Friday, 24 April 2009

Big Fish and Small Fry

This is a letter to the editor, responding to a review by Carlin Romano of a book by Robert McChesney in Columbia Journalism Review.

The issues Mr. McChesney raises are still crucial, after all these years. In my teaching years (1952-82) I was happily split between my Ph.D. in American Lit and my eagerness to influence the popular media for the better.

My first published article,"Everyman in Saddle Shoes" Scholastic Teacher (1954),was a plea to fellow high school teachers to assign Paddy Chayefsky and other authentic new TV voices.That led to a Ford Fellowship in New York in 1955-56 where I followed up my college curiosity about Marshall McLuhan (his "Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man" had appeared in pieces in Commonweal, the Catholic layman's weekly that a Jesuit University introduced me to.) Marshall began his tenure at TC, Columbia that year and we plotted new maneuvers together. He explained to me that "Mechanical Bride" was his anthropological foray in teaching Freshman English.

I became the radio TV editor of Scholastic Teacher for six years, devising the Teleguide to make it practical for a teacher, say, in East Lansing, Michigan, to assign Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame" or Maurice Evans' Hallmark "Macbeth".

In 1957 I got a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship to create a course at Penn on "The Mass Society" (first semester, Print, Graphics, Broadcasting, second, Industrial Design, Architecture, and Urban Planning),basically how to be an alert patron in the new mass society. Fortuitously, Walter Annenberg gave Penn two million dollars in 1958 to found a graduate school of communication, and faute de mieux, I became Gilbert Seldes' gofer.

I had recommended him for Dean because in my essay,"The Public Arts and the Private Sensibility" in Lewis Leary,ed., "Contemporary Literary Scholarship" (1958) I pointed out that he was the first critic to take American popular culture seriously, in "The Seven Lively Arts" (1924).

I organized a TV festival in 1964 for the NCTE and edited a book of essays by the participants, "TV as Art: Some Essays in Criticism" (1966). I brought TV and films to MLA conventions.One such was David Meyer's luminous take on the poet Theodore Roethke. Dave wanted to accept Marianne Moore's permission to make a similar film for her, but when I asked Mike Shugrue if I could raise funds for it, he demurred:"This has been a bad year in the stock market for our members, Pat." She died the next year!

But I remember most of all the Daedalus Conference on Mass Culture in the Poconos in 1960. The New York eggheads gathered there had come not to praise Mass Culture, but to bury it.Gilbert asked me to be the one "pro" voice heard in this unseemingly uniform gaggle of neo-cons, basically reporting my "Mass Society" course as a civilized response to our common predicament.

The conference literally ended with the poet Randall Jarrell waggling his prophet's beard at me and intoning,"You're the man of the future, Mr.Hazard, and I'm glad I'm not going to be there!" Shortly thereafter, (sadly, I liked to teach his poems) he committed suicide.

As have our clerisy when it comes to their ignorant reactions to mass culture. The rules of academic promotion means you have to convince your peers you're verbose enough to join them! There was therefore little time left to tutor the masses on living in their new world. Easier to sneer, and rail at the boobs.

One final anecdote. Newton (TV is a vast wasteland) Minow wanted academic advice on revising the TV station renewal forms. So he invited Bernard Berelson (Columbia), Ithiel de Sola Pool (M.I.T.), Gary Becker (Chicago) and me (Penn, subbing for Gilbert, who couldn't be bothered!) for a discussion. As the polysyllabic day progressed, it slowly dawned on me that these pre-eminents were blithely unaware of the central truth about TV renewals: TV execs always promised the moon, and ignored their false promises until the next renewal process!

I had been shooting weekend TV clips for WFIL-TV's Tom Jones, a canny tutor who could discuss T.S.Eliot as intelligently as he promoted sports features on his station. (Not to forget Dick Clark who was just then also getting started there.) At the end of that boring day, Minow stuck his head in the door and thanked us for "our wisdom". From that day forward, I would have almost total skepticism about social science savants as well as fatuous bureaucrats.

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