The March of Time

By Bob Stepno
This is a first-draft placeholder, while I track down more examples of the series’ scenes where actors played the parts of newspaper reporters whose stories were dramatized.
Time Inc.’s “The March of Time” radio series dramatized — and over-dramatized — the news for a generation. Sometimes what an early broadcast callef “reenacting as clearly and dramatically as the medium will permit” included casting actors as the real-life reporters who had covered a particularly important, dramatic, or off-beat story.

Did it give a fair picture of the reporters or perpetuate myths and stereotypes, for better or for worse? Did the reporters give their consent? I’ll add links to audio files and blog entries about individual episodes here:

  • November 1937, an example of routine use of journalist figures to frame a story: After a half-dozen other items, about 20 minutes of the half-hour program, two unidentified actors portray unnamed British reporters interviewing Haile Selassie of Ethiopia on his failed claims against Mussolini.
  • January 27, 1938: A dramatic scene from the Spanish Civil War was presented by enacting a New York Times reporter’s interview with an eyewitness. The actor playing correspondent Lawrence Fernsworth expresses no opinions and asks straightforward questions, but presumably was named in order to “credit” the story to the Times. The Spanish-accented actress is the one who describes wartime atrocities in a village square. The story corresponds to Fernsworth’s story in the Times.
  • February 1938: Often a new voice was employed simply to quote a newspaper column, such as a brief remark attributed to The New York Times’ Arthur Krock about a small business conference in a Feb. 10, 1938, episode. Did listeners think they were hearing Krock’s voice? Were they? For that matter, did some listeners think they were hearing on-scene audio from the boisterous meeting, rather than a studio re-creation?
  • February 1938: In a more dramatic — and comic — portrayal of a journalist, The March of Time reported on a Journal-American reporter going undercover in a mental hospital and having trouble getting released.
  • December 1941: By the start of World War II, The March of Time was prepared to portray Associated Press reporters phoning in their stories about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In another scene, an actor plays a New York Daily News reporter interviewing recruits waiting to sign up for the Navy, including Italian-American and Chinese-American enlistees. In both scenes the reporters are efficient and businesslike, although they do use the then-common term “Japs” for the attacking forces.

Radio historian John Dunning (On the Air pp. 435-437) says that "like any good newspaper", the weekly program was criticized from both ends of the political spectrum:

“It was damned left and right. Real newsmen condemned it for hamming up the news. Communists called it fascistic. William Randolph Hearst labeled it Communist propaganda and forbade mention of it in the pages of his newspapers. It was banned in Germany…
“It was accused of being pompous, pretentious, melodramatic, and bombastic. But it was never dull.”

For more about the series, see these sources:

As well-documented in Fielding’s book, The March of Time name was extended to a newsreel series shown in almost 10,000 theaters a month. UVa’s Mary Wood notes that both versions of The March of Time used dramatic storytelling techniques to present a Time Inc. perspective on world affairs — increasingly important to Americans as World War II approached.

“The newsreel presented its makers’ partly objective, pro-Americanist point of view in the documentary tradition established during the 1930s. With its over-the-top dramatizations, the radio show presented highly fictionalized presentations of current events.”

The newsreel format used authentic news films, government films and graphics, dramatically described by the March of Time announcer — but with little need to re-enact something as mundane as a newspaper reporter’s interview. This 1945 March of Time on the allied invasion of France is told entirely in film footage and voiceover, with dramatic musical score. Real newspaper reporters also could be enlisted to help tell their own stories on screen. This 1951 March of Time video on the illegal-drug problem, is framed through John Daly’s interviews with actual reporters who covered the topic for newspapers and Life magazine, saving the dramatized scenes for courtroom trials and teenagers’ drug parties.

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