Erik Barnouw: Chronicler, Critic, Conscience
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 21, Numbers 2 & 3, May/September 1991
- pp. 51-54
- Additional Information
Film & History, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2 & 3, May/September 199151 Erik Barnouw: Chronicler, Critic, Conscience Kathryn C. Montgomery I am honored to be here to say a few words about Erik Barnouw because he's had a very important influence on my career as a writer and teacher, and now, as an advocate on media policy issues. The first time I encountered Erik was indirectly, long before I ever entered this field. It was about 1970, my first year of college. I hadn't even decided on a major yet. In my American history course we were shown the film Hiroshima-Nagasaki August, 1945, which graphically documented the devastating impact of the atom bomb. I had read about all of that before, but I had never witnessed it the way I was able to in that film, and it literally blew me away. It was one of those experiences in one's education which, unfortunately, are so rare that when you encounter something so compelling and overpowering it affects you deeply.1 At the time, I didn't know that Erik Barnouw had anything to do with the film. I remember hearing something about the people at Columbia University who had struggled so hard to get the footage, and I probably saw Erik's name on the credits, but I didn't know who he was. And then, a few years after that, I encountered Erik again, also indirectly. As a graduate student in media studies, I read his trilogy on the history of broadcasting. When The Sponsor was published in 1978, I read a review in the Los Angeles Times and ran right down immediately to buy the book. I found it to be incredibly engaging and I literally devoured it. At that moment, Erik Barnouw became my official role model.2 In the mid-1980s, when I began doing work on my book, I sought Erik out. He was very gracious to meet with me and tell me a little bit about his own experiences researching and writing. I remember hearing how many years it took him to write A Tower of Babel, feeling heartened because, at the time, I felt I was in the midst of an endless writing process. What have I learned from Erik Barnouw? I've learned so much that it is hard to summarize. I wanted to make a couple of points, however, that are particularly important to me. First of all, I learned that it is possible to write scholarly research that is also accessible to the general public, fully engaging to the reader, and expressing both passion Kathryn C. Montgomery, PhD., is Director of the Center for Media Education in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Target: Prime Time Advocacy Groups and the Struggle over Entertainment Television (1989). 52 Kathryn C. Montgomery and eloquence. I would argue that those of us writing about a contemporary medium of mass communication have an obligation to present our research in as accessible a way as possible. In my opinion, too much academic writing is narrow and dominated by jargon. Unless you know the secret language within the academy, you can't understand it. Yet often the issues are critically important. But if the research is not understandable by journalists, policy makers, and the general public, its impact will be minimal. I also believe that media historians can and should be a moral voice. Sometimes it is our duty to sound the alarm, particularly when the media system is headed on a wrong course. Erik Barnouw's careful documentation of the role of advertising in shaping and controlling our media systems-and indeed, our very culture-has been particularly important in this regard. I often quote these elegant words from The Sponsor, which may be even more true in 1992 than they were in the late 1970s: Reverence for nature has been replaced by a determination to process it. Thrift has been replaced by the duty to buy. The work ethic has been replaced by the consumption ethic. Conspicuous consumption, once considered an unworthy tendency of the leisure classes, has been sanctified and democratized and is right for everybody.3 The second thing I...