Covering the world for the World, after the World was gone

The flag of the New York World before its many mergers

I’ve just caught up with the Old Time Radio Researchers Group library updates from 11 months ago and discovered that the group’s collection of “Douglas of the World” stored at the Internet Archive now has four episodes — a 300 percent increase!

As a former reporter on The Hartford Courant, a historic newspaper that has seen more-historic days, I’m fascinated by “Douglas of The World” and its invocation of another historic newspaper name.

Why? It’s great to know that the legendary New York World still had a (fictional) Paris office and foreign correspondents hard at work in 1953 — 22 years after the paper really closed its doors in the first of a series of majors. That was when founder Joseph Pulitzer’s sons sold the paper to a chain, which added its name to the lesser Evening Telegram. “The World-Telegram and The Sun” of 1953 eventually merged with other already hyphenated papers, finishing up as the “World Journal Tribune,” representing what had been seven historic New York papers. (A Library of Congress page mentions that The Sun had already absorbed other titles; its first daily edition merged with The Herald ran to 116 pages.)

In fact, the folks at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism announced a couple of months ago that they plan to revive The New York World name as an online news project. The last I heard the project was to launch this summer, which in New York may mean “before fall classes start.”

Anyhow, back to “Douglas of the World.” I plan to write more about this series as I listen and dig into it. This first episode raises plenty of questions:

Called The Terrorists (click the title if you don’t see an audio-player icon) and dated 1953, the half-hour episode sends intrepid reporter Brad Douglas (played by Jack Moyles) to a world of intrigue in Tehran, Iran. What’s especially intriguing is that the program was produced by or for the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service in the early days of the Cold War, right at the shift from the Truman administration to Eisenhower, and just before the CIA-involved coup that unseated Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

There are, as they say, “spoilers” in this blog post, so you may want to stop reading here and listen to the program. It’s only a half-hour.

Prime Minister Mossadegh is Douglas’s assignment, although they never meet. The reporter winds up kidnapped by agents of the Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh, who force him to write a dispatch blaming their terrorist activities on Mossadegh’s Nationalist party.

Before and during his capture, Douglas gets descriptions of the Iranian situation from his editor, a taxi driver, a hotel concierge, and from a beautiful Iranian woman and her brother, a petroleum engineer.

The history of U.S. activities in Iran in 1953 is not a subject I’ve studied in detail, but overall, Douglas’s “news sources” seem to agree with a November, 1952, Truman administration policy statement on Iran.

Mossadegh is still in power at the end of the program. According to archives of DigitalDeliToo’s research in “Stars and Stripes” newspaper program logs, the “Douglas of the World” Tehran episode was broadcast in March, 1953. The CIA-engineered coup was that August. It would be fascinating to know what roles government agencies played in production of the series!

(2013 update: More CIA documents about the era were released in August 2013)

As Douglas says to his editor, who finds Mossadegh worth a major story, “Iran, Middle East, ‘danger spot of the world,’ our distinguished competitor The Times called it.” The editor wants Douglas on the ground in Tehran getting the real story, talking to taxi drivers, shoe makers, Kurdish herdsmen and unemployed oil workers, capturing “the flavor of the country itself.”

The correspondent arrives at his Tehran hotel in a taxi that has just driven through a gunfight between police and, his driver says, “the Tudeh, local Communists…” a handy stereotype for the Cold War era, but with Mossadegh at first sounding like the hero of the story:

“By terror and lawlessness, they hope to strip us of our friends and make us easy prey for their masters in Moscow. Ah, but they have forgotten Mohammed Mossadegh, who ran them out in ’46. He is a tough man. Nobody pushes him around. He would have made a fine taxi driver.”

Could that last line be a subtle hint of a coup to come?

A few minutes later, the reporter meets a hotel manager, Petros, who is learning English from newspapers and comic strips. He’s a big fan of American popular culture, in particular Li’l Abner‘s Mammy Yokum, whose “Double Whammy” comes in handy later. Petros (is the hint of petroleum in his name a coincidence?) is less enamored with the prime minister, who had nationalized the property of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951.*

As hotel manager Petros says, in a conversation with a slightly distracted Douglas:

Petros: “Mossadegh would rather see the ruin of Iran than give it to the British. The pipelines are empty. The big refineries idle. The oil for free people lies under the earth. The common people suffer for the pride of a few. The Russians smile and wait. It is all most unhappy.”

Douglas: “Hey, that girl over there, the pretty one…”

Petros: “Where? Oh, the one with the excellent figure and beckoning eyes… She is very lovely. If I were you, I would take the chance…”

The beautiful woman, it turns out, needs Douglas’s help finding her oil engineer brother, who disappeared after visiting mysterious rug merchants.

