Newsman as canary in a coal mine?

Portrait from Wikipedia

Edward G. Robinson

A newspaper takes on the dangers of coal mining — and the power of the local mine owner, a banker who threatens a takeover of the newspaper, in this vintage 1940 episode of Big Town, “Deep Death.” (Click the title to play or download an mp3 of the full episode.)

Two more men die in Big Town mines” is the headline editor Steve Wilson fires across the bow of local mine owner and banker Dave Campbell after a dramatic coal-car wreck in the opening scene.

While later years of the series turned Wilson into a two-fisted crime-fighter, in this episode he is brave and tough-minded about fact-based and first-hand reporting. He lectures a reporter with statistics from an industry yearbook, accusing the owner of running an unsafe mine, with a fatal  accident rate three times the national average. Before the end, he is down in the mine himself as part of a rescue team.

Wilson is played by Hollywood star Edward G. Robinson, who created the series in 1937, playing Wilson as a sensational tabloid editor who turned his scandal sheet into a “reform” newspaper, with the help of the paper’s society editor (Claire Trevor). She becomes an investigative “sob sister” in this episode, getting stories about life in the tumble-down shacks of an impoverished “company-town.” Soon, she is interviewing  miners’ wives while their husbands are trapped below after another explosion and cave-in.

The dialogue is rapid, getting a lot of story into its half hour. The third-generation mine owner is still running the “company town” and mine his grandfater’s way; his mining-engineer son has new ideas.

The radio script pulls its punch a bit with disclaimers about “the vast majority” of modern mines being safe… but on the way to the conclusion we get some gritty reporting.  The company police smash a news photographer’s camera, then there’s the economic attack on the newspaper, and eventually we hear the voices of wailing wives above and trapped miners crying and praying below.

Editor Wilson volunteers to join the young mining engineer’s rescue crew. Not a miner, his job includes carrying the small creatures that will detect gas in the tunnel. (That “canary in a coal mine” role actually falls to some white mice.)

Few of Robinson’s Big Town episodes are “in circulation” as online mp3s, but most include some real newspaper-work scenes and ethical decision-making, like this one from the Old Time Radio Researchers Group library. In “Deep Death” we even get some dialogue about a story being worth “only two sticks,” jargon that dates back to the days of hand-set type, a paragraph or two at a time.

Robinson starred for five years, leaving the series during World War II. Later, the revised series became a long-running hit, taking more of a crime-fighting turn, with the editor using his wits and fists more than his typewriter and pen. Movies and a comic book followed, running into the 1950s.

“Big Town” also acquired a stirring newspaper-hero invocation at the beginning of each program,
“The power and the freedom of the press is a flaming sword; that it may be a faithful servant of all the people, use it justly. Hold it high. Guard it well!” — Edward J. Pawley as “Steve Wilson, fighting managing editor” of the Big Town Illustrated Press.

For more about the series, see my Big Town overview page, written a few years ago and still subject to change as a continual “work in progress,” unlike the daily miracle of a printed newspaper.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1940s, closing, Drama, editors, newspaper crusades, newspapers. Bookmark the permalink.

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