Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How Henry Luce Shaped Our Life and Time

For anyone interested in the roots of modern journalism, here’s a new must-read: Alan Brinkley’s fascinating biography, “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century.” It’s not just an authoritative history of Time magazine and its sister publications, but also a panoramic view of the 20th-century press (before it became the “media”) and Luce’s major role in shaping what he famously named “The American Century.”

Luce came from modest means, the son of missionaries in China. But along with his friend and Yale classmate Brit Hadden, he was obsessed with the idea of creating a new type of publication, a “news-magazine” for the upper classes, who he believed were illiterate about national affairs. In their early 20s, they came up with a bold new concept – digesting reports from dozens of other newspapers and magazines, organizing them by strict predictable categories, and presenting them through a new style that was more like Homer than any existing publications. And they somehow raised the money to get it launched.

Brinkley traces the vast impact of Luce and his publishing empire on the publishing industry, American lifestyle, politics and foreign policy (slow to condemn Hitler and Mussolini, strongly pro-China). And he brings to life the swaggering egos of the period’s press lords – especially in the drawn-out and hilarious feud between Luce and Harold Ross, who launched The New Yorker only two years after the first issue of Time in 1923. Both magazines delighted in running articles slicing up its competitor.

The New Yorker loved to ridicule Time’s artificial neo-classical style dreamed up by Hadden, based on his love of Homer and the Greeks. He loved hyphenated words and action words, even when they never before existed in the language, and many came into standard use: snaggle-toothed, coffee-colored, bandy-legged, tycoon, “cinemactress.” And the pontificating sentences often seemed parodies of Homer: “Up to the White House portico rolled a borrowed automobile.” The New Yorker had fun deflating Time-ese, especially in a profile of Luce written by Wolcott Gibbs, which included this devastating passage:

“Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprise long across the land, his future plans impossible to contemplate. Where it will all end, knows God!” (For more on the astonishing public battle between Luce and Ross, see the New Yorker’s summary here.)

From today’s perspective, we can see that Luce was the first great aggregator – for years Time did no reporting, but just collected and rewrote material from other publications. It grew to become one of most powerful publications in history, with a vast staff doing real reporting around the world. Let’s hope some of our current web aggregators can follow that example. But while we’re hoping – read this absorbing book.

- Potomac Communications Group

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