The most noticeable prohibition by far was the ban on “inadvertent references” to the weather, which censors believed could help the enemy pick opportune moments to strike the homeland. It made for some comical moments during sports broadcasts. During a football game in Chicago, the fog was so thick that fans in the stadium couldn’t see the action. Play-by-play man Bob Elson showed heroic restraint in never once mentioning the f-word. “This game is being played under the strangest circumstances that I’ve witnessed in fifteen years of being on the sport scene,” he said. Another broadcaster, Hal Totten of WCFL in Chicago, was more cavalier in describing a baseball rainout: “The umpires have called the game for reasons I cannot speak of, but whatever has caused the delay is also making the spectators go back for cover, and, yes, here come the ground keepers with whatever is used to cover the ground so whatever is causing the delay won’t affect the ground too much.”
There were also occasional loopholes in the guidelines, summed up in a pamphlet called The Code of Wartime Practices. On June 7, 1942, the Chicago Tribune published one of the most controversial stories of the war. In reporting that American forces were aware of the size of the Japanese attack force at Midway “several days before the battle began,” the piece implicitly revealed that the U.S. military had broken the Japanese operational code. The story was not presented for review to the Office of Censorship because the paper’s Washington bureau chief felt it didn’t violate the code. He was right. Censorship guidelines included no prohibition against reporting on the movement of enemy ships in enemy waters, a slip-up that was rectified in the next edition of the pamphlet.
Meanwhile, government officials were apoplectic over the Tribune story. A grand jury was convened to consider charging the newspaper with violating the Espionage Act. It failed to indict when Navy officials didn’t appear at the proceeding for fear of revealing other secrets in their testimony. In any event, the Japanese didn’t seem to notice what all of Washington was buzzing about. They didn’t alter their secret code.
The Office of Censorship had no real power to punish journalists. It could only recommend that the Justice Department investigate possible Espionage Act violations. To keep the press corps in line, Price used the power of shame and suasion. Even when confronted with a German-language broadcaster with apparent Nazi sympathies, Price was unable to remove him by fiat. Instead, he persuaded the station manager that his program was “contrary to the best interests of the nation.” The manager was only too happy to oblige. “If there is anything wrong with the guy, let me know,” he told Price’s staff. “I want to shoot the gun.”
The reporter who protested the code’s restrictions with the greatest vehemence was Pearson, who once said that he operated by sense of smell: “If something smells wrong, I go to work.” He was a kind of progressive Robert Novak with a column in The Washington Post and a national Sunday night radio program. He specialized in using anonymous quotes to skewer the nation’s elite, no matter their party affiliation, often with a shaky basis in fact. FDR called him “a chronic liar.” To Truman, he was an “S.O.B.” Although he complied with Price’s suggestion to keep the atomic bomb secret, Pearson was eager to reveal every other scoop that he discovered.
Not surprisingly, then, no single journalist occupied more of the Office of Censorship’s time. From the beginning, they were watching Pearson—with a little help, as it happens, from The New York Times. After a Times reporter named Russell B. Porter heard Pearson give precise details about American military losses to a convention of insurance agents, he wrote a memo to his editors. Porter argued that “no one should be allowed to go around the country lecturing to large groups of people at public dinners, or even at one such event, and revealing as ‘inside stuff’ information so secret and so useful to the enemy that the newspapers and radio are not allowed to publish it.” The memo made its way to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, then to Byron Price, and eventually to Attorney General Francis Biddle. The FBI investigated the incident for eight months before closing the file without further action.