Max Jordan -- NBC's Forgotten Pioneer

By Elizabeth McLeod
 


Max Jordan, 1936

Many students of broadcasting history believe radio journalism was invented in the late 1930s by Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, and the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Many students of broadcasting history believe that CBS scooped the world with its dramatic coverage of the 1938 Austrian and  Czechoslovak crises -- leaving its rivals thoroughly outclassed.

And many students of broadcasting history believe that while CBS was achieving all this, the National Broadcasting Company was  complacently ignoring world events, relying on its impressive roster of entertainment programs to distract the audience from the grim  developments in Europe.

But they're wrong.

Because they've probably never heard of a man by the name of Max Jordan.

A man who was able to beat Murrow and Shirer on their own turf in covering the critical news stories of 1938.

A man who played a vital role in the development of broadcast journalism, only to abandon the field completely in favor of a Higher Calling.

And consequently, a man whose contributions to broadcasting are almost completely forgotten.

This is his story.
 

Early Years

Max Jordan was born in Germany in the year 1895, and came to the United States as a young man, eventually choosing to become an American citizen. But he pursued his education in Europe, earning a PhD. from the University of Jura, one of the most highly regarded learning institutions in Weimar Germany. An inquisitive man, fascinated by the workings of the political process and deeply interested in the changing face of post-World War Europe, Jordan became a newspaper correspondent for the International News Service, the Hearst Corporation's own wire agency. In this capacity, he covered the European scene thruout the turbulent 1920s -- witnessing the runaway inflation that crippled the German economy, the social and political unrest that followed in its wake, and the rise of fringe political movements -- including one led by a clownish brown-shirted Austrian named Hitler.

Jordan's familiarity with the German political scene came to the attention of the National Broadcasting Company in the summer of 1931, when he was engaged to act as the network's translator for a speech by German President Paul Von Hindenburg. On August 8th of that year, Jordan made his first NBC broadcast.

Jordan's clipped, precise voice and his native-born command of the German language impressed NBC's executives, and the newspaperman was again engaged to translate President Von Hindenburg's New Year's Eve 1931 broadcast to the German people. He would continue to act as the network's primary translator for important German broadcasts thru the next two years -- two years which saw that clownish Austrian transformed into Germany's new Chancellor.
 

Max and Fred

In 1934, Jordan left INS to become NBC's full-time European Representative, responsible for coordinating the network's coverage of all newsworthy events on the Continent. In this capacity, he worked closely with Fred Bate, the network's British representative. Bate would be based in London, and Jordan established his headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. The two made a formidable team.

Bate had lived in Britian for more than twenty years, coming from a background in the business and political worlds. He had served on a War Reparations Committee headed by Owen Young of General Electric, and it was thru Young that he had come to the attention of the network. He was a close friend of Edward, Prince of Wales -- a fact which would become quite significant for NBC in the not-too-distant future, when the Wallis Simpson affair would throw the British Government into a constitutional crisis.  Thanks to Bate's connections, NBC easily outclassed its rivals in providing up-to-the-minute radio coverage of that story.

Jordan, meanwhile, soon established himself as NBC's continental presence. Backed by the prestige of NBC, and aided by his own familiarity with European languages and customs, Jordan was able to secure very favorable contracts with most of the continental broadcasting systems for the use of their facilities by NBC. CBS, which had appointed Cesar Searchinger as their European Representative, lagged behind -- to Jordan's immense satisfaction. Ever the aggressive journalist, Jordan prided himself on his reputation as "Ubiquitous Max," always on the scene when news was happening -- and he made a special point of keeping ahead of the competition, keeping his supervisors in New York well advised on CBS activities and constantly suggesting strategies for maintaining NBC's advantages.

As European Representative,  one of Jordan's main functions was to arrange special broadcasts and talks by prominent Europeans, to be relayed to the US by shortwave. But he did much more than this. Unlike his CBS counterpart, Jordan was frequently on the air himself. In July 1934, Jordan provided on-the-spot coverage of the death of the notorious Chancellor Dolfuss of Austria, accompanied by the remarks of Austrian leaders on the political significance of that death. Between 1935 and 1937, Jordan's voice was frequently heard reporting the news of Europe, as well as offering feature sidelights  -- venturing, for example, into the crater of Mount Vesuvius, or onto the Hindenburg for its maiden flight to New York in 1936. And, in late 1936, Jordan participated in the first-ever simultaneous multiple-remote-pickup broadcast, a stunt which brought together an array of European broadcasting officials in seperate airplanes over the Atlantic coast. Such lighthearted broadcasts were a distraction from the darkening clouds over the Continent -- but events would soon force a new direction for broadcast news, and Max Jordan would be in the thick of those events.
 

