Newspaperman Heywood Broun was one of the country’s top columnists in the 1920s and ’30s, when he also founded The Newspaper Guild labor union – risking his own financial position to help reporters paid 1 percent of his salary. Broun wrote about sports and books as well as current events and social-justice issues, but for years one of his most popular themes was Christmas, the subject of this sentimental piece from the defunct New York World:
“When we first came into the newsroom it looked like a dreary Christmas afternoon. To us there is something mournful in the sight of a scantily staffed city room. Just two men were at work typing away at stories of small moment. The telegraphic instruments appeared to be meditating. One continued to chatter along, but there was nobody to set down what it said.
“Its shrill, staccato insistence seemed momentous. But telegraph instruments are always like that. They tone is just as excited whether the message tells of mighty tremors in the Earth or baby parades at Asbury Park. Probably a job in a newspaper office is rather unhealthy for a telegraph instrument. The contrivance is too emotional and excitable to live calmly under the strain. Even an old instrument seldom learns enough about news values to pick and choose suitable moments in which to grow panicky. As soon as a story begins to move along a wire, the little key screams and dances. It is devoid of reticence. Every whisper which comes to it must be rattled out at top voice and at once. Words are its very blood stream and for all the telegraph instrument knows, one word is just as good and just as important as another.
“And so the one restless key in the telegraph room shrieked, and whined, and implored listeners. We tried to help by coming close and paying strict attention, but we could not get even the gist of the message. It seemed to us as if the key were trying to say, with clicking tumult, that some great one, a King perhaps, was dead or dying. Or, maybe, it was a war and each dash and dot stood for some contending soldier moving forward under heavy fire. And again, it might be that a volcano has stirred and spit. Or great waves had swept a coast. And we thought of sinking steamers and trains up-ended.
“Certainly it was an affair of great moment. Even though we discounted the passion and vehemence of the machine, there was something almost awe-inspiring in its sincerity and insistence. After a time, it seemed to us as if this was in fact no long running narrative, but one announcement repeated over and over again. And suddenly we wondered why we had assumed from the beginning that only catastrophes were important and epoch-making. By now we realized that though the tongue was alien, we did recognize the color of its clamor. These dots and dashes were seeking to convey something of triumph. That was not to be doubted.
“And in a flash we knew what the machine said. It was nothing more than, ‘A child is born.’
“And, of course, nobody paid any attention to that.
“It is an old story.”
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.