Is a newspaper journalist the people’s watchdog or a government lapdog? How observant should a reporter be? And what should a city editor have for lunch?
This Green Hornet radio episode, There Was a Crooked Man, is a place to tackle those questions — and to start a more general discussion of the portrayal of newspaper journalists in radio dramas.
As the story opens, publisher Britt Reid faces a decision about making a deal for access to government secrets, but it has a personal twist: A prosecutor offers him exclusive information for a racket-busting story, but in exchange he wants all that The Daily Sentinel knows about the Green Hornet.
It would be one ethical question for a newspaper to cut an information-swap, but in this case should the truth-dealing publisher tell an outright lie to hide the fact that he is the city’s green-masked Robin Hood? That question probably doesn’t come up at many papers.
But even an adventure series like The Green Hornet gave listeners some idea of questions real-world journalists really did face then and still do today.
For example, before the prosecutor offers his info-exchange proposal, Reid makes a statement worthy of discussion in any media ethics class:
“The simplest way to keep things OUT of the paper… is to confide in a newspaperman. If he thinks you’re trying to hide something and put one over on him, he’ll get answers and publish them.”
The same episode gives us an opportunity to observe the reporting techniques of Sentinel reporter Ed Lowry, who enters the story trying to get information from the prosecutor’s daughter at the airport. He’s observant and has a good memory, recognizing her low-numbered license plate on her roadster.
Lowry generally sounds like a street-wise, tough investigator, if not the most cultivated journalism school grad. His grammar is rough around the edges. He catches himself starting to refer to the prosecutor as “your old man…” and shifts to “your father…” His techniques include a bit of flattery, “If anyone can smash this graft ring, he’s the man to do it…”
Later, there are scenes with the reporter and publisher comparing notes at the office, and Reid taking a direct hands-on approach, more like a managing editor. (The city editor is at lunch at the time. “Lunch? I thought a city editor lived on ink and paper,” Lowry remarks, before heading for the publisher’s office.)
Radio’s Green Hornet plots from 1936 to 1952 relied much more heavily on Reid’s connection with The Daily Sentinel newspaper and its staff than did the 1966-67 television series, with its weapons and kung-fu focus, or the 2011 feature film, full of explosions and special effect enhancements. In addition to Lowry and Lenore “Casey” Case (secretary and wannabe-reporter), the most prominent Sentinel staff member was also the series’ comic relief, former policeman Michael Axford, sent by Reid’s father to keep an eye on the young publisher as combination reporter and bodyguard.
I’ll be back with more about Axford, and with more Hornet episodes, especially after my Portrayal of the Journalist in Popular Culture class begins in the fall.
This “There Was a Crooked Man” appears to be one of the earliest-recorded Green Hornet radio episodes, from May 24, 1938, despite Internet sources that put a date a year later in its file name. This copy is at the Old Time Radio Researchers Group Library.
At “FreeOTRshows.com” and similar online archives, the episode has been dated May 23, 1939, but inaccurate information is duplicated widely at for-sale and free-download sites on the Internet, often based on early collectors’ tape-swapping or mp3 files that were exchanged anonymously over computer bulletin boards. (For more consistent research and better audio quality Radio Spirits offers sets of commercial recordings on CD, which sometimes can be found at libraries.)
Perhaps the best source: Hornet historians Martin Grams Jr. and Terry Salomonson based a 802-page book, The Green Hornet, on scripts registered with the U.S. copyright office and transcription disks archived by the production company. They identify two episodes with “There Was a Crooked Man” as a title, one recorded as a live-transcription disk on May 24, 1938, a demo made a year before recording became standard practice. That episode was #239, about the kidnapping of a prosecutor’s daughter, which is the story we have here. The other “There Was a Crooked Man” in Grams & Salomonson is script #330, broadcast April 6, 1939, a story of a horserace racket.