November 15, 2016

1950. Korean War Coverage

Radio and Television Correspondents in Korea
Bill Downs (right) and Edward R. Murrow (center) in Tokyo with CBS bureau manager George Herman in December 1952

From Newsweek, September 4, 1950, pp. 48-49:

Korean Coverage
Up to last week, direct radio coverage of the nine-week-old Korean war has been conspicuous by its scarcity.

Mutual, which had a stringer in Seoul when the war broke out, managed a three-fifths-network live show on July 23. But the first scheduled program was not until Aug. 18, when ABC stringer John Rich spoke straight to the States over a phone in a Taegu schoolhouse. Before Rich, an INS correspondent, could broadcast, he had to notify the network of the time; be sure he could use the much-in-demand phone; and know that the Pusan-Tokyo-San Francisco circuit was open. There was no portable transmitter to make his job easy—and to make his voice clearer. Press Wireless is now preparing to send a transmitter to Korea, but until then live radio reports will have to go through or from Tokyo.

In the relative absence of live newscasts, the networks are depending chiefly on tape recordings, seldom used in the last war. Carrying with them a battery-powered Minitape machine, about the size of a plumber's kit, the reporters can record on-the-spot interviews and commentaries. Depending upon the urgency of the news, the tape can then be flown to Pusan and played back over the phone to Tokyo, from where it is relayed to the States; or it can be flown directly to Tokyo, San Francisco, or New York for editing and playing back.

Television doubles coverage troubles for CBS and NBC. (ABC carries no video news, preferring to sit and watch how the other webs handle it for the time being; and Du Mont, with from two to four short news shows a day, gets film from INP and Telenews.) Film reports have one obvious and irremediable weakness. Under the most favorable weather conditions, it takes three days from shooting in Korea through the editing and processing steps in New York. But the armed forces have photo teams (as well as radio men) working at the front. And Columbia and NBC are each receiving an average of at least 7,000 expensive feet of film a week. CBS happily had a contract with Telenews before the war and can also use the two Telenews stringers in Korea. In order to add to its supply, the web has handed 16-millimeter cameras to its radio men, with unexpectedly good results, although "good reporters are not generally good photographers." Bill Downs, first handed a camera in Germany six months ago, has turned out to be a "natural cameraman."

NBC, whose TV operations are separated from radio, has three men shooting pictures. Julius Zenier's first film was destroyed by North Korean fire, and cameras have been shot out from under the award-winning Jones twins, Charlie and Gene, NBC's other two men.

Despite their youth, the 25-year-old Jones boys, ex-Washington newspaper photographers, are veteran news hands. Both were accredited with the White House and Congress at 16, and both were combat photographers with the Marine Corps in the last war. Hired to cover this war, they were on the Korean beach within a week. Since then they have worked together, which has enabled them to pull such stunts as Charlie's being in a B-29 during a raid and Gene's covering the American troops' reaction on the ground ("It was damn nice knowing they were up there"). Charlie was able to make the first shot of a radio correspondent in action when he turned his camera on Gene helping remove a wounded GI from the line of fire. "The fabulous screwballs," used to being slugged or shot at while getting on-the-spot pictures in Washington, are taking Korea in their stride.

Censorship poses another problem. Outside of a general list of prohibitions, General MacArthur has let the networks play the self-censorship game—depending on their own discretion. Although most of the correspondents are experienced war-coverers, most networks would prefer to have military personnel check their coverage.

As far as dirt, fleas, and mud go, the Korean war is like all wars. But for radio and TV correspondents there is one big difference. According to one network official, the men wear down sooner than they did in the second world war. "Then you could figure a man could stand up under it for a year, a year and a half. It looks as though a man can take this stuff only six or eight months."