Academic journal article Journalism History

"Genêt" on the Air: Janet Flanner's Wartime Broadcasts

Academic journal article Journalism History

"Genêt" on the Air: Janet Flanner's Wartime Broadcasts

Article excerpt

For fifty years, journalist Janet Flanner wrote a bi-weekly "Letter from Paris" column for the New Yorker magazine. While her professional legacy included influencing American literary journalism by developing the journalistic essay, she abo recorded a little-known series of radio commentaries in 1945-46 from the hotspots of Europe in the critical months surrounding the end of World War II. This article offers a detailed examination of the content and themes of those commentaries. It notes her focus on deprivations caused by the war and its aftermath, the plight of women in the war-ravaged countries, the post-war political landscape in France and Italy, and the obligation of the Allies to help rebuild France and Italy. The study concludes that her foray into radio was an important indicator of the growing significance of this medium.

Writing under the pen name "Genêt," American journalist Janet Flanner was best-known as the author of the New Yorkers "Letter from Paris" columns, which consisted of more than 1,300 articles filed from Paris between 1925 and 1975.' She also wrote occasional in-depth profiles of leaders in politics and the arts during her long journalistic career, mostly for the New Yorker but also for Vanity Fair. As a print journalist, her influence was significant, and author Ben Yagoda credited her with "establishing essay-journalism as a New Yorker tradition."2 But although her fame came from her written work, she also broadcast a now little-known series of radio commentaries for the NBC Blue Network (which eventually became ABC) from early 1945 to 1946. At that time, radio news and commentary was rising to a new prominence in the American media landscape,3 and her brief foray into this field is therefore worthy of attention.

Audio copies of seven of those radio commentaries, all of them broadcast from Paris, are in the Library of Congress' Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division on tapes.4 Another three of Flanner's commentaries, which originated from Rome, are available in script form only in the Library of Congress manuscript collection. In the preserved audio copies, she focused on the lives of French citizens - especially women - as they emerged from Nazi occupation. The Italian-based scripts were more likely to include descriptions of reports, political analysis of public events, and fewer personal observations by her.5 However, there are commonalities in themes found in all ten commentaries.

This collection of Flanner's commentaries, broadcast during a critical period in modern history, has not been extensively studied.6 Yet, as one of fewer than 100 female journalists covering the war, her role as a commentator was significant because she was in a unique position to observe, analyze, and comment on events with vast historic implications.7 She was a contemporary of some of the best-known names of her day, including writers Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as other cultural and political figures who were affecting change on a world scale. Her perspective was honed by twenty-five years of living and observing a country at the epicenter of World War II, and her impressions of those pivotal people and events remain interesting more than sixty years after they were first broadcast.

Other print journalists, including Edward R. Murrow and his "Boys," the former newspaper reporters who went to work at CBS during this period, also were producing radio commentaries, but Flanner had the advantage of having spent extended time in the countries where the war was being fought. She offered that insight and legitimacy to the relatively new field of broadcast journalism. Furthermore, she focused on the everyday lives of the citizens of these countries but in a way that linked seemingly minor events and everyday occurrences to their larger political implications. While it is impossible to quantify the impact of her more than fifty radio commentaries, she was presenting them at a time when radio was reaching millions of listeners every day, contrasted with the 250,000 subscribers reading the New Yorker at that time, and through radio, she was able to reach a more demographically diverse authence than she could through the magazine. …

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