Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jan. 13: The Flat, Calm, Twangy Midwestern Voice

Do you know who this is?
-He was an author and radio newscaster.
-He was the head of the Office of War Information (OWI) during World War II
-He portrayed himself as a journalist in the 1951 science fiction classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still

Elmer Davis is a name that many may not have heard of. He was not a general or admiral, great politician or explorer. He was an Indiana newsman who moved into radio, and won the hearts of America during the tension filled years of WW II with honest news reporting.

Elmer was born in Aurora, Indiana on January 13, 1890, the son of Elam Davis - a cashier for the First National Bank of Aurora – and Louise Severin Davis – a school principal. He would grow up in Aurora, and would start working for the Aurora Bulletin as a printer’s devil after his freshman year in high school. Elmer was small in build, and athletics were not his strong point. However, he did have a sharp mind and an intense interest in writing – a combination that would move him into a career in which he would excel.

Elmer started his professional writing career as a reporter with the Indianapolis Star, where he was paid $25 a week, and worked for them during his years at Franklin College

In 1910 Elmer was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. His time at Oxford was cut short when Elmer’s father became very ill, and eventually died. While his stay in England was short, Elmer was able to make frequent trips to the Continent during that time, and during one of these trips met his future wife, Florence.

When Elmer returned to America he began working as editor of Adventure magazine. He left this job after a year (in 1913) to go back to his true love – the news – and work for the New York Times, a job he held for the next decade, interviewing people from boxer Jack Dempsey to evangelist Billy Sunday. Here he was very successful. Reporters were paid for the printed space of their article – the longer the article, the more the pay. Samuel T. Williamson, a fellow Times reporter said of Davis: he "benefited from his facility with the English language," which "made it possible for him to write a long story so phrased that a copy-reader couldn't cut it much."

In 1923, Elmer left the Times to become a successful freelance writer, writing both fiction and nonfiction articles for a number of publications, as well as books. His big break would come in 1939.

Columbia Broadcasting called Elmer in August 1939, asking him to fill in as a news analyst for H. V. Kaltenborn. Kaltenborn was in Europe reporting on the various crisis occurring there that would eventually lead to World War II. Elmer later wrote: "I had done some broadcasting at odd times over the past dozen years, had sometimes even pinch-hit for Kaltenborn during his absences; but to fill in for him in such a crisis as this was a little like trying to play center-field in place of Joe DiMaggio." He became an instant success, and was welcomed into the homes of millions of Americans every evening. His news analaysis was a brief five minutes long, but it summed up the events shaping the world in a concise, clear manner. Edward R. Murrow, one of the great newscasters of the day, felt that Elmer’s success was due in part to his Indiana accent: it reminded folks of home. Murrow wrote to Elmer: "I have hopes that broadcasting is to become an adult means of communication at last. I've spent a lot of time listening to broadcasts from many countries . . . and yours stand out as the best example of fair, tough-minded, interesting talking I've heard."

Listen to one of his broadcasts here.

In one of his broadcasts, Elmer recommended the government organize news information under one organization. This would lead Franklin Roosevelt to establish the Office of War Information (OWI), and to ask Elmer Davis to be the head of it. Davis eventually accepted, and created a powerful organization with the goal: "This is a people's war, and the people are entitled to know as much as possible about it." The OWI was charged with coordinating government information about the events and progress of the war effort to the home front. Elmer was in continual confrontation with the military over what the public had the right to know.

When the war ended, so did the OWI, and Elmer went back to radio broadcasting, this time with ABC. He took a stand against the abuses of McCarthyism in the early 1950’s – risky business at the time, though typical for Elmer, as his statement “The first and great commandment is, don't let them scare you” shows. In 1958 he would suffer a stroke, dying on May 18th of that year.

While his work in radio is largely unrecognized today – reflecting, perhaps, the huge influence of television during the last half-century - Elmer Davis brought critical analysis and commentary to the events of the day, was willing to stand up for his basic principles, and lived his life wanting to honestly inform the American public of news both good and bad. He crusaded against the enemies of freedom of expression, and used a common sense in his approach that is often missing in other commentators. The New York Times stated that he was "the Mount Everest of commentators, towering in serenity and grandeur over the foothill Cassandras of his time." He’s a man we need to remember.

Web Resources:

American Journalism Review
Elmer Davis Biography
OTR Davis Biography
Life Article 1943
Time Article 1940
Time Magazine Article 1942
Time Article 1943

Local Library Resources:
No local library resources are available.

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