Lowell Thomas: The journalist who introduced Lawrence of Arabia to the world, and the world to America
No American journalist lived as many lives as Lowell Thomas: a pioneer in radio and television journalism, the country's foremost radio newscaster when radio was the country's top news medium. During the First World War, Thomas traveled to the Middle East and discovered T.E. Lawrence, the man upon whom he bestowed an outsized and inextinguishable celebrity as Lawrence of Arabia. During the Second World War, Thomas was considered so valuable to American morale that the Roosevelt administration wouldn't allow him to risk covering the war overseas.
Thomas—quite the swashbuckling adventurer—took American audiences with him on the radio and in newsreels, established personality driven journalism and reported, earlier than most of his colleagues, from around the world. He courageously managed to slip into Tibet, where he interviewed the Dalai Lama just before the Chinese invaded. His stories, both beloved and belittled for their grandiosity, shaped American knowledge of the world and influenced foreign policy as well. In due course his enterprising zeal included founding Capital Cities, which eventually bought ABC.
Journalism in this country and around the world continues to follow his model: aggressive, entrepreneurial, unabashed, technologically advanced. Indeed, before helping invent radio and television journalism, Thomas put together—in 1919—what may qualify as the world's first multi-media production: his lecture on Lawrence in Arabia—employing film, photos, music and narration, and seen by two million people around the world. Today, however, we are living with the consequences of the stature with which Thomas endowed Lawrence. In 1921, Lawrence's fame inspired Winston Churchill to give him a prominent seat at the table which drew up the new borders and selected new rulers for the Middle East. Lawrence's influence was a critical component of those fateful decisions.
Much of the history of twentieth-century journalism is, consequently, the story of Lowell Thomas an ingenious, enterprising, globetrotting man. He was in the forefront of those who helped this new world power learn about the world in which it was beginning to exercise its muscle. As a distinguished product of and representative of his times, his story illustrates how journalism was transformed in the Twentieth Century and how, in turn, it helped transform America.
And that is the story we want to tell. The documentary we are proposing would not be an "and-then-he-did-this" biography. We have, instead, a point to make: that the journalism Thomas helped create in the last century not only shaped the nature of American journalism and American perceptions of the world but also had political and cultural ramifications around the globe.
The Thomas Residual Trust is committed to financially supporting this documentary without exerting editorial influence. Rick Moulton, an award winning Documentary filmmaker, who knew and filmed interviews with Lowell Thomas in the early 1980's, will serve as the director and producer. Moulton has created the filmography of the Thomas film holdings and overseen the digitization of his selected films and photos. Recently he teamed up with Lola Van Wagenen and Mitchell Stephens to produce the web exhibit : Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend—Creating History. (http://www.cliohistory.org/thomas-lawrence/legacy/)
That highly acclaimed exhibit examines the relationship between Thomas and Lawrence, underscoring an interesting irony: while Lawrence has become a legendary, iconic figure, the man who created that legend—and became for a time America's best-known journalist—has almost been lost to history. He has not previously been the subject of a documentary or biography.
The web exhibit demonstrates some of the richness of the available materials (we'll have full access to the Thomas archives)—including early, unprecedented films, photos and audio from around the world. The quality and interest of the visual and audio materials will match the importance and interest of Lowell Thomas' story. We will be able both to offer some perspective on American journalism and America in the twentieth century and make an engaging, visually interesting film-filled with adventures and interesting personages.
The same team that worked on the web exhibit, Moulton, Stephens and Van Wagenen will collaborate on the production of the film joined by associate producer and DP David Wright, known for his location work for Smithsonian, Discovery and National Geographic. Moulton will serve as Director/Producer. Stephens will write the film, help conduct interviews and offer his own "on camera" expertise. Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of a number of books on journalism, is also working on the first Lowell Thomas biography, which will draw upon and expand the story presented in the film. Van Wagenen, a historian by training, will also serve as an associate producer.