Saturday, August 16, 2014

It's 1927, and the news media are out of control

Charles Lindbergh and his plane. (Library of Congress photo via Mother Nature Network)
Bill Bryson's book One Summer: America, 1927 captures a moment when the country's burgeoning news media feasted on the stories of two extraordinary men, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. The media made them into gods. The baseball hero basked in the attention. The aviator hated it.

If you can't bear the constant assault of 24-hour cable news, Buzzfeed, and Facebook updates, you should realize that America lived through a similar media explosion in the 1920s.

Then the mass media were newspapers, radio, talking pictures, phonographs, and the telephone. Thes media of the day hounded and entertained people on the streets, in their offices, in their leisure hours, and in the privacy of their homes. Sound familiar? The difference may be only a matter of degree. Today we carry the mass media with us on the devices in our pockets.

In the '20s, the new media were just becoming massive national, industrial-scale businesses that needed big stories to feed the news cycle.

Working-class heroes

Babe Ruth (Associated Press photo)
And in 1927, two working-class figures came along to meet their needs. Ruth, 32, set a record for home runs in a season, 60, which stood for 34 years. Lindbergh, 25, flew 33 hours straight from New York to Paris, the first to do so after many had died in the attempt. Together they fed the popular hunger for heroes.

Bryson writes:
"Ruth’s rise to fame could not have been more impeccably timed. It coincided precisely with the birth of tabloid newspapers, newsreel films, fan magazines, and radio— all vital cogs in the new celebrity culture—and his arrival in New York brought him into the throbbing heart of the media world. Newspapers began running a daily column titled 'What Babe Ruth Did Today.' When Babe Ruth had a bunion trimmed, it received national coverage."
When Lindbergh returned by ship from Europe -- the Navy cruiser U.S.S. Memphis had been sent to retrieve this new national treasure -- "In the first four days after the landing, American newspapers ran an estimated 250,000 stories, totaling 36 million words, on Lindbergh and his flight."

A Lindbergh Day was declared in Washington, D.C., and the aviator's speech was carried by 50 stations in the new National Broadcasting Co. (NBC) Network.
"Twelve thousand miles of AT& T telephone cables were pressed into service to give America its first coast-to-coast broadcast. It was believed that virtually every radio set in the nation was tuned in. No person in history had spoken to so many people at one time as Graham McNamee [the announcer] did now."
Bryson says the radio audience was estimated at 30 million, one-fourth of the population of the U.S. at that time. Then Lindbergh went to NewYork for a ticker tape parade, and an even more intense spotlight of public attention:
"For three days Lindbergh stories completely filled the front page of the New York Times and most of several pages beyond. On the day of his parade, Lindbergh stories occupied the first 16 pages of the paper."
A mere two months after his flight, Lindbergh told his life story in the book We, which instantly sold 190,000 copies. "People couldn’t get enough of anything Lindbergh did," Bryson reports.

Ruth had an irresistible childlike charm and an enormous appetite for food, beer, and sex, which provided some sensational opportunities for press coverage. Lindbergh, Bryson says, "was boyish and wholesome." He had an innate modesty and shyness which the press siezed upon to paint him as the ultimate American hero.

Soaring pride, booming economy

To tell their stories, Bryson immersed himself in the newspaper, radio, and film archives of the area. He describes how Americans at the time were bursting with pride for their role in helping turn the tide in favor of the allies in World War I and in their country's growing industrial power.

