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Sound & Fury

By Brian Rosenwald / Special to GateHouse Media

When the unthinkable happened on Dec. 7, 1941, social media was more than 60 years in the future, phones existed solely for voice calls, and television was in its infancy. The government, not ordinary citizens, rang the alarm about the assault upon Pearl Harbor, and most Americans, many disbelieving, heard the news from radio, word of mouth and newspaper extras.

Americans glued themselves to their radios in the days following. The networks broadcast for 34 hours straight. On Dec. 8, a record of between 79 and 81 percent of Americans listened to President Roosevelt request that Congress declare war. The next night, a whopping 60 to 90 million Americans, the largest audience to date, heard him deliver a fireside chat on the predicament confronting the country.

Today we learn about breaking news instantaneously. One tweet becomes a torrent as we struggle to grasp the enormity of what we’ve read. Our phones buzz incessantly with news alerts and texts from friends and family. Within minutes we can watch nonstop coverage on a dozen television networks, not to mention digital platforms. We discover what happened in little blips, sometimes incorrect, as journalists rush to share what they know and average Joes contribute cellphone video and observations from the scene.

Before social media, television dominated breaking news coverage. Most Americans beyond their teenage years remember witnessing the World Trade Center towers collapsing on that tragic morning in 2001. An older generation recalls the sight of CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, clearly grappling with his emotions, removing his spectacles and informing the nation of the death of President Kennedy.

Yet for all that television seared those images into our minds, the medium only dominated breaking news for a relatively short time. Television didn’t take off until the late 1940s and early 1950s. Television networks emerged in 1947 and 1948, and the number of television stations exploded in the early 1950s. As recently as 1948, only 0.4 percent of homes had televisions (by 1958 that number would climb to 83.2 percent).

While television eventually usurped radio’s primacy as America’s broadcast news source, during the late 1930s and the early 1940s, it was radio that surpassed newspapers in covering breaking news. Newspapers couldn’t match radio’s ability to provide instantaneous information and to “transport” Americans to happenings around the globe.

As tensions heightened in Europe in the late 1930s, path-breaking correspondents like CBS’ Edward R. Murrow shared the sounds of war and familiarized Americans with the people and ideas propelling the conflict. Americans listened to speeches from Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain and other European leaders. Harnessing shortwave transmissions, an expanding stable of correspondents and stringers, and a burgeoning pool of commentators, radio tackled the biggest stories live as they unfolded.

On that fateful Sunday, Japanese bombs started pelting Pearl Harbor shortly before 8 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time. By 8:04, KGMB in Honolulu jettisoned regular programming to air an announcement beckoning all military personnel to report immediately for duty. The station kept repeating this call, with competitor KMU soon joining in.

At 1:47 p.m. Eastern, roughly a half hour after the barrage began, Navy Secretary Frank Knox alerted President Roosevelt. FDR reacted with disbelief. He called Press Secretary Stephen Early, still at home reading the Sunday papers in his bathrobe, and at 2:22 p.m. EST, Early phoned the three wire services with a bulletin notifying Americans of the incursion. At 2:36, still at home (some reporters actually beat Early to the White House), Early erroneously informed the wire services that the Japanese had bombarded Manila, Philippines, as well.

The scheduled network radio programming that wintery afternoon included a New York Philharmonic concert on CBS, a Brooklyn Dodgers- New York Giants football game on Mutual Broadcasting System, and the “University of Chicago Roundtable” on NBC Red (RCA operated two networks, NBC Red and NBC Blue). Between 2:25 and 2:31 ET, all four networks interrupted programming to share what little information they had.

Even though more than 80 percent of households had radios in 1941, many Americans weren’t tuned in that Sunday afternoon, and learned about the attack from neighbors, friends and relatives, who breathlessly queried whether they had heard the news — sometimes hours after the fact.

The 27,102 attending the clash between the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles at Griffith Stadium, for instance, only learned about Pearl Harbor because news trickled out from the press box. Between plays the stadium loudspeaker implored various dignitaries and newspapermen to report to duty immediately, but stadium and Redskins management refused to announce the news both for fear of igniting hysteria and because they never broadcast nonsports news.

Similarly, while radio listeners to the Giants- Dodgers game heard the news first, the 50,051 fans at the Polo Grounds remained clueless even as a buzz grew with each announcement summoning VIPs to a box-office telephone. Only after the cold drove New York Times scribe Harrison Salisbury and his wife from the stadium and to a friend’s flat for a drink did they discover the news. That night, in Austin, Texas, Luis Calderon heard newsboys’ calls of “extra, extra” and, wanting to know what they meant, learned that war had commenced when he stopped to buy a paper.

