By Mitchell Stephens
In April, 1945, a couple of weeks before the end of the war in Europe, Lowell Thomas squeezed himself in, he explained, as the second passenger in “a single-seater fighter plane. Piggyback they call it.”
Through his top-rated 6:45 p.m. radio newscast and his work as host of the hugely popular twice-weekly Fox Movietone newsreels, Thomas had been bringing news of World War II to a larger percentage of the country’s population than any other American journalist, before or since, managed to reach.
But this was a newsman who chafed at being stuck behind a desk. During the First World War, Thomas had managed to find his way to the front in France and Italy, before traveling into the Middle East. There he had discovered a British colonel, dressed in Arab robes, named T. E. Lawrence, whom Thomas made famous as “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Now he finally was reporting on World War II in Europe. Thomas, itching to once again cover some combat, was thrilled to be ensconced, however uncomfortably, in that fighter plane. “Following the Elbe and then the Mulde north to where the two rivers join at Dessau, we saw fires every mile or so,” he soon explained to his giant radio audience. “And then from Dessau, we headed right up the Autobahn for Berlin.” Lowell Thomas was about to become probably the first American journalist to observe the Soviet attack on Berlin.
Thomas’ account made it to his listeners on NBC via shortwave radio – live; there still was no tape. He was proving, once again, that he was as alert to the new technologies of his time as any journalist has been, and that includes journalists of our time. Thomas was early to make journalistic use of the portable typewriter, the automobile, the airplane, film and remote broadcasting.
He was, for example, up in an airplane shooting film of the Great Pyramids only 14 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. In addition, Thomas hosted what probably was the first regular television news broadcast – on NBC’s experimental station in New York in 1940. When tape recorders first appeared in the United States after the war, Thomas would bring one along on another of his adventures – a trip employing an old technology, a mule caravan, up the Himalayas into Tibet, where he met the young Dalai Lama right before the Chinese Communists invaded. Later Thomas would produce the first large-screen films – for Cinerama.
“Potsdam and the southern side of the city seemed comparatively undamaged,” Thomas’ reported about his flight over Berlin. “The rest of it—in flames from one end to the other.” His radio report was picked up by the newspapers back home.
When Lowell Thomas died in 1981, Douglas Edwards, who had delivered the first regular CBS television newscast after the war, dubbed him “truly the granddaddy of us all.”
The style Thomas introduced on the first network radio newscast in 1930 – authoritative, nonpartisan – became the style of radio and then television journalism in the United States.
Thomas had tried, from the beginning, to look at politics from a perspective that was “down the middle” – not leaning to the Democrats or the Republicans, though he was a Republican. It could have gone another way. A couple of the early network radio newscasters who competed with Lowell Thomas were intensely partisan: CBS’s Boake Carter, for example, regularly engaged in attacks on the Roosevelt administration. “I could have climbed the fence and been neutral,” Carter once explained, “but . . . there’s no meat in that. Meat is in argument.” Thomas’ style won out. David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw tried to play it “down the middle” too.
The strengths and limitations of this style of journalism are much under discussion today – in the age of cable, the Internet and Twitter, where partisanship seems to attract attention, where the “meat,” once again, seems to be “in argument.” The candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump have also intensified the debate over objectivity: Are all points of view worthy of balanced treatment? How much value was there in the authoritative, but cautious, voice of a Thomas or Cronkite – heeded by all sides?
Nonetheless, this style of journalism – we now think of it as “traditional journalism” – has had a long run. Lowell Thomas did as much as anyone to invent it. And, whenever possible, he tried to fortify it with eyewitness observation, with going there – whether by mule caravan or fighter plane; with reporting.
Mitchell Stevens is Professor of Journalism at New York University and author of The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism