Journalism ethics — love, war and flashbulbs

The short-lived 1948 radio series “Shorty Bell” was about a newspaper delivery truck driver who became a reporter, learning mostly from his mistakes, and from a crusty and sardonic editor rumored to have a heart of gold.

This last episode, one of the best remaining in public digital archives, was broadcast just as leading man Mickey Rooney gave up on the series. It hadn’t been able to attract a post-war sponsor despite his pre-war star power.

In this final story, Shorty has company in the learning-of-lessons, a young woman photojournalist who makes her big mistake by trusting Shorty. At the Internet Archive, it’s called Shorty Bell 48-06-26 Shorty Scoops Photographer. The moral:

“The newspaper game is a cutthroat business and the first rule is you’ve got to be sure the throat you cut isn’t your own.” — Shorty Bell

The “portrayals of journalists in popular culture” frequent theme of getting and keeping a newspaper job is well represented in this tale, along with its sexist by today’s standards “battle of the sexes” romance, and a “cutthroat competition between journalists” theme. It’s a reminder that getting a job wasn’t always easy, even in an era when medium size cities had more than one paper.

By the late 1940s, radio listeners and movie-goers were familiar with ethics-free newsroom rivalries, the “anything short of murder” approach reflected in the title card posted at the beginning of “His Girl Friday.”

Like that film, this radioplay has gunfire, some brave-to-reckless crime scene reporting, fast-paced dialogue, the inevitable office romance, and an interesting (but different) take on police-press relations. In many movies, reporters and police are adversaries. On radio, the police are sometimes quite friendly — in this case, getting the reporter and photographer front-row seats at the apprehension of a murderer, then carefully spelling their names for the story and photo captions.

The real adversaries are the reporter, the photographer and their editors. I hope their dirty tricks teach a lesson to journalism students as well as Shorty and his eventual shutterbug love-interest. Coincidentally, she is named “Winnie Lane,” perhaps a cousin or kid sister to Superman’s reporter friend Lois Lane, or to the Shadow’s comrade Margo Lane, who sometimes impersonated a reporter.

(Winnie is definitely younger than Lois, who I’m sure would have knocked Shorty on his ear after his first double-cross. But the unnamed actress playing the young photographer does an excellent job in their verbal fight scenes, some reminiscent of Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, on film and radio. )

Old time radio collectors assign several titles to this episode, including “Rival Girl Photographer” and “Winnie Lane, Ace Photographer.” Some collections also give the broadcast date as June 27 instead of 26.

There is no question, however, that it was the last story in the series.

As the episode ends, Shorty finally has a page one lead-story byline, and is sent on vacation his editor — after which, stepping out of character, Rooney announces to the studio and broadcast audiences that this has been the last episode and that he will be launching a “brand new show” in the same time slot the next week, as host of “Hollywood Showcase,” a 1948 equivalent of “American Idol.”

While the young reporter’s vacation never ended, my Shorty Bell page has links to a few earlier episodes of the series, preserved in the Old Time Radio Researchers’ collection at the Internet Archive.

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, ethics, photographer, reporters, romance. Bookmark the permalink.

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