Who is Elmer Davis, and how did he influence American public opinion during World War II?
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Elmer Davis was a journalist that played a vital role in helping shape public opinion during World War II. In 1941, Davis was named to head the Office of War Information (OWI). President Roosevelt tabbed Davis to deliver a message through the OWI that would serve as “an active part in winning the war and in laying the foundations for a better postwar world.” Many at the time were mindful that the OWI would parallel the propaganda machine that Nazi Germany had used to gain and consolidate such intense power. It is for this reason that Roosevelt understood that Davis' position as its head was vital.
Davis was a respected man of news who recognized the need to balance both public understanding of the war as well as the sensibilities of the journalist. Davis grasped the reality of his position in suggesting that the "confidence of newsmen is my biggest asset, but I won’t keep it if I don’t get results." Davis influenced public opinion about the war in suggesting that his function was to "tell the truth" to the American people. This becomes one distinct way in which Davis influenced the American public. He recognized that his primary function was to deliver truth to a public that was concerned and confused as to what was happening. Davis's work as a journalist enabled him to secure a place of trust with the public. His work with the OWI was effective because he understood that he held this position with the public and did not seek to manipulate it. In his role with the OWI, there were instances where Davis challenged the government in its disclosures to the public.
At the same time, Davis oversaw the wartime production of propaganda and encouraging the public to embrace the reality of war. Davis helped to establish the Voice of America, the official government broadcasting agent. Under Davis' watch the OWI also helped to produce wartime films that encouraged public action and war service. Davis understood the fine balance between telling the truth to the public and developing pro- war media to enhance message: "The easiest way to propagandize people is to let a propaganda theme go in through an entertainment picture when people do not realize they are being propagandized." This becomes another way in which Davis was able to chart and influence public opinion during the war.
Elmer Davis, a one-time popular national radio personality, took on a more important role in 1939 when he was appointed director of the newly-established Office of War Information. Davis was responsible for coordinating information from the government about actions and responses of American forces during World War II. Davis then reported the progress of the war to the nation. The post was a difficult one, as it frequently brought the director into conflict with United States military leaders who sometimes had different ideas than Davis regarding the public’s “right to know.” Davis often pushed back, arguing that “[o]ur job at home is to give the American people the fullest possible understanding of what this war is about…not only to tell the American people how the war is going, but where it is going and where it came from.” Davis served as director of the OWI for six years, from 1939 to 1945.
Elmer Davis was born on January 13, 1890 in Aurora, Indiana. His natural abilities in writing were apparent early on. As a freshman in high school, Davis landed a job working for the local newspaper, the Aurora Bulletin, as a “printer’s devil” (a young person whose typical responsibilities involved mixing ink and fetching type). During his high school years, he also began writing stories, selling his first one to the Indianapolis Star for twenty-five dollars. After graduating fro nearby Franklin College, Davis was awarded a prestigious Rhodes scholarship, allowing him to continue his education at Oxford in England.
In 1913, Davis returned to the United States when his father fell ill. With few job opportunities, the young writer had to take a job writing for just ten dollars a week for Adventure magazine. Luckily, he soon found work as an reporter for the prestigious New York Times and shortly thereafter, was promoted to editorial writer. After a decade-long stint with the Times, Davis decided to become a full-time freelance writer. Like everything else he pursued, Davis found success in this way also. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, was published in esteemed magazines including the Saturday Review of Literature, Harper's, New Republic, Liberty Magazine, and Collier's.
Thirteen years later, in 1939, while Davis was in the middle of writing a mystery novel, which was being published in serial form, for the Saturday Evening Post, he was contacted by Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS). CBS offered him a position as a radio news analyst. In a very short time, Davis achieved remarkable popularity, with listeners tuning in by the millions.
It was during one of his radio broadcasts for CBS that Davis chastised the United States government for their failure to deliver war news to the public in a timely fashion. He vehemently argued that too many agencies were involved in disseminating information, thus slowing necessary news as it slogged through numerous bureaucratic government channels. Davis called for the establishment of a single agency, led by one person, who would gather and distribute information. The New York Times lauded the proposal and advocated that Davis should be the one to head such a department.
On June 13, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed and established the Office of War information and made Elmer Davis its first director. Despite an enormous loss in personal income (Davis’s salary plunged from $53,000 to $12,000), Davis accepted the post. As director of the OWI, Davis’s responsibilities included overseeing various means of news dissemination, including radio messages, films, the production of a government-published magazine called Victory, as well as a great number of pamphlets, leaflets, and booklets with more timely information about the progress of the war effort.
Davis’s efforts were not limited to government oversight of war information. He also carefully monitored the entertainment industry, ensuring that movies and other media were projecting a positive messages regarding the war; entertainment was to be inspirational and it had to project a sense of confidence regarding the war to the American people.
Source: American Home Front in World War II: Biographies, ©2005 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.
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