Anschluss

In March of 1938, Germany made its long-anticipated move to annex Austria. As events came to a head on March 12th, Jordan rushed to Vienna to provide direct coverage for NBC listeners. CBS representative William Shirer was unable to secure facilities in the city, and blamed Jordan's "exclusive relationship" with the Austrian broadcasting officials for his inability to report from the scene. Jordan, however, insisted that the arrival of the Germans had thrown all prior agreements into limbo, and there was no reason why Shirer couldn't have broadcast from Vienna had he been determined to do so.  Even so, Shirer was forced to make his report from London, while NBC listeners heard the events live from the scene.

Back in New York, CBS president William Paley seethed -- furious that Jordan had scooped his network. His frustration led to the first "CBS World News Roundup" broadcast on the night of March 13th, bringing several reporters together from different points in Europe on the same broadcast. The method wasn't new -- Jordan had done it in that 1936 stunt broadcast. But the adaptation of the technique for hard news was an innovation -- and it grabbed the spotlight for CBS. Jordan's excellent reporting from Vienna was overlooked in the flurry of publicity generated by CBS's "Roundup" presentation. It was a pattern which would soon be repeated.

Six months after the Austrian crisis, Germany again stirred the pot -- claiming that the government of Czechoslovakia was opressing Germans living in the Sudeten region of that still-young nation. It soon became clear that Czechoslovakia would be Hitler's next target, and as the saber-rattling grew louder, both NBC and CBS began to aggressively cover the story.
 

Munich

Coverage of the Czech crisis is considered the defining moment of broadcast news in the 1930s -- and over the years, a misconception has arisen over just how the two major networks covered the story. Most broadcast histories tend to create the impression that CBS dominated the story with constant, aggressive coverage while NBC downplayed the events in Europe. This is untrue. Both networks covered the story with equal vigor, and almost an identical number of overseas broadcasts. Between September 10, 1938 and September 29th, CBS's team, headed by Murrow and Shirer, made exactly 151 broadcasts, while NBC's team, headed by Jordan and Bate, offered 147 reports. In addition, NBC's broadcasts enjoyed technical superiority: during much of the crisis period, weather conditions over the Atlantic caused severe disruptions in shortwave broadcasting, almost completely obliterating the CBS signals. Columbia was left only with the extemporaneous commentary of H. V. Kaltenborn, who spent much of this period camped in his studio, as engineers tried to fish Murrow and Shirer out of the static. NBC, by contrast, was able to broadcast clearly by rerouting its signals via Africa and South America. Despite Kaltenborn's eloquence, it was NBC that offered the more complete coverage of the Crisis during this critical period.

Jordan himself was in the forefront of NBC's coverage, broadcasting frequently from Godesburg, Germany  as British Prime Minister Chamberlain conferred with Hitler on September 23rd, and offering a total of eight seperate broadcasts on September 29th, as the Four Powers decided the fate of Czechoslovakia in Munich. Jordan was a busy man on the 29th. Upon receiving word of the meeting from authorities in Berlin,  he immediately boarded a train for Munich, and within an hour was reporting live on the arrival of Mussolini,  a broadcast heard at 630 am Eastern time on the combined NBC Red and Blue networks. He was on job for more than thirteen and a half hours that day, and was the only American broadcaster to actually gain access to the Brown House where the conference was held. At least one of Jordan's reports that day came from an improvised studio wedged under the roof of the Brown House. No other American journalist was as close to the proceedings -- but even Jordan was unable to gain access to the conference room itself.

Even without getting into the conference itself, however, Jordan's coverage of the conference was perceptive and accurate. And he would cap the day's activities with the biggest scoop of his career up to that point -- breaking to the world the text of the Munich Agreement.

As the conference wound down, Jordan spoke to a member of the British delegation, Sir William Strang, and asked to get from him a copy of any written statement that would be released. Shortly after, the conference ended, and delegates rushed to catch their trains. Newsmen, alerted by the scurrying diplomats, raced to the hotels where the delegations were lodged in order to pick up the official press releases.

Jordan, however, noticed Sir William waiting outside the Brown House, accompanied by Sir Horace Wilson, another member of the British Delegation -- who had the copies of the releases in his briefcase. Sensing the chance for a major scoop, Jordan rushed up to the diplomats, and was given his copy of the text.

Rushing back into the Brown House to his ad-hoc studio, Jordan was blocked by a German radio official, who refused to believe that the reporter actually had the text in hand -- since it hadn't even been released to the German radio yet! Jordan pleaded for several minutes, but the bureaucrat refused to relent -- and the normally-gentle Jordan nearly challenged him to a fist-fight before the offical finally stepped aside.