The news stunned Americans; many instinctively assumed that it must be a hoax. A Los Angeles Times reporter dispatched to an Army post stopped in a diner to exchange bills for change to make phone calls. When he revealed the news to the diner’s patrons, they suspected a gag. Once on the Army post, the reporter again encountered incredulity and skepticism from soldiers who had yet to hear about the assault.

On the beach in Santa Monica, volleyball players ignored a radio listener’s urgent cries until he brought his radio over and they heard the bulletin with their own ears. Mutual’s initial dispatch prompted an irate call to the switchboard from a listener who protested another “stunt” like Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds,” which had panicked her.

Once convinced of its veracity, the news indelibly etched itself into Americans’ minds. Decades later their activities from that day remained vivid. A passerby informed future President George H.W. Bush, then a 17-year-old student at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, as he walked by Cochran Chapel with a friend. By day’s end, the infuriated Bush had resolved to join the fight as soon as possible. In a 2014 interview, George Allen, who flew B-52s during the war, recounted hearing the news in the car with his family. On their way home, Allen’s family picked up four servicemen on the side of the highway scurrying to return to their base.

The radio networks launched virtually unprecedented coverage in the wake of the attack. Only the Munich crisis of 1938 and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 had provided even somewhat comparable occasions for radio journalists. As such, things that seem unimaginable to modern sensibilities occurred in the hours after the bombing.

CBS immediately tapped their network of stringers and affiliates across the world, including in Honolulu and Manila, to provide news, insight and analysis. Yet, the network also persisted in airing its previously scheduled orchestra concert and evening entertainment programming, albeit with constant interruptions. Merely delaying or interrupting the day’s commercial programming represented innovation and even gumption.

The onset of war also meant strict censorship rapidly snapping into place. NBC broadcast live reports from a correspondent and eyewitnesses in the hours after the attack — though the military took over the shortwave circuit two minutes into the first report. Subsequently, however, information became scarce, parceled out by the White House only once it could be explicitly verified and posed no risk of providing aid or comfort to the enemy. Radio was no stranger to censorship — European war dispatches had to receive clearance from government censors. In fact, CBS raised its stringer in Manila 90 minutes after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he got cut off the air, presumably by censors.

In the days after Dec. 7, mystery shrouded the attack and its toll. Reporters felt severely hamstrung — a Dec. 11 United Press International news agency piece noted “censorship permits a cautious description of the attack.” By happenstance, voluntary radio censorship prevented the public from immediately learning the grim details of the destruction wrought.

CBS’ Murrow and his wife had dinner plans with the Roosevelts the night of Dec. 7. After the attack, Eleanor Roosevelt insisted on keeping their plans, reasoning that they all had to eat regardless. FDR skipped the meal, but he met with Murrow after midnight, confiding the devastating toll taken by the attack. While Murrow puzzled over whether their conversation occurred on or off the record, he never recounted it for listeners. Two days later, in spite of promises to the press, Roosevelt withheld these details from his fireside chat to avoid providing the enemy with information.

Americans also consulted newspapers for information — Chicagoans scarfed up “war extra” editions as quickly as trucks could unload them – but Pearl Harbor was radio’s moment. Radio journalists pioneered elements of breaking news coverage in the late 1930s and early 1940s that would shape how television, and later digital media, chronicled the most consequential stories in real time.

Radio’s coverage of the strike against Pearl Harbor suffered from the same maladies that plague modern breaking news coverage — misinformation, confusion, network personnel scrambling into place and analysts speculating about hazy facts. Nonetheless, it symbolized a quantum leap from past practices, and enabled Americans to learn more about the incursion and world reaction more quickly and intimately than would have been possible before the radio age.

– Brian Rosenwald is a fellow at the Robert A Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania and an instructor at Penn. He also conducts research for the Slate podcast “Whistlestop” and a book companion to the podcast. His doctoral dissertation, “Mount Rushmore: The Rise of Talk Radio and Its Impact on Politics and Public Policy,” is becoming a book for Harvard University Press. He has also written for CNN.com, Politico, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun, The Daily Beast, and Time Magazine’s history blog, and contributed insight to pieces for media including The Wall Street Journal and Buzzfeed. He has appeared on radio and television programs including “The Michael Smerconish Program,” “Stand Up! with Pete Dominick,” “The Leslie Marshall Show” and “BackStory with the American History Guys.”