I’m finally catching up with the first year of “Big Town” with Edward G. Robinson… the long-running series that eventually adopted a “flaming sword” slogan paraphrased at the top of this blog. I have long been curious about the series’ 1937 subplot of managing editor Steve Wilson’s transition from profit-motivated scandalmonger to conscientious civic-minded crusader and racket-buster, as well as his increasing conflict with the Illustrated Press publisher, who disappears from later episodes.
When I last wrote about the series, only the first two 1937 episodes were available in public archives online, and only a handful of programs from Robinson’s five-year run as Illustrated Press editor Steve Wilson. (With new stars, the series ran all the way to 1952, but Wilson’s later incarnation spent more time personally tracking down criminals than pondering journalism ethics or editing his newspaper, even if each program did have have an inspiring tagline, “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!” )
This story, about a “Fake Accident Racket,” is listed as the sixth in the weekly series, dated Nov. 23, 1937 in the OTRR Library, collector Jerry Haendiges’ OTR Site episodic log of the program, and collector J. David Goldin’s Radio Goldindex database at the University of Missouri, which frequently share information.
The plot begins with managing editor Wilson ordering his city editor to make a more sensational front page “human interest” splash out of a hit-and-run story, because the driver is well-to-do and there is a traffic safety campaign going on. But his society-connected reporter Lorelei Kilbourne (Claire Trevor) convinces Wilson to dig deeper; she is a friend of the socialite accused in the alleged hit-and-run. The digging involves investigative techniques (surreptitious recordings) that would not meet the standards of today’s journalism ethics codes and courses, and would probably be illegal in many states, although to a 1937 audience they may have seemed quite “high tech” and ingenious.
The racket that Wilson and Kilbourne expose this time is a complicated one, involving a lawyer, a doctor, and medical fakery, as well as the usual racketeers faking personal-injury lawsuits or insurance claims. To complicate matters, the newspaper’s publisher wants the paper to promote the political career of the same lawyer who gradually appears to be involved in the fake accident and liability-insurance racket.
In the end, Wilson can assure the publisher that his candidate’s name and picture will be “all over the front page.” Listen to the program for the details.
Meanwhile, the serious consequences of newspaper sensationalism are also a theme of “Big Town,” as they were in “Five Star Final,” the film in which Robinson first played an increasingly conscience-stricken tabloid editor. In both that story and this one, someone commits suicide as a result of the newspaper’s investigations. In the film, innocent people die and the conscience-stricken editor quits his tabloid. In this case, the death is of a guilty party, and the editor presses on.