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Thursday, June 4, 2020

June 4, 2020: Mass MediaStudying: The March of Time and Newsreels

[On June 1st, 1980, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired its first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy cable news and four other significant evolutions in American mass media, leading up to a special post on one of the best scholarly studies of media and the Revolution!]
On an iconic film series that helps us analyze an under-remembered, hugely influential media genre.
Like any good AmericanStudier (and American historical fiction fan), my strongest association with the film medium known as the newsreel is John Dos Passos’ literary creation of newsreels as one of the key structural sections in his U.S.A. (1938) trilogy of historical novels. Well, some good AmericanStudiers might highlight instead the fictional newsreel about Charles Foster Kane that helps provide exposition in Orson Welles’ groundbreaking film Citizen Kane (1941). In truth, by the time both of those cultural representations were created, newsreels had been around for decades (the medium was invented by French filmmaker Charles Pathé in 1911) and had provided video footage for much of world history over that time. Indeed, it’s my understanding that a great deal of the most familiar video footage from the 1910s through at least the 1930s (such as the famous video of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster) was produced for newsreel films and series. It’s fair to say that you can’t tell the story of mass media in the early 20th century without including newsreels in a prominent place—but also that (at least in my experience) newsreels don’t tend to receive the attention that radio and early feature films do in our collective memories of the period. (As I was drafting this post, I learned about a newly published scholarly book, Joseph Clark’s News Parade: The American Newsreel and the World as Spectacle, that will hopefully help change that trend.)
One of the longest-running and most influential newsreels was The March of Time (1935-1951). March was originally created in 1931 as a radio news documentary and dramatization series to complement Time magazine; for more on that radio program, which ran through 1945, see Cynthia Meyers’ award-winning 2018 American Journalism article. On February 1st, 1935, a film version of March debuted in 500 theaters across the country, narrated (as were the radio broadcasts) by iconic broadcaster Westbrook Van Voorhis; every month for the next 16 years saw the release of a new short film in the series. The March films were up to twice as long (each was either 20 or 30 minutes in length) as standard newsreels, so perhaps it is more accurate to call them short films; but while there is certainly value in delineating different sub-genres within a particular form, I’d say that the difference is roughly synonymous to that of a novella vs. a novel. Both the latter are works of fiction, with a difference mainly of length (and without much distinction when it comes to the reading experience); similarly, shorter vs. longer newsreels seem to me to operate within the same overarching category and with the same main purposes and effects. And since March was one of the longest-running newsreels, linking it to that category (as the Academy Awards did in 1937, giving March an honorary Oscar “for its significance to motion pictures and for having revolutionized one of the most important branches of the industry—the newsreel”) can help us better remember and analyze the form overall.
March covered at least 3-4 (and often 5-6) distinct topics in each short film, as illustrated by the episode guide compiled on its Wikipedia page. But one element that seems to have cut across most of those segments and episodes is an editorial perspective, a specific, clearly expressed point of view on the subject at hand (rather than an attempt at objectivity, complex and fraught as that concept always is). One of the most famous such perspectives was featured in the first segment of the series’ second film, which debuted on March 8th, 1935; that segment focused on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and used the term “fascism” to describe (accurately, but controversially in 1935) him and his regime. What that segment reveals is (it seems to me) a broader truth about the genre: that newsreels like the March series are not simply primary sources to help us recover stories and histories (although each of them is unquestionably a treasure trove of such materials); they also can help us understand how history unfolded, how events were influenced and shaped by the voices and narratives that engaged (and in at least some ways constructed) them. Obviously the March of Time was not responsible for Hitler and Nazi Germany; but its depiction helps us think about how different media responded to those forces, how audiences engaged those stories, and thus gives us a chance to better understand the world in which Hitler and Germany (and so many other 1930s and 40s events) took place.  
Last mass media post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other mass media moments or movements you’d highlight?

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