On December 16, 1941, nine days after the Japanese bombed pearl harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood before the White House press corps and read from a prepared statement. He announced to the assembled reporters that they were, in a sense, getting a new boss. The executive news editor of The Associated Press, Byron Price, had been named the country’s “Director of Censorship.”
FDR seemed aware of the disquieting implications of the appointment. “When Roosevelt came to Price’s title, he mumbled,” writes Michael S. Sweeney in Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II, the definitive account of a largely forgotten episode in American journalistic history. “A reporter asked him to repeat. In a loud voice, Roosevelt said, ‘Director of Censorship!’”
Price, fifty, was perhaps the least severe censor in history. Unpretentious and easygoing, he had played the part of a baby in the Gridiron Club’s annual show. He was a bad poker player and worse golfer who grew bearded irises and collected Mark Twain first editions. Yet the “Bishop,” as he was known around the censorship office, was no pushover. He stood up to government officials who sought a more draconian censorship regime—and challenged those in publishing and broadcasting who complained about the one already in place.
When, for example, the editorial vice president of Time protested a ban on the “premature disclosure of diplomatic negotiations,” Price wrote a sentence in response that revealed much about how he saw his role as the nation’s chief suppressor of information: “Instead of undertaking to break down and destroy the Code and substitute a code of your own, perhaps at the expense of bringing about a national diplomatic defeat which would be as costly as a national military defeat, why not give us a ring in any specific case which may arise.”
His statement shows that he regarded adherence to the censorship code—which forbade public discussion of topics like troop and ship movements, war production progress, and the president’s travel schedule—as vital to the struggle against the Axis powers. “Censorship’s responsibility is to help protect the life of the nation,” he wrote in 1945. Yet the communiqué to Time also indicates that he understood the system was voluntary and reliant on the good will of journalists.
History has generally looked favorably on Price’s performance. At the end of his forty-four months on the job, The New York Times praised him as someone who “did his best, usually with success, to see to it that censorship was not unreasonable.” His reasonableness won him a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 1944. And the ACLU declared that “almost no issues” were raised during his tenure.
The government was no less pleased. Price’s greatest achievement was convincing the Washington columnist and broadcaster Drew Pearson and Times reporter William L. Laurence to sit on perhaps the biggest story of the war: the development of the atomic bomb. His reputation was such that nearly twenty years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Price got a call from President Kennedy, asking if he would be up for a second term as Director of Censorship if a hot war with the Soviet Union broke out.
But Price was lucky to be operating during the era that he did—which, compared to our multimedia age, might as well have been the Mesozoic. His unit monitored just two sources of news, the papers and radio, and was run on a shoestring. While the Office of Censorship had an impressive 13,500 employees, most of them were involved in monitoring postal and cable communications. The press and broadcasting divisions had just sixteen staff members each by the end of 1942. Forty informal “missionaries” throughout the nation helped monitor regional newspapers, but the broadcasting division relied mostly on tips from listeners and the perusal of scripts.