Half-way into this half-hour broadcast of The March of Time, February 3, 1938, we get to hear a newspaper reporter sign himself into a mental hospital as a patient — only to have trouble getting out.
Stories about New York’s colorful Mayor LaGuardia, a theatrical labor union conflict, and a Spanish Civil War crisis at sea are all visited before we get to the reporter in this typical multi-part episode of “The March of Time.”
The radio series began in 1931 — long before audio-tape — and had voice actors and sound effects specialists re-enact news events. It was certainly a more dramatic approach than having announcers read news stories, but listeners may have scratched their heads at actors — in English — delivering the translated speeches of foreign leaders.
(According to the Encyclopedia of American Journalism (p.292), theradio feature provided a “narrative template” for the “The March of Time” newsreels, four years later. However, models also may have come from several other newsreel companies. The closest many of today’s students have come to the “newsreel” experience is probably the newsreel parodied in the opening of “Citizen Kane.”)
Along with newsmakers, newspaper journalists also were portrayed in the radio series, which is what qualifies March of Time for inclusion in this collection of “Newspaper Heroes on the Air.” Script-writers created scenes and dialogue for the print reporter “characters” in the brief radio dramatizations. In this episode, you can skip ahead to the middle of the half-hour program for a four-minute portrayal of a newspaper reporter in the midst of what the announcer calls a “hot campaign against New York State’s lunacy commission.”
The story has echoes of Nellie Bly‘s “Ten Days in a Madhouse” adventure, which also had been dramatized for a radio historical series. This time, New York Journal-American reporter Allen Bernard has himself committed to a mental institution to write an expose.
Broadcast in the days before more polite terms for mental illness, the script has Bernard putting his plan to his editor this way:
“Why not go right up to the asylum and register myself as a nut?”
Perhaps the actual reporter’s sensitivity was greater in print — or increased when the hospital’s staff didn’t take him seriously, even after he “confessed” he was a sane newspaper reporter and petitioned to get himself released.
“Schizophrenia,” the doctor in the radioplay dramatically whispers to a colleague, before sending the reporter off for hydrotherapy and other treatments. Even after Bernard’s identity is confirmed, the doctors express their doubts:
“He may be a reporter all right, but I still say he’s crazy,” the head of the hospital concludes.
Did “The March of Time” or Time magazine over-dramatize the case? Did the reporter do the same in his newspaper story? Which storyteller dealt more in stereotypes, the reporter or the radio writer?
The script may be another step removed from Bernard’s report: Time magazine told the story in print under the headline “The Press: Crazy Carlin,” (The headline uses the name Bernard assumed while under-cover.)
In a much less colorful account, The New York Times covered Bernard’s testimony at a subsequent hearing, under the headline “‘Easy’ Commitment for Lunacy Told” (Feb 18, 1938, pg. 20). The Times reported that the only “treatment” Bernard said he received was “exercises in mopping and cleaning the hospital ward.”
According to the Times report, “He obtained his release two weeks later, and said when he tried to get out he was told he was dangerous and should not be permitted at liberty.”
When I get a chance, I may dig up the microfilm of Bernard’s original accounts to see how sensationally The Journal-American told the story. (The paper was Hearst’s New York flagship, but its archives are now at the University of Texas.)
The March of Time
Radio historian John Dunning (On the Air pp. 435-437) says that "like any good newspaper", the weekly program was criticized from both ends of the political spectrum:
It was damned left and right. Real newsmen condemned it for hamming up the news. Communists called it fascistic. William Randolph Hearst labeled it Communist propaganda and forbade mention of it in the pages of his newspapers. It was banned in Germany… It was accused of being pompous, pretentious, melodramatic, and bombastic. But it was never dull.
For more about the series, see these sources:
- Mary Wood’s 2004 study of The March of Time at the University of Virginia.
- The March of Time episode guide at Dave Goldin’s RadioGoldIndex.
- Several episodes are part of a 1938 Radio News collection at the Internet Archive.
- The Old Time Radio Researchers have a page of selections from John Dunning’s book On the Air. For the book itself, see your library, bookstore, or Google books page about On the Air.