The Commentator's Responsibility to the Listener

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Estelle M. Sternberger

From the July, 1944 WQXR Program Guide:

Mrs. Sternberger has been a WQXR commentator for over four years, presenting her "Washington Front" program each Monday through Friday at 5:15 P.M. Before coming to radio she was a newspaper-woman whose travels had taken her to all major European countries, most of Asia and part of South America. Because of the great interest in the news at this time,we have asked Mrs. Sternberger to give her views on what she feels a commentator's responsibility is to the listening public in this crisis.

Radio's reporting job in covering its first war has been a good one, commanding the respect of all. It reached its peak of efficiency on D-Day when, after days of nervous waiting, H-Hour finally arrived. No one in radio was found napping, least of all the commentator whose job has become one of the important factors of radio. He must be the eye and ear of the listener.

What should be the respective roles of the public and the commentator in this tremendous sweep of events? Should the commentator bend to public opinion? Or should public opinion defer to commentators? The intelligent listener and the intelligent commentator reject both of the proposals implied in those questions.

Public opinion must be respected. But the commentator must be sufficiently alert to recognize when the public or a group swaying public opinion is using its power the wrong way. The commentator must hold his ground. It is here that the commentator commands the respect of the listener in being able to weed out the rumor from the truth.

The commentator cannot indulge in blatant cheers as victory piles on victory, and America's casualties mount with those victories. He must be conscious of the mother who may be sitting at her radio asking herself whether her son is yet alive. The words of the commentator must spare her additional anguish, and help provide the comfort and strength for which this mother is searching.

During the months and years leading up to the Invasion Day, commentators and the public alike had much to say concerning it. When the record of this war is written, some people may have cause to regret their strident campaign for a Second Front. And the commentators who failed to hold their ground and bowed to that clamor, may suffer a few pulls of conscience.

It is quite understandable why so many Americans reacted in that way. The Russian people were being bled by the Nazi armies. Furthermore, Americans had been fed, during the first seven months of this war, with stories that suggested this was a "phony war." These stories implied that if the British and French had only possessed the will to fight, the Nazis could have been held inside the borders of Germany.

Later, people failed to make allowance for the fact that our formal entrance into the war, after Pearl Harbor, injected a new spirit into the ranks of the Allies. We needed time, and not public pressure, to mobilize our resources of manpower and material.

Public opinion, after Pearl Harbor, often often failed to separate the purely military issues from those that were honeycombed with political factors. It was indeed the business of the people to tell their heads of state and military officials that Marshall Tito was more useful to the cause of democracy than was General Mikhailovitch; that it was wiser to rely on General de Gaulle than on Admiral Darlan or General Giraud. But it was not the business of the people to attempt to tell our military leaders where and when to make the next move on the international chessboard of global strategy.

When the troops landed in France, the public cheers broke all bounds. Those cheers, in some instances, took the forms of exultant predictions that the Allies would be in Paris in a few days, and in Berlin in a few weeks. Some endorsed the overenthusiastic reports from the other side that the mighty Atlantic Wall of the Nazis had turned out to be a cardboard fortress magnified to impregnability by Hitler's propaganda machine. The hospitals of Great Britain in the very first days disproved that. The commentator must resist those manifestations of the public's enthusiasm that tend to distort the magnitude of the job confronting us. He or she can bring the public down from the stratosphere of exuberant imagination to the earthly level of realistic perspective.

Some sections of the public, and even the White House, in the early stages of our participation in this war, advised that we forget political and social issues, and get on with the war. There was no hour, they said, for pushing social or international reform.

By now we have arrived at a more balanced judgement on those questions. We now see that we must do more than follow maps of military progress. We must watch the diplomatic bulletins that come from the White House, from Downing Street, from the Kremlin, and from Chungking. We shall have to keep our sights on the political battles inside Italy and on the moves of General de Gaulle. The commentator must be on the job during this critical military stage to help the public keep the diplomatic, economic and postwar issues in the clear.

If the commentators meet that responsibility well, the public may be spared much disillusionment. The commentators need a loyal public. And the public needs courageous commentators, loyal to the people.

(Photo: Correspondent Estelle Sternberger, Bain News Service/Library of Congress)