A turbulent media priest

Media Marathon
April 12, 1996

It is surprising how many influential individuals have flourished in the history of American radio and television who have lived avowedly at odds with its prevailing values. There have been chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission, from Clifford Durr to Newton Minnow, senior corporate leaders and, of course, many broadcasters, from Ed Murrow to Robert MacNeil, whose entire professional lives have been passed in defiance of the racketeering, the insensate competition and general audience molestation that has almost from the start pervaded America's electronic media.

But the figure of Erik Barnouw has been highly significant and most surprising. He emerged from his native Holland to develop as a Columbia University academic and a leading intellectual of American entertainment; for a time he supervised the public service programmes at the NBC radio network and for many years was in charge of the Library of Congress collection of sound recordings and films. But it was the invitation by Oxford University Press in New York in the early 1960s to Barnouw to write the three-volume (and almost official) history of American broadcasting (in response to the vast Asa Briggs project that had just been launched in Britain) that established Barnouw in the presiding presence he has occupied in the world of the United States media. He has never minced his words. Nor have they ever been heeded. That is the way of corporate America with its less comfortable prophets.

This book is a "memoir", not a set of memoirs. It is a collection of pen portraits of 19 American personalities (plus a few non-Americans) who have flourished during the mid-20th century, from Eisenhower to Tallulah Bankhead, with whom Barnouw has been associated; each is introduced with a section of text that tells part of Barnouw's own history as it connects with that of the individual concerned. Together they provide a kind of tapestry of American life over a number of decades, through this sequence of lives and special moments. They also provide a vivid impression of the attitudes and values of an American liberal who has enjoyed a successful career and has been accorded considerable respect while evidently standing against so much of what has occurred around him.

He describes, for example, his friendship with a Japanese cameraman who had photographed the effects of the atomic weapon in 1945 but had had his film confiscated during the Occupation. Barnouw found copies in the Library of Congress collection, which had been declassified and had a film made that for the first time, in the late 1960s, brought home what had happened during and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film brought him into contact with the Japanese filmmaker who had tried to make, as it were, the same film in 1945 and who still survived having endured disgrace and persecution under Hirohito, suppression and insult under MacArthur and subsequent indifference until the epiphanic release of Barnouw's documentary. The incident is recalled with an interwoven irony in a clear style that is typical of Barnouw's writing. The sentences all have a quiet undertow of indignation, a knowing and unsurprised grasp of the realities of power and convey the sense of the writer's innocent bewilderment at the behaviour of people who deny and repress the aspirations of others.

He describes, for example, an incident that took place during Eisenhower's brief office as president of Columbia University before he entered the White House race in 1953; the general was confronted with a project, dreamed up by the university's radio department, to produce a documentary that would explain the nature of venereal disease and how to avoid it, how to avoid spreading it and how to treat it. An embarrassed opposition broke out, not unexpectedly, in high places, but an interview with Eisenhower quickly produced a clear and decisive result - a notice proclaiming the importance and potential social value of the venture.

The anecdotes give one a powerful sense of the moral outlook of the recaller of them - very Dutch Protestant and very American liberal at the same time. Barnouw's insights often leave one with his sense of a relished honesty and his memoir would be enjoyed by people who still hope it will be possible for the English-speaking world one day to rebuild its media industry upon the values of tolerance and honesty.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Media Marathon: A 20th-Century Memoir

Author - Erik Barnouw
ISBN - 0 8223 1728 1
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - £21.95
Pages - 264

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