It was 1938 when the Daily Sentinel and publisher Britt Reid — as The Green Hornet — took on a Citizenship-Insurance Racket.
A corrupt ward politician, Joe Desmond, runs the scam, tricking naive immigrants into paying $100 for what they think are shortcut-to-citizenship papers, but are actually insurance forms. When the police investigate, Desmond’s gang guns down their latest “fresh from Ellis Island” Italian victim before he can testify about being swindled.
The Hornet gets involved to break Desmond’s fake alibi in the murder, and with it the racket as a whole … which The Daily Sentinel has been fighting with news reports and editorials to the point of angry frustration at the ability of the powerful political boss to avoid prosecution.
While the adventure radio show portrays the newspaper as a force for good, it is murky on how journalism works. Reid seems to be ahead of his reporters in uncovering the racket, even editorializing against it over the radio, and ordering up a story hinting that Desmond’s alibi is fake. He expects to frighten the false witness into confessing to the Green Hornet, but Desmond has the man murdered before that can happen. The Hornet steals the murder weapon, letting himself be suspected of murder rather than let Desmond pass of the crime as a suicide.
When police reporter Jasper Jenks outlines that second murder to Reid’s secretary Lenore Case, she already has a theory about the Green Hornet being framed. But her boss encourages Jenks to write up his own theory that the Hornet is part of the racket. Says Reid,
“Publish it! Credit one of the police with it!”
He also tells Jenks to follow up his hunch by bringing plainclothes police to a party thrown by Desmond, where the reporter thinks they may find the Green Hornet. Reid knows that, if the Hornet’s plan succeeds, Desmond will be caught with the murder weapon. And that’s what happens, with one of his gang implicating him in both murders.
This Hornet episode has a somewhat convoluted plot and perhaps not the most ethical journalism, but the newspaper does get its closing headline about the racket being busted.
Notes and Asides
A reporter getting the police to act on his hunch seems unlikely, but that angle in the party scene of this story fits a theme of police and newspaper reporters working closely together that occurs elsewhere in the Golden Age of Radio. Maybe it also did happen in 1930s police work, although it would be quite a breach of both police and journalistic ethics today.
In Hornet stories such collusion is common because the reporter is often former policeman Michael Axford, who also provides comic relief while doubling as Reid’s bodyguard, keeping an eye on the young publisher for his father. However, Jim Irwin, the actor who created the Axford role suffered a stroke in January 1938, and two other reporter characters (including Jenks) were added to the cast, according to Martin Grams and Terry Salomonson in their encyclopedic book The Green Hornet (2010, pp. 66-72). Irwin died that June. A variety of plot twists were used to account for Axford’s absence — and his eventual return in summer 1939, played by a different actor using a similar Irish brogue.
Stored at the Old Time Radio Researchers Library website, this Mutual-syndicated transcription recording of the WXYZ Hornet series is one of the early recordings that identify Britt Reid’s right-hand man, Kato, as Japanese, an identification that was dropped as World War II approached. (Kato became Filipino or Korean in later broadcasts and movies.) It is also interesting that the citizenship plot victim who starts the story rolling is an immigrant from Italy, another nation America would soon be fighting in the war.
The episode title “The Citizenship-Insurance Racket” was provided by veteran radio researcher and transcription collector Jerry Haendiges of OTRSite, who dates the original broadcast as May 5, 1938. The same date is cited by Grams and Salomonson, noting that early scripts received by the Copyright Registration Office from January 1936 through July 1938 did not give each story a title, just an ID number. They list an additional citizenship-racket story on Oct. 17, 1939, “Citizens for Sale,” also involving an Italian immigrant, but this time the Hornet rescues the man before the racketeers can murder him.
Small point: Reid was publisher of the Daily Sentinel. I may be wrong but I don’t recall an editor — or managing editor — ever being mentioned. City Editor Gunnigan seems to be the main editor at the paper.
Thanks, George. I generally try to refer to Reid with whatever term is used in that episode, but slipped this time.
Reid is sometimes described as “manager” (including the opener of this story) and sometimes as “publisher.” The “manager” title seemed less descriptive, suggesting a business-only manager, so I used editor in the first draft here, but I’ve changed it for more consistency with my posts about other episodes.
I really should be more organized about keeping track of details and maybe add a column to my spreadsheet checklist of episodes to see if Reid is ever called “editor”! Gunnigan is “editor,” sometimes seeming like the “managing editor” who runs the whole show, other times more like a “city editor”… But in his interaction with the reporter (Jenks) in this episode, Reid is acting more “editorially” than usual.
Compared to the roles of executives at the three newspapers where I’ve worked, Reid seems to function as “editor & publisher,” with a high level of personal involvement with writing editorials, and with reporters and photographers, while Gunnigan is somewhere between “managing editor” and “city editor.”
Anyhow, thanks for the food for thought! Maybe I’ll sketch out a “Newsroom functions and personnel” chart someday!