At 7:44 pm, NBC interrupted regular programming on both the Red and Blue networks, and Max Jordan gave the world its first word of the agreement that would put an end to the Czechoslovak Republic, and add the word "appeasement" to the language of international politics. Jordan's report beat the competition by forty-six minutes -- and as a result NBC listeners knew the results of the conference even before many of the rival correspondents in Munich itself!

Jordan's work was a dramatic demonstration of the power of radio news -- but as in the case with his work six months earlier in Austria, it would be overshadowed by the work of his CBS rivals.

One reason had less to do with journalistic skill than it did presentation. The CBS reporters -- particularly Murrow and Kaltenborn -- gave their words a dramatic resonance lacking in the thin, clipped voices of Jordan and Bate. Critics in the US noticed this, and lauded the CBS effort while giving passing mention to the NBC reporters. CBS itself seized on the publicity opportunity, publishing a compendium of its reports in a book entitled "Crisis," and encouraging national magazines to profile its news staff.

NBC, meanwhile, failed to take advantage of the publicity oportunities offered by Jordan's energetic journalism. As a result, when modern-day researchers dig back into the early years of radio news, to the crises of 1938, it's the CBS version they encounter. And Max Jordan barely rates a footnote.

Over the next year, radio news would keep up the momentum built during 1938, and radio newsmen would be on hand for the start of the Second World War in September of 1939. Max Jordan, however, had returned to the United States in late 1938, where his career took a new course.
 

A Different Direction -- and Another Scoop

Jordan had always been a devout, spiritual man -- and his interest in religious matters made his new position with NBC a natural one. He was appointed the network's Director of Religious Programming -- an appointment which would take him off the front lines of journalism for most of the war.

The new job also gave him the chance to write his only book, an autobiographical account of his years in Europe entitled "Beyond All Fronts," published in 1944.

As the war drew to a close, however, Jordan returned to journalism -- heading back to Europe in early 1945, where he began contributing reports to the NBC World News Roundup. Jordan broadcast from Paris, from Luxembourg, and from Cologne before returning to his old base in Switzerland -- in time for another major scoop.

As a neutral power, Switzerland brokered the surrender negotiations between the Allies and Japan in August 1945 -- and all communications between the warring powers went thru that nation. Jordan was again in the right place at the right time, and at 4:18 pm Eastern War Time on August 14th, he broadcast the first word that the coded message from the Japanese Government accepting the surrender terms had been received in Geneva.  It was an unofficial report, and would not be confirmed for another three hours -- but NBC had the first announcement, and Max Jordan was again the man who broke the story. It was the biggest scoop of his career.

Jordan continued to contribute to the NBC World News Roundup over the next two years, but his life was moving in a different direction. His time as Director of Religious Programming had given him much time to think about priorities -- and as he passed the age of fifty, he began to devote more and more of his attention to spiritual concerns.

On February 4, 1947, Max Jordan offered his final report on the NBC World News Roundup, a two minute piece from Stuttgart on the ongoing de-Nazification process in the American Occupation Zone. And then he retired from the network, retired from journalism entirely.

More than five years would pass before Max Jordan again faced a microphone.
 

A Higher Calling

On December 7, 1952, Max Jordan recorded a talk entitled "Light in this Darkness" for broadcast December 28th on NBC's "Catholic Hour." He was now the Reverend Max Jordan, a Benedictine priest. It would be his final radio broadcast, a farewell to the medium he had helped to build for more than twenty years.

Many of his contemporaries had gone on to great things in radio -- and some would climb to greater heights in the new medium of television.

But Max Jordan would leave the NBC studio that December day, to return to Switzerland, where he would spend the rest of his life in service to his order.

Max Jordan died in Illgau, Switzerland on November 28, 1977. He was eighty-three years old.

His passing was announced by NBC, and his obituary mentioned his two greatest scoops -- Munich and the Japanese Surrender. And then he was forgotten.

He wasn't a resonant voice, a charismatic personality.  He wasn't a writer whose words throbbed with drama. He didn't look especially distinctive in a trench coat.

He wasn't "icon" material.

But Max Jordan was unquestionably a great reporter.

And one who deserves to be remembered.
 


References:

National Broadcasting Company, Inc. Artist Record Cards for Max Jordan, August 4, 1931 thru December 7, 1952. National Broadcasting Company Collection, Recorded Sound Reference Center, Library of Congress, Washington DC

Chase, Francis Jr.  Sound and Fury: An Informal History of Broadcasting.  Harper and Brothers, 1942.

Jordan, Max.  Beyond All Fronts : A Bystander's Notes To This Thirty Years' War. Bruce Publishing Company, 1944

Kendrick, Alexander.  Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow.  Little, Brown and Company ,1969

Manchester, William. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972. Little, Brown and Company ,1973

Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley.  Simon and Schuster, 1990


Text Copyright (C) 1998  Elizabeth McLeod
 

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