I can't remember a time when so many writers have been preoccupied with the media while turning their intellectual flashlights on every nook and cranny of the inchoate and sometimes weird forces from which we get information and entertainment.
Few can size up these forces better, and wittier, than George Trow, a founding member of the National Lampoon and a New Yorker staff writer for almost 30 years. His new book, My Pilgrim's Progress, takes 1950 as his point of departure. World War II was over and that fact, he says, changed our cultural relationship with the rest of the world. If Britain had been the factual victor, we would have BBCed our way into the media age; if Hitler had won something else. They didn't; we did and so we have New York-televisioned our way into the media age. Trow writes in an almost stream-of-conscious manner in picturing the vastly different worlds of 1950 and 1997. It is true that the 1950s were a less complicated time; television was still growing and echoing the simplicity of the times. Walter Cronkite was the most watched news figure on the tube. TV listings of the early '50s were anything but interesting, except for Howdy Doody.
The '50s had Dwight Eisenhower, Walter Winchell, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Westbrook Pegler on the commentary scene. None of them makes a powerful impression on Trow except for Ike, who Trow believed embodied the right stuff as general and as President.
There are a good many things to smile about, such as the charge that Madonna simply wants to be Elvis; that televised golf tournaments are likened to porn for the privileged and home shopping networks to cocaine addiction.
There are, however, chain-lightning points to Trow's prose; he is quite good in dealing with the printed press, perhaps because he is closer to it and understands its inner workings. With television, he seems to be a detached bystander.
It's too bad Trow's progress ended in 1997; it would be interesting to see his take on President Clinton's woes. Perhaps we'll see it in the next volume of My Pilgrim's Progress. It would be a doozy.
Lloyd Armour is a retired newspaper editor.