Wednesday, 20 January 2021

A Censor Explains Censorship

Networks have a reason to censor things. It may not be a good reason, but it’s a reason.

So discovered Herald Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby when he began a series on some of the ridiculous scissoring of Fred Allen’s radio scripts in 1946.

In his final column, he decided to get the network’s side of things and printed their explanation. As promised a couple of months ago, here’s Crosby’s final word on the subject, which saw print on August 7, 1946.

Censorship on the Air
The National Broadcasting Company, which has been unable to keep anything on its stomach since I started this series on censorship, invited me over yesterday to explain its point of view on censorship. I happily accede to this, since so far I have presented solely the viewpoint of the disgruntled artist. After an hour-and-a-half conference with C.L. Menser, vice-president in charge of N.B.C. programs—whom “Variety” refers to as “Menser the Censor,” Tom McCray, national program manager, and Wade Arnold, assistant manager of the script division, I am still convinced N.B.C. suffers from an excess of timidity and the three executives remain convinced they have the best program policies in the business.
During the discussion a good many lines that have been cut from various scripts were brought into the discussion. Mr. Menser, for instance, mentioned several lines cut from an Eddie Cantor script. In each case he had to explain why they are off-color. Mr. Menser said I had failed to acquire a “listener’s ear.” I retorted that he suffered from a “broadcaster’s ear.”
* * *
Mr. Arnold accused me of printing deletions from Fred Allen’s scripts of eight or ten years ago which, he said, hardly applied to the present time. So we took a look at the deletions in Mr. Allen’s recent scripts, and also deletions from the Fibber McGee and Molly program.
For example in a Fibber McGee show, a character made a remark about getting pinched by an accordion. The script writers were forced to insert the phrase “in the stomach,” to make sure no one would get the idea she’d been pinched in some unmentionable place. Such a thought would never have occurred to me, a listener, and is an excellent example of what I call “broadcaster’s ear.” Neither Mr. Arnold nor Mr. McCray could understand why I failed to catch the implication. We’re poles apart—we listeners and the broadcasters.
“We’re conscious,” said Mr. Arnold, of the prurient-minded woman in Iowa with an eleven-year-old child who doesn’t want to explain these things to her child. Right there lies the root of the trouble, and to a large extent the blame falls on us listeners rather than the broadcasters. For the broadcasters are acutely conscious of the fact they operate a public utility, unlike a newspaper where editorial judgment lies in the publisher’s lap. The broadcasters are the victims of every pressure group from the women’s clubs to societies for the advancement of Brooklyn.
Each one has its own complaints and, while few of these complaints are very harmful, cumulatively they rob radio of thousands of well springs of humor, wit, wisdom and story. Let’s take one example from a Fred Allen script, which the broadcasters showed me yesterday.
“Why doesn’t Russia have Thanksgiving?”
“Because she can’t get that piece of Turkey.”
That, of course, was during the period when Russia was eyeing Turkey more or less omnivorously. The joke was deleted on the ground of poor political taste. I don’t defend the gag, but I defend to the death Mr. Allen’s right to say it. The pressure group in this case was the United States government—more specifically the State Department—which was having enough trouble with Russia at the time and didn’t want any more.
When Gromyko made his first exit from the United Nations Security Council, Allen tried another gag about installing revolving doors at the U.N. so Mr. Gromyko could get out faster. It, too, was “political poor taste.” So far as I know, there is no such thing as “political poor taste” except in Washington, and I’m bitterly opposed to it as a reason for cutting out the joke. Much of our national humor, from Mr. Dooley to Will Rogers, has been based on politics. Now that the nation is conscious of the international scene, it is reflected in our humor and it should be reflected in the humor over the air, too.
* * *
At one point in his discussion, Mr. Menser explained that his department sometimes threw out story lines for daytime serials even before they were written because they knew how certain writers treated certain themes. It sounded all right in principal, but let’s get specific. “For instance,” said the vice-president, “some writers will use suicide as a way out of a bad situation. We can’t allow that.”
“You don’t allow suicide,” I muttered. “Orson Welles did ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Friday night, suicide and all, and did a beautiful job. Wouldn’t that have been allowed on N.B.C.?”
“That’s different. It’s a classic. We accept many things in the classics that we wouldn’t allow in a daytime serial.”
In other words, Shakespeare wouldn’t last two weeks in radio. I disagree, and I think most people would, but let’s not place all the blame on the broadcasters. If every one is going to pressure the broadcasters to get their point of view on the air—or at least to prevent their point of view from being stopped on radio is in for a tough time and so are we, the listener.
I close this article with the most illuminating remark I heard at this conference. During one argument on the acceptability of a certain line, Mr. McCray murmured: “Yes, but anyway it wasn’t that funny.” That was the first time I heard of anything being deleted because it might not amuse you or me. To paraphrase a thought often expressed in Washington, “every one has a lobby but the public, or in this case—the listener.”
(This is the eighth and last of a series of articles on censorship on the air).

The remaining two columns of the week dealt with technical accuracy in commercials and the sitcom Blondie. Surprisingly, Crosby liked the latter. Blondie strikes me as one of the most banal, predictable sitcoms in radio but our discerning critic found some things to like about it.

1 comment:

  1. It is my goal to defund and dismantle all lobby groups that call for any censorship.