Here's How It Was Really Reported

This article appeared in the NCR World September-October 1970

 

Here’s how it was really reported

By Roz Young, Dayton Journal Herald Columnist

 

     Ever since 1903 Dayton newspapers have been twitted, even ridiculed, because the first flight of the Wright brothers received such sparse treatment in their pages.

     A recent advertisement of a new book, “Leland Hazard on Transportation,” published by Carnegie-Mellon University Transportation Research Institute, says, for example: “He touches on the Dayton newspaper’s announcement that the Wright brothers would be home for Christmas without mentioning their flights…..”

     This is simply not true.   Page one of the Dayton Daily News, Dec. 19, 1903, has the story referred to:

 

THE WRIGHT BOYS ARE COMING HOME

NORFOLK, Va., Dec. 19—

Orville and Wilbur Wright, inventors of the “Wright Flyer,” which made several successful flights near here Thursday, left today for their home in Dayton, O., to spend Christmas with their parents.

 

     The Journal, however, bears the burden of most of the criticism because the telegraph editor did have the first opportunity to get the story and tossed it aside.  But there is more to the tale than that.  The Herald carried an extensive story of the flight on Dec. 18 and, on the morning of the 19th.  The Journal carried the very first accurate story.  But nobody who writes about the history of aviation tells about that.

     What really did happen?

     The Wrights made four flights on Dec. 17, the last one at noon.  The two then prepared their lunch, ate it, and washed the dishes.  About two o’clock they walked over to the Kitty Hawk weather station to send a telegram to their father. It was about three when Orville wrote out the telegram and handed it to the operator.

 

The Wrights Said No

 

     When he got Newport on the wire, that operator asked if he could give the news to H. P. Moore, a reporter friend of his on The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.  The Wrights said no; they wanted the first news to come from Dayton.

     But the Norfolk operator tipped Moore off anyhow.  He tried vainly to get in touch with the Wrights or somebody who had seen the flight.  He wrote a grossly inaccurate story (Orville Wright said later it was 99 per cent wrong) and offered to sell it to 21 newspapers over the country, one of which was the Dayton Journal.

     Frank Tunison, the telegraph editor, turned it down.  Only five papers bought the story and of those five only three printed it the next morning.

     Orville’s telegram reached Dayton at 5:25 in the evening of Dec. 17.  Bishop Wright asked Lorin Wright, another brother, to prepare a statement for the Associated Press.

 

“Fifty-seven Seconds, hey?”

 

     Lorin went to The Journal and asked to speak to the AP man.  It was Frank Tunison who, Fred Kelly says in his biography of the Wrights, yawned and said, “Fifty-seven seconds, hey?  If it had been fifty-seven minutes then it might have been a news item.”

     The next morning three papers in the country, one in New York, one in Washington and the Cincinnati Enquirer, along with the Norfolk paper, carried the story of the flight.  The Associated Press then sent out a 350-word digest of the story for its members.

     In the afternoon the Dayton Evening Herald carried a large page one story of the flight, the facts gathered from the Associated Press release.   It said, for instance, that the flight lasted three miles.

     “The mile was covered and then Orville Wright declared that the invention was a success,  but it was not until the third had been accomplished that the inventor cast his eyes about for a suitable landing, found it and with his invention under utmost control, slowly neared the earth and let his machine alight as easily and gracefully as a bird.”

     What happened in the city room when the editor of The Journal found what Frank Tunison had done we shall likely never know.  Words doubtless were spoken, for the following morning The Journal carried a story not taken from the erroneous AP release, but that began:

 

“Bishop Milton Wright of this city has received a telegram from his sons, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who are at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the fourth autumn, experimenting in gliding through the air an aeroplane of their own make, and regulated by devices of their own invention.”

 

     The story quotes the telegram in full and continues to describe the plane in some detail.   

      That is what happened.  The Journal could have had the first story but did not.  The Herald carried a detailed story at its first opportunity; someone could have checked its accuracy but failed to.  The News—you have read the story The News used on its front page.

     The Journal, then, published the first accurate story of the flight two days after it happened.  It isn’t much to hold on to, but it’s a shred and we’ll cling to it to the very end.