March 6, 2007
Credit: Newseum Collection

Credit: Newseum Collection

Lindbergh Baby Media Frenzy

The kidnapping and murder of famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh's 20–month–old son in 1932 was called the "media event" of the age. The story contained two elements on which sensational news thrives – celebrity and crime – and set off a media frenzy from coast to coast.

From the night of March 1 when Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. disappeared until convicted suspect Bruno Richard Hauptmann was executed in 1936, newspapers published banner headlines on the evolving tragedy. Hearst's International News Service transmitted 50,000 words on the crime the day the baby was kidnapped. And many Americans for the first time relied on radio to get the latest bulletins.

The international press took notice.
  • "What newspapers! What Police! And what a country!" said the Montreal Herald.
  • "It is an unashamed admission that the police are helpless against the power and unity of a huge criminal class which is able to play ducks and drakes with almost every paragraph of the social code of the United States," proclaimed the Standard in Buenos Aires.
  • "Since Lindbergh is the American approximation of the Prince of Wales, the crime is particularly astounding," the London News Chronicle said.

The elder Lindbergh had been a media darling since his historic nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. The following year, Time magazine hailed him "Man of the Year" on its cover. In the May 2, 1932, issue, Baby Lindbergh was Time's cover story.

The sensationalism of the Hauptmann case led to a two-year study that recommended new rules for trial coverage. Because reporters sneaked a camera and a microphone into the trial and made unauthorized newsreels of the proceedings, most states adopted a portion of the American Bar Association code of ethics banning photography and radio broadcasting in courtrooms.

Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have rules regarding news coverage of court proceedings. Most involve some restrictions on cameras, and the news media continue to challenge such limitations.

Front-page coverage of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and trial can be found in the News History gallery's display of historic newspapers when the Newseum opens soon.

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