Journalism students should find food for ethical thought in this encounter between a newspaper reporter and “The Couple Next Door.”Prelude: Little Betsy got a bad mark at school; all the children laughed at her… and just for repeating something that her father told her. So, trying to get a teacher to admit to a mistake, her father pulled her out of school. A reporter got wind of this…
The dispute was all about a “who discovered America first?” discussion — Columbus vs. Leif Ericson. The real drama begins when (as the episode title summarizes) the a “Newspaper Interviews Betsy.”
A ringing doorbell sets the scene, with reporter Bill Bates apologizing for appearing so early (“Those were my orders…”) and addressing the sleepy homeowner, who insists he has nothing to say:
Reporter Bates: “Mr. Piper, if you’re going to get yourself in the news you’ll have to expect reporters…”
Mr. Piper: “I am not ‘in the news.’ This is a completely personal matter…”
Bates: “My chief doesn’t think so, Mr. Piper. He thinks it’s news when a little girl is expelled from school because her father taught her to say that Columbus did not discover America…”
Mr. Piper (getting worked up): “My daughter was NOT expelled from school. I took her out of school…”
The bit of “expelled” misinformation may be a fishing expedition to get Piper talking; if so, it does its job.
“It’s just an assignment to me, but I have to get the story…” is how Bates explains it to Betsy’s father. Piper insists that he wants no “idiotic publicity” in the paper and promptly threatens to punch the reporter in the nose — which the inquiring journalist admits would give him an even better story.
Unpunched but undeterred, Bates is persistent enough to come back — and get the exclusive scoop from Betsy herself, complete with a photo of her, later supplemented by a cartoon from the paper’s art department.
The reporter’s technique approaches creepiness, as he coaxes the story out of the little girl:
“Hello there, young lady… Is your Mommy home?… I’m not a stranger; I met your Daddy… Well, it’s always more fun to talk to a pretty little girl anyhow… Come on, I’ll play catch with you… How come you’re not in school?”
Unfortunately for her parents, Betsy took some of her father’s simplified explanation about her mother’s Norwegian ancestors (whom he described as “relatives”) a little too literally — enough to give the reporter a great “lead” and headline.
As Betsy’s father, actor Alan Bunce had great dialogue to work with — thanks to his co-star, author/actress Peg Lynch. Bunce, an expert at the slow-boil and sudden meltdown, is just the kind of human who can suffer from “human interest” reporting.
For purposes of this blog, “The Couple Next Door” provides strong examples of how radio reflected the culture of news-reading during the heyday of both newspapers and radio drama — how important the local daily and “getting your name in the paper” were to 20th century Americans.
This episode is especially good at showing the impact routine feature stories can have on the average human — the kind of thing the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics covers succinctly in its “Minimize Harm” passage this way:
Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
Lynch wrote other episodes of her series “Ethel & Albert” and “The Couple Next Door” that have fun with reporters getting their facts wrong, whether it’s a story about a club meeting, a big fish, or the discovery of America. They are all in good fun, but perhaps they suggest some general anxieties about “the power of the press” — or the competence of local news reporters.
A single 15-minute episode doesn’t provide a lot of context, but for a taste of what a daily radio serial could be, the whole seven-day story sequence from April 18-25, 1960, is fun. You will find it in the Internet Archive Couple Next Door collection and on my JHeroes Peg Lynch overview page.
As Bunce’s “Daddy Piper” summarizes, “Honey, ain’t nobody going to let us forget this for a long time.”
In fact, in the next April 25 episode Piper’s boss sees international repercussions for his company if the little “human interest story” gets to his Italian business colleagues. Now there’s an angle Bates-of-the-Chronicle could sink his teeth into!
Note: Another newspaper reporter, James Lileks of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, had a terrific telephone interview with 90-something Peg Lynch a few weeks ago, as he reports in his blog. There’s even more from Lileks about The Couple Next Door, and it’s fascinating to have my interest in the portrayal of newspaper reporters in old time radio lead me to someone still on the job at a contemporary newspaper!
(Thanks, in this case, to a Twitter conversation with two old time radio friends, @Jimbo_OTR and @OldZorah, the latter also being a @Lileks fan.)