John Houseman was a film and radio star whose 50-year media career included masterpieces in the golden age of film, the second golden age of television with “The Paper Chase” and one of the most famous radio broadcasts in American history, “The War of the Worlds.”
Lesser known in America, but even more important is that Houseman was the first director of the Voice of America. He didn’t make it to the Internet Age but his role in the creation of a news and information radio service directed at the people of the Axis countries left a lasting legacy at the now 71-year old VOA. Alan L. Heil, in Voice of America, describes Houseman as one of the early individuals “that forged the soul of Voice of America.”
But it wasn’t an easy job. The beginning of World War II didn’t go so well for the United States. The December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor led to the conquest of Burma, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Singapore as well as the near destruction of shipping in the Atlantic. Things looked bleak but VOA stood by its principles to tell foreign audiences the facts, honestly and objectively. At the 40th anniversary of Voice of America, Houseman himself remarked, “…we would have to report our reverses without weaseling. Only thus could we establish a reputation for honesty that we hoped would pay off on that distant but inevitable day when we would start reporting our own invasions and victories.”
Walter Roberts, now 97, who started work in 1942 for VOA’s Austrian service, agreed. He echoed the first VOA broadcast in an interview earlier this year: “The news may be good for us. It may be bad. But we shall always tell the truth. That was very important to all of us.”
That tradition lives on today.
“The journalistic integrity and reputation for honest reporting that John Houseman brought to the Voice of America as its first director in 1942 are part of the foundation upon which VOA was built,” said David Ensor, current Director of VOA, “and led to what it is today: one of the most widely respected international news organizations in the world.”
Though “War of the Worlds” lives on in radio legend while “The Paper Chase” only survives in the bargain bin of niche video stores, Voice of America is Houseman’s most important and most enduring legacy. Today VOA broadcasts accurate and reliable news to 134 million people in 45 languages, which makes it worthy of being called a masterpiece.
By Blake Stilwell