When Douglas finally gets to meet him, the engineer says “true Iranian patriots” are for Mossadegh, while the Communists are trying to discredit him — which turns out to be their plan for Brad Douglas, too. If you have listened to the program, you’ve heard the attempted Communist propaganda story, followed by Douglas’s real dispatch. It ends like this:

Today, Iran shares the tension we find throughout the free world. Iran wants to keep her identity, her freedom. This is impossible without the friendship of the West. Iran desires friendly relations with all nations and she’s determined to resist aggression, come what may.

That draft meets with the approval of Petros, the hotel manager and Western comic-strip enthusiast. I suppose Douglas’s positive statements about “Iran” could apply to either Mossadegh or the CIA-backed military coup that, five months later, ousted him and put the Shah back on his throne — and put the oil back in British-friendly pipelines.

If, like me, you’re not up on your 60-year-old history of Iran and intrigued by all of this, here are some research links. Before you dive into the National Security Archive CIA papers mentioned above, I recommend The New York Times Secrets of History: The CIA in Iran project, based on “the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret history of its covert operation to overthrow Iran’s government in 1953.” See James Risen’s article there, C.I.A. Tried, With Little Success, to Use U.S. Press in Coup, for some of the real “media intrigue” at the time.

(This is way out of my scholarly depth, but you might also see Mark Curtis’ book Web of Deceit on British oil interests’ role in the coup in Iran, 1953, or All the Shah’s Men, a 2003 book by Stephen Kinzer.)

The result of the CIA’s efforts has been called “the first peacetime use of covert action by the United States to overthrow a foreign government.” Did the CIA’s attempt to manipulate the press in the process include the fictional “Douglas of the World” series, or was this episode (as it seems on first listening) still following the Truman administration line?

There’s some discussion of CIA use of propaganda at The Mossadegh Project website, but nothing to suggest whether such efforts including AFRS.

Update, January 2020: A couple of years after my first visiting that Mossadegh page, I returned and noticed that the site had discovered “Douglas of the World”! The Mohammad Mossadegh historical website prepared a synopsis and analysis, concluding… that the program was difficult to explain, appearing to be pro-Mossadegh propaganda from a U.S. government agency while another agency was in the process of overthrowing him.

Like I said, Iran isn’t a focus of my research, but I’ve done a little more on this “Douglas of the World” series. The Moscow and U.N. episodes should be interesting.

One of my earliest sources on the series was, as is often the case, pioneer collector J. David Goldin’s Radio GoldIndex, which lists three episodes. Goldin identifies producers, directors, writers and cast members for each episode.

After writing the first draft of this page, I discovered that another one of my “usual suspects” has been on the case, doing their usual excellent work, the radio historian site “Digital Deli Too.” Alas, the original is not currently available, but an Internet Archive copy of Digital Deli Too’s Douglas of the World page is still the most comprehensive resource on the program I’ve seen, using files of the military newspaper Stars & Stripes to list 22 episodes of the six-month run that are not in the publicly shared digital archives or, as the old-time radio collectors say, “in circulation.”

The authors’ analysis of the Tehran episode concludes that,

“The resulting Douglas of The World episode, “The Terrorists,” while characterizing Dr. Mossadegh as a patriot and true hero of Iran, nevertheless portrayed the CIA-instigated nationalist movement as growing, communist-inspired movement against Mossadegh. This was of course the CIA’s disinformation intent from the outset.”

(Other sources suggest the CIA plot was to make Mossadegh appear too weak to resist the communists, or even to make him seem pro-communist or anti-Islam.)

For students or other readers young enough to be surprised that the word “Terrorism” and issues of Middle Eastern oil have been popping up in the news for more than a half-century, try Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism. It is a good starting point toward a broader picture of Western literary and cultural portrayals of the Middle East — from our “Douglas” radio episode’s rug merchants and exotic beautiful women to images of violence and “terrorists.” See Orientalism previewed with Said by UMass professor Sut Jhally in this video interview.

Original post updated with quotes from episode, additional links and editing Aug. 6-9, 2011, and again on Aug. 20, 2013, replacing the variant spellings (e.g. “Mossadeq”) with “Mossadegh” for consistency and adding a link to the latest publications of 1953 CIA documents. Updated in January 2020 with Internet Archive “Wayback Machine” links to copies of some earlier cited website articles that are no longer available at their original addresses.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1950s, cold war, foreign correspondents, international, newspapers, propaganda, reporters. Bookmark the permalink.

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