundreds more are available as part of the Library of Congress’s “Posters of the WPA” collection. I’ve simply picked what I feel are some of the most visually appealing and added my usual pithy commentary. As you’ll see, these great images are very much of their time and most display an Art Deco sensibility that I love (at least that’s what I think the style is).

This promo for adult education classes in Ohio is so delightfully absurd, it’s hard to believe it came from a government program. “Get A-Head!” (artist unknown), c. 1936-1941

For those not familiar with war propaganda of days gone by, this is typical of many images from World War II (and World War I for that matter). In order to convey just how evil the enemy was, racial stereotypes and slurs were often employed. I’m not sure what the implied threat is here, however, as “the Jap” seems to have conquered the relatively unimportant North Pole. — “Salvage Scrap to Blast the Jap” by Phil von Phul, c. 1940-41

I have no idea if the Sioux City Camera Club’s exhibition was any good, but their poster definitely is great. — Sioux City Camera Club exhibition (artist unknown), c. 1936-39.

Relatively speaking, automobiles were fairly new in the 1930s. Even so, I sincerely hope that drivers did not have to be specifically instructed to not kill animals with their cars. As sad as that may be, this is a very eye-catching, albeit ominous, poster. — “Don’t Kill Out Wild Life” by John Wagner, c. 1936-40

One thing I’m sure of is that it probably took all of three days after the first car rolled out before some jackass decided to get plastered and go for a ride. So it makes sense for this anti-drunk driving ad to warn against that. Or against putting whiskey in your gas tank. No, I’m pretty sure this is about drinking and driving. I do dig the vintage gas pump. — “Don’t Mix ‘Em” (artist unknown), c. 1936-37

I’ve heard them called outhouses, crappers, and dunnys, but I’ve never heard them called “sanitary units.” Nevertheless, my home does feel incomplete without one.“Your Home Is Not Complete Without a Sanitary Unit” (artist unknown), c. 1936-41

In the dark days before television and video games, children apparently read for pleasure. I know, sick. Still, the minimalist design and nice blue/black/orange color scheme does make the prospect more appealing. — “October’s ‘Bright Blue Weather’ — A Good Time to Read!”  by Albert M. Bender, c. 1936-40

Part of what makes a lot of the imagery of this period so striking is the abundance of clean lines and basic shapes. Looking at this poster I not only feel I should keep my teeth clean, but that it is my duty as a citizen to do so. After all, the Nazis are looming on the horizon and you can’t fight them if you’re gumming K-rations. — “Keep Your Teeth Clean” (artist unknown), c. 1936-38

Another design element found in images of this time period is the repetition of a single object. But the same clean design applies to this deceptively simple poster. That font is also something I’d love to see more of. — “Foreign Trade Zone” by Jack Rivolta, 1937

Or he may just be dull after all. On the upside, he is a snappy dresser. — “John Is Not Really Dull” (artist unknown), c. 1936-37.

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