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The Forgotten Man Who Transformed Journalism in America

Younger people may know about Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow, but hardly anyone born after 1970 remembers Lowell Thomas, or even knows about him. He was the first superstar journalist of the broadcast era. Thomas brought global news to so many Americans through an era that saw the development of radio, newsreels, typewriters, airplanes, and TV -and he embraced each new technology. That helped him become the biggest broadcast news personality of his day, and the size of his audience caused him to take journalism very seriously. Professor of journalism Mitchell Stephens has a new book out called The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism, and talked to Smithsonian about how Thomas changed the profession.    

Sensationalism was a major part of journalism in the early 20th century, but Thomas helped reshape this. How did he manage that?

The early 20th century was a time when a lot of people “improved” stories. It was a less fact-obsessed world than the one we live in and therefore a less accurate world. Lowell was a pretty sensational journalist in Chicago himself. Lowell got caught making something up in Chicago, but he learned a lesson.

When he got his great gig, hosting what at the time was a network radio newscast, he was aware of the responsibilities that went with it. He helped pioneer a more sober style of journalism. Lowell quickly realized that there were people among his hundreds of thousands and then millions of listeners who would write letters and complain to his network if he got things wrong. Because [the radio broadcast] had so many listeners and he was such a dominant figure, what happened there also spread to other iterations of radio, then TV, then newspapers. Lowell contributed to the fact obsession that journalists have today.

Read the rest of the interview at Smithsonian.

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