Westporter's new book examines how TV changed everything
Published 10:56 am, Thursday, September 16, 2010
Eric Burns, cultural historian and recipient of an Emmy Award for TV journalism, has published a new book, "Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television's Conquest of America in the Fifties."
This is the fifth book written by Burns, a Westport resident. His previous books have focused on the history of alcohol, the social history of tobacco, and the beginnings of journalism. "My other books focus on events that occurred in colonial times," he told the Westport News. "I wanted to write a book that is closer to the present."
In the new book, Burns chronicles events that have occurred during his own lifetime: the impact of television on the Baby Boomer generation. He vividly recalls the arrival of television into his own household and how it affected playtime, family dynamics and life in America.
"We watched television daily and played our own versions of the shows that were our favorites, purchased merchandise that they promoted and observed the behavior of the adults around us who were just as deeply under the medium's spell as we were," he said. "The 1950s was not a golden age, but it was a wonderful time. And for the largest percentage of Baby Boomers, it was a most seminal time. It was when television was new and it was mesmerizing."
When television arrived on the scene, it not only bought a novel form of entertainment directly into the living room, it also bought messages that influenced culture. Television exposed the masses to advertising campaigns that affected buying decisions, spewed political messages that influenced voters and provided perceptions of the world at-large, which shaped public opinion.
The early TV depiction of women and African-Americans was particularly raw, according to Burns. "In some ways, television shows treated women better than they did blacks," he said. "In some ways they treated them worse. Because of racism and sexism in society at the time, it was inevitable that there be racism and sexism on television."
Burns writes about both the promise of broadcasting as espoused by the inventors and how that promise was redefined and lost by the corporations that helped spread this revolutionary technology.
He divided his research into two segments. "The first half of the book is about 'The Medium,' which describes television in and of itself," he said. "The second part is titled 'The Message,' which is about how TV affected perception." Although Burns believes that television programs during the 1950s perpetuated myths about society, the electronic box also helped to correct a grave social injustice. Television played a crucial role in exposing the bigotry of the South during the integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas in 1957. At that time, nine black students were slated as the first of their racial background to be admitted to the high school.
Television news crews were on hand during the first day of classes and captured the angry white demonstrators and the racial slurs hurled at Elizabeth Eckford, a lone 15-year-old black student, as she walked toward the high school. National Guardsmen raised their rifles at her and the crowd called for her to be lynched.
The events inspired a number of journalists to step outside their "objective" roles and speak against what they witnessed. When their reports hit the evening news, there was widespread condemnation of events that occurred at Little Rock High School. "The behavior of the reporters might not have been up to strict ethical standards that journalism prided itself," Burns notes, "but it was the behavior of the people they covered that Americans and other people in other nations would remember, and that would prove so persuasively damning . It was not a shameful exhibition by journalists; it was an unavoidable display of humanity."
He added, "That is the greatest single service television has ever provided. TV journalists have never since done anything so valuable."
" 'Our Miss Brooks' was very important to me," Burns recalled. "The 1950s were an enamoring time. The truly naïve thought that what we saw was true." He said that Eve Arden's sympathetic portrayal of Connie Brooks, a quick-witted high school English teacher, earned her an honorary membership in the National Education Association. "She also received offers to teach real English courses in real American high schools," said Burns. "The offers came from people who should have known better: principals, superintendents and presidents of school boards."
He added that those who read his book might become "reacquainted with names they forgot," such as Bishop Fulton Sheehan, whose program "The Catholic Hour" was broadcast in direct competition with Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. "Although Sheehan never beat Berle in the ratings, he usually finished a strong, and surprising, second," said Burns.
He also recalls that in 1952 U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver received a special Emmy Award for outstanding public service on television for the televised investigative hearings exposing organized crime. "He is the only senator to win an Emmy," said Burns.
The book has been praised by several reviewers. According to Library Journal, " 'Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television's Conquest of America in the Fifties' is an entertaining as well as informative book ... Burns provides sharp analysis, explaining just how the industry exercised unprecedented power over the average American's thoughts about news events such as the McCarthy hearings, social changes such as civil rights protests, and the roles of women and African Americans. This well-researched book contains a nice combination of serious topics and humorous anecdotes, plus an insightful bibliography."
Burns will discuss his book at Fairfield University's Open Visions Forum on Sept. 22. The forum also will include Professor Philip Eliasoph, the forum director, and Dr. David Gudelunas, associate professor of communication. Burns will discuss the social and political impact that television has had on generations of viewers. Eliasoph moderates the discussion, while Gudelunas will question Burns and invite the audience to do the same.
Following the lecture, Burns will sign books in the lobby. Tickets are $45 and are available at the Fairfield University's Quick Center box office. Call 203-254-4010 or go online at www.quickcenter.com.
On Oct. 18, Burns will speak at the Westport Public Library. The library staff, Burns said, has helped him research his books. He will speak in the McManus Room at 7:30 p.m. Books will be available for purchase and signing after the presentation. A percentage of all purchases will benefit the library.