WHAT IF the nation turned over its key waterways to waste
operators, allowing them to dump as much garbage into the Hudson,
Mississippi and Missouri rivers as was possible and profitable?
Most of us would react with outrage.
But author David McCullough suggests that's just what this
country has done with another precious resource - its airwaves.
"Television has been mostly destructive," McCullough said. "We
are using one one-hundredth of its potential."
The insight isn't unique. But the punch comes from a
heavyweight - a man who on the one hand has profited from his
connection to the airwaves and, by most accounts, has enriched them.
David McCullough, author and historian, may be best known as
the narrator (he was a writer as well) for public television's 1990
"Civil War" series. Fourteen million Americans watched. He is also
the voice behind the weekly historical PBS series "The American
Experience." His 1,000-page biography "Truman" sold 1 million
copies and earned him the Pulitzer Prize.
McCullough looked out the window of his suite at the Hyatt
Regency at Union Station, past the Milles Fountain to a stoplight
on Chestnut Street where several cars were idling.
"Right now, at this minute, think of all the drivers across the
country with their motors running, doing nothing, producing
nothing. Then imagine all the people sitting at home watching all
that goo on television every night. All their brains are doing
"They are not writing letters, not painting pictures, not
building cabinets, not making music, not chatting with their
children, not reading them stories, not visiting with their
friends. They are not living.
"Television has become a substitute for life. "And it's
artificial. And it's fake. And it's done for the most self-serving
and greedy purposes. The people who are responsible for it have no
concerns for us."
McCullough, 60, was here recently to accept the 26th annual St.
Louis Literary Award given by the Associates of St. Louis
University Libraries Inc. Previous award winners include Tennessee
Williams, John Updike, Barbara Tuchman, Saul Bellow and Eudora
This is his first award for literary merit, and that excited
him. His Pulitzer, and his National Book Awards, were for what he
considers the more narrow category of history. McCullough was an
English major at Yale who dreamt of writing novels and only
"accidentally" turned to history. His first job, in 1955, was as a
writer at Sports Illustrated, but in those first months on the job
he read history books that set him afire.
He worked on book ideas at night and on weekends for years
while moving along to other day jobs on the writing staffs of the
U.S. Information Agency and American Heritage Magazine. His first
book, "The Great Bridge," about the Brooklyn Bridge and its
ancestor the Eads Bridge, was published in 1972.
For the past 12 years he has been retelling stories of
America's past on television. His deep, baritone voice, his
unflinching gaze framed by his thick white brows and hair make you
think of Walter Cronkite.
"I am mostly concerned about how television can be used to
teach people, how it can be used not just to inform but to enlarge
the experience of the nation, to make this a more vivid and
intelligent culture," McCullough said in an interview after the
He said he has tried "to light a candle" with "The American
Experience" and in the 1980s with PBS' "Smithsonian World." He has
considered writing a book about how the airwaves are abused.
"But then I'd have to watch all that stuff on television, and
that would be like being sentenced," he said. …