The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th Century Journalism

By Murray, Michael D. | Journalism History, January 1, 2020 | Go to article overview

The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th Century Journalism


Murray, Michael D., Journalism History


Stephens, Mitchell. The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th Century Journalism. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2017, 315 pp., $14.95 (hardback).

It may seem outrageous to identify a figure from American journalism history by name in a biography subtitled: "And the Invention of 20th Century Journalism." But you have to read this book by Mitchell Stephens to appreciate the significance. Stephens has produced the first adult biography of Lowell Thomas, regarded as the most famous journalist of his time on radio, in newsreels and on television. This important, well-written work begins with a colorful account of what first attracted public attention to Thomas, his coverage of Major T. E. Lawrence in Arabia. Stephens provides a careful, sometimes humorous account of how Thomas met his subject and fashioned a media show, "Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia," complete with slides, narration, music, and documentary footage about the exploits of his subject, four years before the first documentary, Nanook of the North.

With film segments shot in Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, and London, Thomas's presentation would reach two million people, including the British Prime Minister, Queen Mother, and Lawrence himself, secretly viewing at a safe distance. Lawrence's highly publicized life forced him to adopt a stand-offish demeanor. The author explains how Thomas's internationally best-selling book, With Lawrence in Arabia, published in 1924, helped him stake out a claim as the best-known American journalist so that he could allege to have been among the most creative of the many reporters of his day.

Over a hundred books have been published about Lawrence's life and exploits, and the cinema offered David Lean's Academy Award-winning film with Peter O'Toole as hero. But Lowell Thomas was first to recognize the possibilities and import of his subject. And to the author's credit, this biography provides the reader with lots of perspective, acknowledging that Thomas always liked to tell a good story. On the critical side, we learn about his penchant for working fast and occasionally farming out writing assignments. This occurred even as he adjusted to changes in technology well before the Internet.

The first part of the book examines Thomas's upbringing in the small mining town of Victor, Colorado. The book's beginning includes an attempt to figure out what ignited the passions of those raised beyond the boundaries of a single local news source at a time when Lincoln Steffens investigated no city west of Minneapolis or south of St. Louis. In this case, the answer is tied to the fact that at age nineteen, Lowell Thomas was already the editor of his local newspaper. When it comes to Thomas's upbringing, the author pulls no punches. The family heritage is explored in depth: especially his depressive father who trained as a medical doctor but had no business sense. A loving, supportive mother, when disappointed, could become "a bit of a nag." The family followed the trajectory of his father's career as frontier doctor, arriving in Victor as $18 million worth of gold was extracted from local mines in the adjacent town of Cripple Creek. We learn that as a youngster, Thomas became inspired by Theodore Roosevelt. …

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