SOLOMON: Letting Media Myths Rest In Peace
Back in the early '60s, Alan Shepard and Robert Young cast huge shadows on the national media stage. So, after the heroic astronaut and the famous actor both died on July 21, the media coverage stirred up memories that are dim yet deep.On May 5, 1961, when Shepard became the first American to fly into space, he electrified the nation. In those days, we were hearing a lot about a torch that had been passed to a new generation. Shepard served as a symbol of youthful vigor and high-tech prowess.The media emphasis was on technological achievement fused with cold-warrior firmness. The best and the brightest macho men would bear any burden, pay any price for democracy. Rhetoric about a New Frontier implied renewal of America's pioneer roots. Like the Indians who had perished in past centuries, the poor of the Third World were beside the point.It seemed fitting that Shepard's brief and historic flight was in a space capsule dubbed "Freedom 7." Shepard and the six other Mercury astronauts were America's A-team in the space race. President Kennedy declared -- prophetically -- that the United States could land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.In the media spirit of the times, NASA epitomized the nation's strong sense of purpose. But such steely resolve never developed to pursue goals like ending poverty in this country, or seeing to it that all children could grow up with equal access to the resources of society.Meanwhile, as front pages told of America's breakthroughs in space, the most popular TV entertainment included "Father Knows Best." The program had an endearing quality. Mild humor and kindness prevailed. Minor tensions created just enough turmoil to make the televised drama seem plausible.On "Father Knows Best," Robert Young was good-natured and reassuring, week after week and year after year. The show remained on prime-time national television from 1954 to 1963. But off camera, in his own life, the man playing the father who knew best was struggling with alcoholism. "I drank, and I drank a lot," he later recalled.Outwardly confident -- even serene -- on the set, Young was inwardly consumed with fright. "For over 30 years," he was to remember, "I lived almost every waking hour filled with fear. Fear of many things -- the unknown -- of some expected calamity around the corner that never comes. A feeling that this stardom I was lucky enough to attain would not last, that I was not worthy, that I didn't deserve it."But when we watched "Father Knows Best," we were apt to measure ourselves against the mythic characters -- the parents, Margaret and Jim Anderson, and their kids named Betty ("Princess"), Bud and Kathy ("Kitten"). For them, doubts and confusion seemed slight.Looking back on "Father Knows Best," 17 years after the shooting stopped, the actor who'd played Bud gave voice to the kind of introspection that was anathema to the program. "I'm ashamed I had any part of it," Billy Gray said. "People felt warmly about the show and that show did everybody a disservice."Gray perceived that he'd had a role in a deceptive project: "I felt that the show purported to be real life, and it wasn't. I regret that it was ever presented as a model to live by." One of the biggest drawbacks had to do with rigid gender stereotypes that the program taught and reinforced. "The show contributed a lot to the problems between men and women that we see today."Styles have changed, but today's media products are still fabrications. To a great extent, the larger-than-life images that take up residence on TV screens and glossy magazine covers -- and in our minds -- are designed and manufactured as surely as Beanie Babies and new cars. Their value and meaning are vastly overrated.The guy who played Bud for all those years on "Father Knows Best" went on to offer some cautionary words about media heroes: "I think we were all well motivated but what we did was run a hoax. We weren't trying to, but that is what it was. Just a hoax."