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Mass Media and the National Character

magazine symposium on “The National
Purpose” exemplifies a well-remembered feature of the 1950s: the effort to build a national consensus in the face of the Communist threat. Adlai Stevenson and Billy Graham could bat in the same lineup. They, along with business leaders, journalists, scientists, and other scholars, could join in a single national conversation. Looking back, we may be more likely to notice those who were left out, but at the time it seemed that leaders from many areas of American life, as well as most of the rank and file, were at least standing on common ground. Despite ominous fault lines and sharp differences about specifics, they seemed to find enough common ground, formed by shared “American” assumptions, to talk meaningfully together about “our” heritage. In fact, the degree of public consensus in the 1950s, whatever its limits, distinguishes the era from many other times, before and especially since.

At the same time, one of the areas of agreement revealed by such discussions was that there was a lot to worry about regarding the quality of American civilization. For instance, one of the recurrent themes in the
series was the danger that prosperity and new technology might lead to moral erosion of the national character. This danger was a much-discussed anxiety of the day. The nation's wealth was a major source of America's strength as a bastion against the Soviet Union. But analysts of the nation's character seemed to agree both that material strength was not sufficient in itself and that unprecedented prosperity might be loaded with unprecedented perils.

The danger of new riches was an old story, but the best cultural observers of the 1950s interpreted that story with a modern twist. The next two chapters recount some of that analysis in order to provide a sense of the characteristic outlooks and assumptions of the times. These ways of thinking about American civilization differed in some significant ways from most thinking about the same topic today. For one thing, mainstream commentators widely agreed that for America to flourish it was essential for it to carry forward whatever was the best of a highly valued heritage of “Western civilization.” They also thought of the challenges to American civilization in terms of the recent crisis and near collapse of Western civilization and the rise of totalitarianism. America stood for democracy, but democracy in the twentieth-century world had proved alarmingly fragile. The United States was also hypermodern, and with all its new mass-produced technologies it seemed more modern by the month. Yet, since World War II, this hypermodern nation had been thrust into the position of being the chief guardian of the Western “free world.” A natural question to ask was whether there was something about the forces of modernity that might undermine something about the character of a citizenry that was necessary to sustain a free and healthy society.

Garrett Price, September 3, 1955,
The New Yorker

Nothing elicited so much concern about the possible threats of modern technology to the quality of civilization as did the sudden advent of television. In 1947, most Americans
had seen television only in store windows. By 1954, as many as
50 million people had watched some episodes of
I Love Lucy
. Suddenly television was dictating how most people spent their leisure time. In part because TV was dominated by the three almost identical national networks, it was creating a common culture to a greater extent than even radio and the movies had in previous decades. In the 1950s, more than in any era before or since, most Americans were watching the same things. The
worry was that the culture of television was nationwide but an inch deep. TV seemed to have a mindlessness of its own.

The responses of leading American cultural observers to this perceived crisis offer a window into the time. The rise of television was part of the larger phenomenon of mass media, including radio, film, and mass-marketed print, that already had been reshaping twentieth-century life. But the abruptness of the TV revolution and its revolutionizing impact in changing the lives of almost everyone in the country was something that demanded reflection. These reflections provide a sense of how the media revolution looked at the time. They also reveal some of the common assumptions of the era, particularly the assumptions of public intellectuals, academics, and artists.

The sophisticated analysts were by no means alone in worrying that television was contributing to erosion of the national character. Late in the decade almost everyone seemed to join in as a media frenzy erupted over what might otherwise have been considered a fairly harmless TV misdemeanor. In 1955, CBS launched a new quiz show,
The $64,000 Question
, based on offering what at the time were enormous cash prizes to the contestants who survived the many rounds and weeks of questioning. The program soon gained nearly 50 million viewers, and the other networks followed suit with various imitations. For the next several years, these shows continued to garner huge audiences. But evidence was accumulating that the shows were rigged, and that contestants were routinely being prepped on their answers. By 1958, the story had become a national sensation. Rather than dismissing the manipulation as just “show business,” the press covered it as a major national
scandal that reflected something wrong at the heart of the culture. One participant later compared the coverage to that of the Watergate scandals of the 1970s.

By 1959, the investigations had been taken over by a congressional committee, and in November of that year the inquiry reached a dramatic climax: Charles Van Doren, the most popular and most respected of the contestants, confessed that he was indeed guilty of receiving prior answers. Many others were involved, but it was the corruption of Charles Van Doren that created by far the greatest consternation. His guilt was widely seen as symbolic of how deeply corruption had struck into the heart of the culture. Van Doren was not a greedy small-time operator off the street. The soft-spoken and winsome young man was from one of the leading literary families in the nation. His father, Mark Van Doren, a revered teacher at Columbia, had won a Pulitzer Prize, as had his uncle Carl. The young Van Doren, an instructor at Columbia himself, was highly educated in the best of the Western cultural heritage—a heritage that was supposed to be the antidote to the tawdry shallowness of popular culture.

