Police-press cooperation: “You got a gun?”

After a rather long preamble, you’ll find an episode below from “The Big Story,” a radio series that sometimes sounded like a “reporter-cop buddy movie.” (Actually, I don’t think such a genre ever existed on film, except when the reporter was “Torchy Blane” or another attractive female with her eye on a good-looking detective.)

The strange twist in “The Big Story” is that the news stories were real. Was the close cooperation between the reporters and their police friends a narrative device invented by the radio writers, or was it a real part of the reporters’ experiences?

The dramatized adventures of newspaper reporters often blur the boundaries between journalism and police work, usually by turning a fictional reporter into a crime-solver who “helps” the police, whether they like it or not. This was especially true back in the years when radio brought crime dramas like Big Town, The Green Hornet and Casey, Crime Photographer into American living rooms — before radio fiction faded out in the 1960s.

Coincidentally, the 1960s also may be a decade that added some professional distance to police-press relations:  a series of prominent trials raised “Free Press vs. Fair Trial” concerns, several Supreme Court cases underscored defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights, both the Civil Rights and anti-war movements put police on the spot during civil-disobedience demonstrations, and a formal Freedom of Information Act codified rights and put a new bureaucracy in place.

Perhaps when “The Big Story” was a radio hit — 1947 to 1955 — newspaper reporters and police were easier to cast as heroes fighting crime together, or maybe they simply did work that way. Did social forces make both the police and the press established members of the post-war “establishment,” at least for a decade or so?

In any case, the weekly “Big Story” dramatized  a real reporter’s “how I got the story” experience — and was so successful that the series made the transition from radio to television. When broadcast, the crimes weren’t news anymore; they were often a decade old, sometimes more. That didn’t matter to the sponsors, who gave each week’s featured reporter a $500 award for his or her contribution to journalism, or at least to the kind of crime-drama tales that made for good radio.

While assuring listeners the stories were based on “true and authentic cases,” the scripts are full of situations that seem unlikely today.

For one thing, as former police reporter David Simon pointed out a few years ago in his essay, “In Baltimore, No One Left to Press the Police,” today there just aren’t as many veteran police reporters as there used to be. Simon also details an adversarial relationship between reporters and police spokesmen when he was on the beat in the 1980s.

That adversarial tone may have increased in the last third of the 20th century, but perhaps it was always there. Maybe it simply didn’t fit into a half-hour radio script the way it did into a modern TV series like Simon’s “The Wire.”

(There are certainly old-time movies where reporters and the police are adversaries, including the classic “The Front Page,” where even the best journalists are on shaky ethical grounds, but the police are even worse. For audio versions of “The Front Page” and its remake,  “His Girl Friday,” see my separate JHeroes page, Hildy Johnson & Walter Burns on the air.)

Perhaps the adversarial nature of police-press relations lessened under some post-war feeling of everyone being on the same team. Listen to episodes of The Big Story and you will hear young police officers deferring to older newspapermen for investigative tips, detectives calling journalists at home to alert them to breaking crime news, reporters tipping off police before they print a story, and investigators bringing the press along to active crime scenes. There’s no sense of one exploiting the other — they are all apparently just doing their jobs.

In this episode, “Murder and a Frustrated Father,” United Press reporter Sam Melnick and a Kansas City, Mo., policeman approach a house. The murderer may be inside.

Melnick: “I’m going in with you…”

Policeman: “Look, you don’t have to, Sam. You’re a reporter, but I’m a police officer. I’ve got to go in. It’s my duty.”

Melnick: “But it’s my story…”

Policeman: “It might be dangerous”

Melnick: “All right. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”

Policeman: “OK. Oh, before we go in, you got a gun?”

Melnick: “Uh, no.”

Policeman: “All right. I’ll keep my gun ready. You carry this flashlight.”

Incidentally, that flashlight comes in handy. The policeman eventually credits Melnick with saving his life by flashing the light in the gunman’s eyes at just the right moment. Perhaps that was a detail the script writers’ added for dramatic effect, along with some comic relief involving Melnick’s mother’s home cooking — which presumably did not make the United Press wire.

The 1950 episode was based on a story Melnick had reported five years earlier in Kansas City, Mo.

As with all Big Story episodes, the radio drama’s producers admitted they took liberties, at least changing all names but those of the reporters. They also obviously invented dialogue to create dramatic scenes the journalist either didn’t report or couldn’t have witnessed — such as the domestic arguments in this tale that led to the deranged father shooting his daughter.

In another example of aggressive reporting, Melnick interviews the murder suspect’s sister while police are still searching for him — but the journalist shares his biggest hunch with the police before going off on his own. He theorizes that the murderer has — cliche or not — returned to his home, the scene of the crime. (Remember, this is back in the days before yellow plastic “Crime Scene” tape.)

Melnick: “I’m going to have a look. Care to come along, John?”

Policeman: “Maybe I’d better. If your hunch turned out right and I wasn’t there, I’d never forgive myself. And neither would the police commissioner.”

The facts of the dramatization did not stray far from Melnick’s United Press reports, although the radio play left out a few details and altered others. The program compressed the action into one night, while 48 hours actually elapsed, according to Melnick’s May 31 and June 1, 1945, wire stories, found online in the Piqua, Ohio, Daily Call. The story also said both the head of the homicide squad and a second detective, as well as the United Press reporter, went to the house looking for the killer “on a hunch.”

Here’s the script at tobaccodocuments.org/atc/60233796.html (Thanks to the tobacco lawsuit settlement, scripts of The Big Story are available in several databases.)

Big Story episodes usually obscured the dates of the actual cases, which may be why Melnick’s broadcast left out the fact that back in 1945 the dead woman’s 23-year-old boyfriend was a decorated World War II veteran, just home from nearly three years overseas.

For more Big Story episodes — including one in which 1930s police invite a young woman reporter to infiltrate a terrorist group — see my JHeroes “The Big Story” article, still a work-in-progress.

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 1940s, 1950s, crime, newspapers, reporters, The Big Story, United Press, wire services. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Police-press cooperation: “You got a gun?”

  1. Bob Stepno says:

    What do you think? Was there ever a “golden era” for press-police cooperation? Or — if there ever was such a time, was it a sign of weakness in the press, failing to act as the public’s watchdog, keeping a careful eye on the police?

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