Eerie control of the press hits small midwestern town

This “Rogers of the Gazette” episode from January 1954, titled “Something’s Going On,” has a terrible pun in the first line and a hint of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” terror in the plot. (Of course, given that it’s “Rogers of the Gazette” the odds anything bad happening are terribly thin.) The friendly newspaper editor encounters an unfamiliar phrase: “No comment.” He hears it enough times to wind up asking a very un-Rogers question:

“What the devil is going on in Illyria all of a sudden?”

Pillar of his Mayberry-like town of Illyria that he is, editor Will Rogers Jr. is usually a tougher critic of the chief of police’s golf game than he is of any government activities. This story begins with the police chief and the editor on the golf course, something they apparently both have time for quite frequently.

Journalism students could have a good time discussing the proper relationships between newspaper editors and civic officials, whether the size of the community makes a difference, etc. In this case, even the police chief recognizes that taking time for a mid-day golf break might raise some eyebrows.

“A really smart newspaperman’d probably expose the whole soft setup. It’d be a big story, too, ’cause it’s the same way in the county. We’re just too blamed law-abiding around Illyria to need sheriffs and deputies and police chiefs and like that,” the chief says.

But that’s early in the story. Suddenly, the chief gets a phone call at the clubhouse. Next thing you know, the chief is not talking to the editor, other than to say “This is big.” Eventually he says he’s refusing to talk for “security reasons.”

The plot thickens with a mysterious stranger in a gray suit in town, and a secretary blocking access to the police chief.

“Most especially he is not seeing the press,” she says.

Even the town switchboard operator keeps telling the editor that all long-distance lines are busy every time he tries to call the wire services to find out if there’s a regional manhunt on or something. It’s amazing how isolated one town could seem in the 1950s, with only one national phone company and no Internet!

Suspense was not the most common element on Rogers of the Gazette, but this episode actually manages to create some, even if the friendly theme music assures you everything will be fine in the end, with some sort of O.Henry plot twist and a happy ending.

For a while, though, Illyria seems to have become a police state. The guy in the gray suit, a Mr. Adams, finally talks to Rogers, if enigmatically:

“Well I don’t mind telling you who I am, Mr. Rogers, but I get the impression that your chief of police and your sheriff would mind very much. Sorry, but any statements will have to come from them. And if I were you, I wouldn’t plan on any.”

He vaguely discusses “the public interest” and how it’s being served by keeping the local editor in the dark. He even hints that Will plays too much golf.

“It’s like the Martians or Venusians had taken over,” the Gazette’s assistant editor says.

Considering that this broadcast was in January of 1954, it would be interesting to research the level of paranoia in the nation. It was still two years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and a few months before the Army/McCarthy hearings. The “Red Scare” that resulted in Hollywood writers and actors being blacklisted was already several years old. The UC Berkeley library has a good list of blacklist references. Or see the timelines at Wikipedia and elsewhere for more “red scare” and “flying saucer” news.

This 1954 timeline mentions Eisenhower being accused of being soft on Communists, the CIA tunneling under Berlin, the first nuclear submarine being launched, Puerto Rican nationalists opening fire in House of Representatives, and Ed Murrow’s “Report on Senator McCarthy” coming up in a couple of months.

But that’s about all the suspense-building context I’ll risk here, to avoid spoiling the “Something’s Going On” story for anyone who wants to listen through to the thrilling conclusion. (Listeners in 1954 — and Americans over age 65 — may catch enough hints to guess the outcome. I’ve stowed away an extra one in the text links above.)

Note: Since writing this, I’ve been informed that Rogers of the Gazette scripts actually spell the town name “Illyria,” not “Elyria,” as I originally had it.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1950s, cold war, editors, journalism, newspapers, radio. Bookmark the permalink.

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