6 May: Dead zeppelin, live reporting

Morrison (with microphone) returns to what's left of the Hindenburg the day after the disaster. (Photo: WLS/NBC.)

Morrison (with microphone) returns to what’s left of the Hindenburg the day after the Lakehurst disaster. (Photo: WLS/NBC.)

Even in 2015, two years before its eightieth anniversary, you can find periodic debate as to whether it’s the single greatest legend of old-time radio news reporting in the pre-World War II era. What isn’t necessarily debatable is that Herbert Morrison’s spot report of the Hindenburg disaster becomes a legend the way legends customarily became that way, once upon a time—entirely by accident. It is an experiment in pre-recording news reporting for delayed broadcast, and it takes on its own mystique in very short order.

Even allowing that the novelty of the transoceanic flights by the giant zeppelins has begun to wear off by this time, Morrison cannot help being impressed with the behemoth, cigar-shaped Hindenburg, with or without the infamous tail spashes of the Nazi flag. (The flag was applied to the airship over the objections of the Zeppelin Company’s sternly anti-Nazi chief, Hugo Eckener, who fenced with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels over the issue. Eckener also fenced with Goebbels over the very naming of the ship, Goebbels insisting it be named for Hitler, until der Fuehrer himself let it be known he had no objection to naming it for the former German leader.)

The Hindenburg‘s arrival in Lakehurst, New Jersey tonight is newsworthy simply because it’s the first scheduled arrival of the year. An American Airlines DC-3 has awaited the airship’s arrival, under an agreement with the Zeppelin Company, to shuttle passengers from Lakehurst to Newark where those who need would make their further airplane flights around the United States. The more remarkable aspect of this first 1937 transoceanic flight is that the Hindenburg is booked full for a return crossing: many of those on the planned return flight are said to be going to attend the coronation of England’s King George VI.

With inclement weather conditions reported at Lakehurst itself, Hindenburg captain Max Pruss—already several hours behind schedule has taken a course that would fly the airship around Manhattan (where excited New Yorkers strained to get a glimpse of the flying behemoth) and over the Jersey coast awaiting more suitable Lakehurst landing conditions . . .

Herb Morrison will leave WLS a year after his most famous assignment, provoking an urban legend that he is fired over his unedited emotion. But he will take a job at Mutual Broadcasting System and, from there, enjoy a solid career that includes Army Air Force service in World War II, and becoming Pittsburgh WTAE-TV’s first news director, among other quiet achievements.

He will retire with his wife to West Virginia, near Cheat Lake outside Morgantown, and live quietly, lecturing now and again to colleges and news organisations, until his death in 1989. And his spontaneous but dead-on-the-money account of the Hindenburg‘s fate will remain a masterpiece of spot reporting, a haunting memorial to the thirty-six who die in the disaster and the sixty-one who survive.


Herb Morrison: “Oh, the Humanity . . .” (WLS, 1937)

The Morrison recording of the disaster—the first eruption of flames will be spotted at about 7:25 p.m. Eastern time—may be speeded up in the translation, since the equipment used to cover the landing runs a little slow, enough that, when it is transcribed to normal speed, the voice that millions would come to identify with spot reporting of tragedy sounds higher-pitched than Morrison’s voice actually is.

Morrison (left) with his field engineer Charles Nehlson, listening to the Hindenburg recording. (Photo: NBC.)

Morrison (left) with his field engineer Charles Nehlson, listening to the Hindenburg recording. (Photo: NBC.)

I have closely examined the original discs and photographed the grooves at the point of the explosion,” Morehead State University historian Michael Biel will write in due course. “You can see several deep digs in the lacquer before the groove disappears. Then almost immediately there is a faint groove for about two revolutions while [WLS field engineer] Charlie Nehlson gently lowered the cutting head back to the disc. Fortunately the cutting stylus never cut through the lacquer to the aluminum base. If that had happened the most dramatic part of the recording would not have been made because the stylus would have been ruined. The digs and the bouncing off of the cutting head were caused by the shock wave of the explosion which reached the machine just after Morrison said ‘It burst into flame…’ I and several others believe that the originals were recorded slightly slow, and that all replays have been at too fast a speed. Comparison with the now two other known contemporary recordings of Morrison demonstrate this conclusion.”

Unintentional though it is, the flaw will amplify the single most famous phrase in the entire off-the-cuff report into an idiomatic satirical device, almost undermining Morrison’s real achievement. A spontaneous emission of genuine human emotion would be contorted into a slap at any reporter letting humanness intervene in gravity, never mind gravity demanding humanness often enough.

Such comic trash compactors as WKRP in Cincinnati, Friends, Heathers, and Wayne’s World, as well as comic bellwethers (who should have known better) such as Seinfeld, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and South Park, will cheapen Morrison’s genuine emotion. It abets the questionable precept that a scrupulous news reporter (and there are many) must check his or her humanity at the door.

Edward R. Murrow, in whose league-to-be Morrison isn’t exactly a prospect, will barely keep his humanity masked for what will be, arguably, the most powerful report of his career, unless you believe the prose poetry through which he could only begin translating the grotesquery of Buchenwald takes a back seat to the medley by which he will allow Joseph McCarthy to hang his own peripatetically dissembling self.

Nobody should make the case for Morrison’s signature report in negative or even neutered terms. Only the soulless can conclude anything other than that a reporter thrown into a spontaneous inferno rose to and transcended the occasion. It may be the only time in his career that Morrison can be said to have done so, comparable in a surrealistic way to, perhaps, Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run in 1951. There are and will be better, more consistently dramatic reporters. But few produce a work that stays so securely in memory’s folds until invited to nestle in those of history.


Drew Pearson Comments: “The war is now practically over on the Western front” (NBC, 1945)

From San Francisco, the investigative columnist/commentator reviews the Nazi surrenders at Elbe and other fronts being smothered by the Allies, while V-E Day awaits the finish of the war on the Eastern European fronts.

Also: one of the earliest debunkings of the official reports of Hitler’s death; reports of Japanese commanders and political leaders bracing for “fanatical commanders” protracting the Pacific war and leaving Japan vulnerable with the Third Reich in defeat; a barrier between American and Soviet soldiers erected formally along the Elbe; Nelson Rockefeller high-tailing it back to Washington (the future New York governor is an assistant Secretary of State) to explain the ramming through of seating Argentina at a pending United Nations formation conference; reputed plans drawn up outlining possible war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; and, other items.

Pearson’s semi-regular “Predictions of Things to Come” feature tonight includes: a coming shakeup in the Truman Administration, including a prediction that Gen. Hap Arnold, commander in chief of the Army Air Force, might resign upon a “close investigation” of his work. In fact, the often ruthless Arnold will resign in 1946 . . .


Further Channel Surfing . . .

Fibber McGee & Molly: Games and Books for the Army Camps (comedy; NBC, 1941)
The Old Gold Comedy Theater: Hired Wife (comedy; NBC, 1945)
My Favourite Husband: Overweight (comedy; CBS, 1946)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Trouble with Grammar (comedy; NBC, 1947)
The Mel Blanc Show: Oil Stock (comedy; NBC, 1947)
The Big Show: A Big Finish (variety; NBC, 1951)
Escape: The Adversary (adventure; CBS, 1954)
The Six Shooter: Anna Norquest (western; NBC, 1954)
Fort Laramie: Never the Twain (western; CBS, 1956)

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