My American Century

Journalist Bill Kovach interviews Studs Terkel at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Education Forum. Professor and sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot gives an introduction.

00:00Copy video clip URL Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot describes the first time she “savored” one of Terkel’s books, “slowly relishing every morsel of Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression as if it were a rich, dense cheesecake.” She also talks about Terkel’s interviewing skills.

09:57Copy video clip URL “I can’t believe your mother gave you that name,” Bill Kovach jokes as the interview starts. Studs, whose real name is Louis, explains how he got his nickname from the book Studs Lonigan. ” ‘Studs’ came along not the way you think it was. Would that it were,” he laughs.

13:03Copy video clip URL Terkel explains how computer technology has changed the nature of work and education since he wrote Working over twenty years before. “Today you go into a newsroom and it’s silent as a tomb. You have the young men and women journalists sitting side by side and looking into terminals. … They’re next to each other yet they’re planets apart. It’s the silence of a tomb, and that to me is a bit terrifying,” he says.

17:37Copy video clip URL Kovach asks Terkel how differently he would approach the subject of work and workers today. “I can’t talk to the guy at the open-hearth steel, one of the heroes of the book. There is no open-hearth. Not because the steel industry has gone down—it’s changed—but because multinational [corporations] as you know, have moved elsewhere,” he begins, going on to talk about new challenges workers face.

19:21Copy video clip URL Terkel comments on how society has come down with “a national Alzheimer’s disease,” and how workers forget critical moments in history. “You have no past, no memory of the past and that’s the dangerous part.” He shares an anecdote about a young “yuppie” couple with no appreciation for history.

25:25Copy video clip URL They discuss society’s complaints about the press. “Objectivity is always used to attack those who seek out what’s going on, that’s not official truth,” Terkel says. He tells an anecdote of a young photojournalist forced out of the industry and calls objectivity “a perfect cop out if ever there was. There’s no such thing as objectivity, of course you have a point of view.”

28:22Copy video clip URL Terkel talks about a “sharp elbows” mentality in society—that is, the winner-take-all, “meaner and leaner” sense of competition rather than standing “shoulder to shoulder” with our fellow man.

30:24Copy video clip URL “How do you decide who you want to interview?” Kovach asks. “That’s a tough one. That’s again improvisation,” Terkel replies, giving a variety of examples of interviews he has taken. He again emphasizes his mission to teach “history in the true sense of the word: what happened, to whom and when and how, and how does that relate to today?”

32:19Copy video clip URL Terkel, who has “seen the evolution of welfare and now the devolution,” gives his take on society’s problems and stresses the need to gather the stories of average people. He peppers his talk with insightful anecdotes.

36:18Copy video clip URL Terkel shares his feelings on his impending retirement from his long-running WFMT radio show. “People say that I’m leaving the microphone after 45 years at WFMT. You’re retiring. ‘Retiring?’ I say. ‘When you say that word, smile.’ ” He also jokes about his “career change at 85” and his plans to work for the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum), preserving 9,000 hours of tapes of his show.

38:13Copy video clip URL Kovach opens the floor to questions. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith asks Terkel who was the “lousiest character you ever had on your program.” Terkel says a “disaster” was interviewing famous Russian-French painter Marc Chagall through a translator. Terkel relates the humorous story and how Chagall was “blowing kisses at me” instead of answering questions.

42:05Copy video clip URL An audience member asks for his advice for new social scientists. “God, I don’t know. … I think whatever’s officially told to you you have to question,” he replies.

42:46Copy video clip URL The next person asks how he finds his interview subjects, and Terkel gives a few examples of happy accidents in which he stumbled across great stories. “There is no rule about finding these things out. You just have to improvise a great deal.”

46:09Copy video clip URL Though the next question posed is difficult to hear, Terkel’s answer explains his view on NAFTA, free trade, and “privateering.” Kovach asks, “That’s one of the official ideas of our time. What do you get if you raise that question with the people you interview?” Terkel replies, “I think if it were explained to them fully, they would be furious about the whole idea.”

48:26Copy video clip URL An audience member asks about his jazz heroes. “You have to start with [Duke] Ellington and [Louis] Armstrong,” says the avid jazz listener, also listing Billie Holiday, country blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, and gospel great Mahalia Jackson. He tells a story about Broonzy, his close friend, during which he veers into a discussion of war. “War doesn’t mean as much to us [Americans] as it does to others,” he says.

54:01Copy video clip URL A person asks Terkel how he interviews leaders. “Listening, of course, is what it’s about, I suppose,” and explains choice nuances of his craft. He also shares more poignant stories about Broonzy, one about racial discrimination he faced in the South.

58:36Copy video clip URL The next person asks if storytelling can have a therapeutic or transformative effect. “That’s what oral history is all about,” Terkel says. He cites British journalist Henry Mayhew, who dared to delve into the lives of often seen but seldom heard working-class citizens, as “my idol, my northern star.”

01:01:31Copy video clip URL They again discuss the idea of “objectivity,” and Terkel shares his worst interview ever, one with high society photographer Jerome Zerbe. “I want to strangle him [but] I need him for my book,” Terkel says, which he calls a great “perversity” involved in being a writer. He and Kovach discuss his writing and interviewing techniques in further detail.

01:03:49Copy video clip URL The next question, though difficult to hear, asks about how Terkel has seen Chicago changed. “Chicago is the archetype of an American city, but like all American cities it’s losing its individuality,” he says. “You get off the plane and you don’t know what city you’re in.”

01:05:25Copy video clip URL A woman asks how America can again appreciate its history, overcoming what Terkel calls a “national Alzheimer’s disease.” “Hearing old people talk, even though it’s nonsense. It may seem that. It isn’t,” Terkel replies, bemoaning the “uniformity” and abundance of shallow 30-second sound bytes in the mainstream media. Kovach shares a story about a local town preserving its own history through a public writing project at the local library.

01:08:48Copy video clip URL One person asks about the Daley family in Chicago politics. Terkel shares his view that Chicago is mired in a “bewildered state,” a “catatonic” atmosphere that lacks healthy and vigorous dissent in politics.

01:10:08Copy video clip URL “In spending an entire lifetime helping other people tell their stories, I’m curious how you maintain your own story,” one person says. Terkel laughs, saying he’s not sure he’s been able to do that. “I’m a craftsman who carries his tool chest with him.”

01:11:11Copy video clip URL Terkel speaks on the state of America’s education system and emphasizes the need to move beyond “official truth” by questioning it.” He reads an actual memorandum from President Kennedy’s administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It reads: “When lies must be told, they should be told by subordinate officials. At no point should the President be asked to lend himself to the cover operation” so that “someone else’s head can be placed in the block if things to terribly wrong.”

01:15:18Copy video clip URL Terkel expounds on the fine difference between skepticism and cynicism before Galbraith gives a few closing remarks.

 

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