Bryson's books show his genius for telling stories with numbers, notably in his book about the scientists who described the origins of life and our planet in A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Here are some of his nuggets about the 1920s from One Summer:
  • "By the late 1920s, one American in six owned a car— which was getting close to a rate of one per family— and many people were finding the automobile an essential part of life."
  • "Over a thousand people were killed in traffic accidents in New York in 1927— four times the number killed there annually in traffic accidents today."
  • "The 1920s was a golden age for newspapers. Newspaper sales in the decade rose by about a fifth, to 36 million copies a day— or 1.4 newspapers for every household." [Today, only about a third of U.S. households get a daily newspaper.]
  • In 1921, "one American home in 500 had a radio. Within five years, the proportion was one in 20. By the end of the decade, saturation would be nearly total. Never before had a consumer product gained universal acceptance so quickly."
  • "Nearly 250 daily newspapers folded in the decade after the birth of network radio. Listening to the radio became the thing that every household did."
  • "By 1927, Hollywood was producing some 800 feature films a year, 80 percent of the world’s total output, plus some 20,000 short features. Movies were America’s fourth-largest industry, employing more people than Ford and General Motors put together."
  • "20,000 movie theaters sold a hundred million tickets a week. On any given day, one-sixth of all Americans were at the pictures."
  • For the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney heavyweight boxing match in September 1927, "the National Broadcasting Co. linked 82 stations to form a national broadcast. More people listened to the fight that night than had witnessed any other event in history," an estimated 50 million.
The Dempsey-Tunney fight temporarily distracted attention from Babe Ruth's run at beating his own home run record. "As August ended, Ruth had 43 home runs and [teammate Lou] Gehrig 41," Bryson writes. "Their total of 84 home runs compares with 28 all season for the Red Sox and 26 for the Indians. No team other than the Yankees had ever hit 84 home runs in a season before —and this was with the season only four-fifths over."

The 1927 Yankees went on to take the World Series that year with four straight wins against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That Yankee team has been considered one of the greatest in history.

The hero becomes outcast

In October, Lindbergh completed a nationwide tour in the Spirit of St. Louis to promote the development of commercial aviation. "In three months he had flown 22,350 miles, visited 82 cities, delivered 147 speeches, ridden 1,285 miles in parades, and been seen by an estimated 30 million people, about one-quarter of the American populace," Bryson summarizes in his typical style.

Lindbergh's celebrity dogged him. In 1932, the attention culminated in tragedy for Lindbergh and his wife, Ann Morrow, when their infant son was kidnapped, held for ransom, and eventually murdered.

The Lindberghs moved to Europe to escape the media and spent a great deal of time in Germany, where Lindbergh became an admirer of the Nazis and Hitler.

In September of 1941, Lindbergh's image as the American hero was shattered in a speech he made in  Des Moines, Iowa

He argued that the U.S. should not enter war with Germany. He blamed the British, the Jews, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt for pushing the U.S. toward war.  The audience booed, and the nationwide radio audience reacted much the same. The news media followed up with highly critical editorials. He became a marginal public figure.

It was perhaps a measure of his fall from grace that the 1957 movie The Spirit of St. Louis about Lindbergh's flight, starring Jimmy Stewart, was a failure at the box office, Bryson notes.

The decline of civilization, again

While we may think that today's media obsessions with celebrities, scandal, sports, and sensational crime represent the decline of civilization, Bryson's book shows that the decline was in high gear in the 1920s.

The news media in the '20s regularly invented news stories with an audacity that would shock the sensibilities of today's readers.

Compared to the terrorism and violence we see today, Bryson shows how the '20s and '30s were marked by much worse: murderous suppression of labor movements by police and the military, dozens of terrorist bombings by anarchists and a tax protester (one that killed 37 schoolchildren in Bath, Mich.), alcohol and drug abuse of historic proportions, higher murder rates than today, and widespread promotion of white race superiority by distinguished scholars of our leading universities.

The truth is, if you go back to the first examples of the written word, the poets and philosophers often lamented the sorry state of their contemporary society, the waywardness of youth, the lamentable decline in respect for traditions, etc.

In the media realm, 2,400 years ago, Socrates worried that written language undermined culture and thought; he favored the older tradition of learning by memory and transmitting knowledge orally. It's an old story.

Bryson helps give us some perspective by showing how a time that we might have regarded as a golden age was in many ways worse than what we are living through today. Then, as now, we like to put all the blame on the media.


Digital media: Amusing ourselves to death?

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