Nat Hentoff on Steve Allen, TV Critic


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April 9, 1958, Vol. III, No. 24

Steve Allen and the Evasion of Criticism

By Nat Hentoff

Steve Allen’s prolix shadow-boxing of Jack O’Brian’s ears in this journal on March 19 detonated a small brouhaha. Columnist Hy Gardner noted approvingly that Allen was being congratulated by the trade; Allen noted approvingly that Allen was being congratulated by the trade; and Time magazine ran a characteristically inconsequential story on the incident. (Time leads all publications, including U.S. News and World Report, when it comes to missing the basic point of any story in any context.)

O’Brian says he is not going to answer the Allen term paper so I will, although I’m in on a pass. Contrary to appearances, Allen’s essay was not an answer to my column in TV critics–in which I had largely praised O’Brian–but was already written and was just looking for a home. I find, by the way, that the fact of my lauding O’Brian has puzzled and occasionally angered several liberal friends of mine who cannot understand how I can approve a reactionary in any area of his activities. (O’Brian’s definition of a reactionary, incidentally, is a guy who reaction to any situation you can predict before the situation even occurs.) I repeat, however, that although I find O’Brian’s gratuitous hauling of Roy Cohnisms into hs columns thoroughly repugnant, I fault him on one score at a time and don’t condemn him in toto. Except for his being the David Lawrence of TV columnists with regard to politics, I still think O’Brian is second only to Jack Gould in this city for taste, courage, and knowledge of the medium he’s writing about.

…During the substance of Allen’s argument, the main charges seem slim indeed. He objects to O’Brian’s consistent harpooning of Godfrey, Sullivan, and others of “the biggest names in the business.” If a man is aware of the capacities of a medium, he rightly becomes enraged when that medium is being consumed by mediocrities and fools. It’s to O’Brian’s credit that he keeps measuring the small talents (has Allen ever read Shaw’s music criticism?)…

…Allen’s own skill as a TV critic is, I trust, not to be wholly judged by his astonishing statement that David Brinkley and Chet Huntley “are two peas in a pod.” As O’Brian rightly has noted, they are almost completely different. Huntley is humorless, not particularly incisive, and, in general, an average, competent “news-analyst.” Brinkley is drily funny, unusually perceptive–he is almost in a class with Howard K. Smith–and much the warmer of the two personalities. Allen writes that O’Brian puts down Huntley because “he suspects Huntley of liberal political inclinations.” Yet it is Brinkley who is the more outspoken liberal of the two and the more effective and anti-Administration marksman, and Brinkley whom O’Brian has praised. I’m surprised actually that O’Brian does occasionally have something good to say about Brinkley, and at least he doesn’t call the tandem “two peas in a pod.”

…Allen’s vision of the world…is of an “adjusted” society wherein we are all polite to each other and suppress those of our feelings that are not approved or that might get us–the worst of all penalties–disliked by someone. I would think that if the positive measure of a critic is that he be on polite terms with everyone he writes about, we had better replace Murray Kempton with Norman Vincent Peale, Jack Gould with Charles Kenny, and B.H. Haggin with Harriet Johnson. Allen knows better, I think. His own approach to comedy, the fact that he wrote the article about O’Brian, and some of his short stories would imply that he realizes that the primary danger to our society is the growing queue of the bland leading the bland. Politeness, hell. The need is for more people, including critics, to learn to express their feelings again, to say and write what they feel, not what they hope their audience wants to hear. All men area weak; let’s not make them any weaker.

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