Leading cultural figures joined in the outcry, charging that America was losing its moral character. A striking instance was the reaction of novelist John Steinbeck. After nine months of working on a new book at a secluded English cottage, Steinbeck had just returned to America in November 1959 when the Van Doren story was at its height. In disgust, he wrote to his friend Adlai Stevenson that, “if I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, and sick.” The Van Doren scandal only
verified how far the national corruption might reach. “On all levels,” Steinbeck wrote, the society was “rigged” and riddled with “cynical immorality.” The letter was published, “inadvertently,” said Steinbeck, in the Long Island newspaper
. It soon became fuel on the fires of the national conversation about what was going wrong with American civilization. Specifically, it triggered a symposium in
The New Republic
on the topic, entitled “Have We Gone Soft?” The all-male cast of commentators included such luminaries as Reinhold Niebuhr and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Their reflections appeared in February 1960, just a few months before
was to launch its more positively framed forum, but with the same subtext, on “The National Purpose.”

One reason that a few rigged TV shows could set off such an outpouring of national anxiety was that many people worried that the scandal was just the tip of a media iceberg that might be numbing the nation's collective moral sensibilities. If what passed for culture in America was increasingly to be dominated by TV, then what hope was there to cultivate the higher ideals necessary for the survival of Western civilization?

To appreciate such concerns one only has to look up the TV schedules of the day. For instance, the 1959–1960 primetime weekly lineup on the three national networks included more than a dozen westerns (
Have Gun Will Travel
Wyatt Earp
Tales of Wells Fargo
Wagon Train
The Lawman
The Rifleman
Wichita Town
Black Saddle
, and
), all with predictable moralistic plots. Alternatives on a typical evening included an assortment of crime and mystery shows (also mindless, except for
Alfred Hitchcock Presents
), variety shows (hosted by Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas, Red Skelton, Perry Como, and the like), quiz shows, and sitcoms such as
Leave It to Beaver
Ozzie and Harriet
, and
Father Knows Best
. In the earlier part of the decade, there had been a hope that television would be a means by which higher culture could be brought to the masses. Many had thought that the best of the theater could be adapted to the medium. By 1959–1960, all that was left of that ambitious idea were
Armstrong Circle Theater
Playhouse 90
, shown on Wednesday and Thursday nights, respectively. Serious theater had not proven sufficiently popular, and critics of television saw the surviving adaptations as mediocre debasements that were part of the problem, rather than the cure.

The best known of the critics of TV and the mass media generally was Dwight Macdonald. A WASP purebred (Exeter and Yale), Macdonald had become prominent among New York intellectuals. Like many of his generation, he had gone through a Marxist stage in the 1930s before becoming staunchly anti-Communist in reaction to Stalinism. In a much-cited 1953 essay, Macdonald argued that popular culture was the new opiate of the masses in a capitalist society inexorably driven by the profit motive. (In the Soviet Union, the effect of mass media was similar, but the mind control was cruder and more direct than it was in the West.) According to Macdonald,
(from the German term for popular but inferior art) and high culture could not simply coexist. Rather, in a capitalistic society, mass culture inevitably had a parasitic relationship with high culture. Driven as it was by the market and the profit motive, mass culture would overwhelm good
taste. There was a “Gresham's Law in culture,” as in monetary circulation, dictating that “bad stuff drives out the good, since it is easily understood and enjoyed.”

Mass culture was inevitably degrading, said Macdonald, because, unlike folk art, it did not arise from the people but was manufactured and distributed from the top down. Often it would appropriate some of the characteristics of high culture and produce a “tepid flaccid Middlebrow Culture that threatens to engulf everything in its spreading ooze.” It was
also exceedingly democratic. Like nineteenth-century capitalism
, “mass culture is a dynamic, revolutionary force, breaking down the old barriers of class, tradition, taste, and dissolving all cultural distinction.” The result was a “homogenized” culture where everything was mixed together indiscriminately.
magazine, Macdonald said, offered the perfect illustration of the problem. (One of Macdonald's first jobs had been working for fellow Yale alumnus Henry Luce.)
could be found “on the mahogany library tables of the rich” and “the oilcloth-covered kitchen tables of the poor.” It had something for everyone. Its cover might announce, in the same size type, “A NEW FOREIGN POLICY, BY JOHN FOSTER DULLES,” and “KERIMA; HER MARATHON KISS IS A MOVIE SENSATION.” Or it might have “nine color pages of Renoirs plus a memoir by his son, followed by a full-page picture of a horse on roller skates.”

The problem, however, was not just slick magazines, bad television, too many adults reading comic books, or anything else that could be easily corrected by raising cultural standards and supporting the arts. Instead, it was that the whole character
of the human race was being altered by the revolutionary force of the masses. “The masses are in historical time,” Macdonald declared, “what a crowd is in space: a large quantity of people unable to express themselves as human beings” because they are “not related
to each other
at all, but only to something distant, abstract, nonhuman.” They were no longer really a
community or a folk or a people in whom there could be a healthy
combination of individualism and community, which is conducive to great art. Rather, “a mass society, like a crowd, is so undifferentiated and loosely structured that its atoms, in so far as human values go, tend to cohere only along the line of the least common denominator; its morality sinks to that of its most brutal and primitive members, its taste to that of the least sensitive and most ignorant.” Yet it was to that “collective monstrosity” of the masses that the scientific and artistic technicians of the culture were catering.

BOOK: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
6.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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