The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Who was the most partisan media baron before Rupert Murdoch invented Fox News?

September 7, 2010 |  5:54 pm

Henry_luce One of the great things about getting a chance to read history is that you quickly learn that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Liberals spend an inordinate amount of time brooding over the formidable media firepower of Rupert Murdoch, who influences events via Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, to name but a few of his media properties, which are, in turn, dwarfed by the reach of his sprawling TV and film entertainment divisions.

But during my end-of-summer vacation I had a chance to read historian Alan Brinkley's new book, "The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century," which served as a bracing reminder that Murdoch was hardly the first media overlord to pursue a partisan political agenda. Luce was the co-founder of Time Inc., which from the 1930s through the 1960s was an immensely powerful media conglomerate, thanks to the popularity of Luce's Time, Life and Fortune magazines, which along with his "March of Time" newsreels were arguably even more influential in their time than Murdoch's present-day TV and print news outlets.

Luce was not shy about using his clout to attempt to sway events. He tirelessly touted a variety of Republican presidential candidates, from Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey to Dwight Eisenhower, though only Eisenhower was a winning choice. One of Luce's Fortune writers left the magazine to become a Willkie campaign manager, where he was deluged by memos and phone calls full of campaign advice from Luce, who even wrote some speeches for Willkie. When Eisenhower launched his presidential bid, Time and Life ran effusive cover stories, while two of Luce's top writers took leaves to become Eisenhower speech writers.

In fact, you could argue that Luce had his own in-house Glenn Beck in the form of Whittaker Chambers, an oddball, often agitated book reviewer who became an influential and controversial editor of Time's foreign news section. With Luce's blessing, Chambers used the magazine as a platform to loudly denounce the Soviet Union and various communist sympathizers, culminating in Chambers' role in one of the biggest paroxysms of the Cold War, the revelation that Alger Hiss was a communist spy.

There's oh-so-much more in Brinkley's book, which also makes the intriguing case that Life magazine was in many ways like a mid-20th century Hollywood film studio, relentlessly producing the same kind of sanitized, optimistic and middle-class oriented stories that people would see in MGM, Disney and Paramount studio pictures of the time.

But for me, the most reassuring element of the Luce saga is that for all his media might, Luce found that it was often difficult to truly influence center-stage political events. Luce spent years attacking Franklin Roosevelt, whom he truly despised, but all for naught. Voters elected FDR over and over, no matter what Luce had to say about him. In fact, Luce was often known to fume that his editors routinely ignored his most outlandish political enthusiasms (something that I suspect happens less at Fox News with Roger Ailes in charge). "The Publisher" not only offers a wonderful feel for what it was like to be an old-school media tycoon (tycoon being one of the many words Time invented) but it's made it so much easier to watch Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, knowing that their considerable ratings success doesn't necessarily translate into lasting political influence.

Photo: Henry Luce in 1948, posing in front of covers of his Life and Fortune magazines. Credit: Associated Press/Time magazine