Several years ago I wrote about a controversy over censorship that erupted in May 1944 after NBC cut the audio and moved a camera during a performance by Eddie Cantor and Nora Martin, concerned about objectionable lyrics and a “modified hula-hula dance” by Cantor. The New York Times referred to the incident as “television’s first controversy over censorship.” I recently came across a brief article in Broadcasting magazine about a much earlier act of censorship, this one military in nature. It happened in late November 1941, less than two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
According to Broadcasting, the censorship took place on Tuesday, November 25th and the station in question was WCBW in New York City. Richard Hubbell was interviewing Gerald DeLisle, who had survived the sinking of the U.S.S. Reuben James on October 31st. The destroyer was torpedoed by a German U-boat while escorting a convoy near Iceland. It was the first U.S. Navy ship to be lost before the United States entered World War II. Out of a crew of 159, there were 44 survivors.
DeLisle served as Coxswain aboard the Reuben James. During the newscast, Hubbell moved toward a map and asked DeLisle where the ship was sunk, indicating his belief that it was about 350 miles southwest of Iceland. Ensign Philip McHugh of the Naval Public Relations Office in New York City interrupted and said, “We can’t talk about where it happened.”
These are the only details Broadcasting offered, aside from noting that it wasn’t possible for the Navy to approve a script in advance. Based on TV listings published in The New York Times for November 25th, the incident likely took place during WCBW’s 8-8:15PM newscast.
Compared to the Eddie Cantor controversy three years later, this early bit of TV censorship seems fairly mundane. The Broadcasting article takes no stance, although its title (“Video Censorship”) makes clear the fact that the magazine considered the incident to be an act of censorship. I’ve been unable to find any other references to the incident, which suggests it may not have been widely covered by the press.
“Video Censorship.” Broadcasting. 1 Dec. 1941: 50.