Harry Skornia, peace activist

Television and Society has the necessary components to make it the classical study of television as a social institution. The natural authority with which Dr Skornia explores the complexities of the institutional character of TV was earned during the years of his unselfish devotion in proving the potential of TV in education and in social liberation. (McLuhan’s blurb for the back cover of Skornia’s 1965 Television and Society)

 Robert Rutherford Smith in Beyond the Wasteland: The Criticism of Broadcasting (1976) gives this capsule portrait of Skornia:

It has been charged that television and radio news, as the activity of corporations with vested interests in defense and other economic activities, is influenced by what is thought to be the corporate well-being. Anti-war activists were particularly enamored of this argument. Harry Skornia, author of Television and the News [1968] is perhaps the most eloquent advocate of this point of view. (65)

A note at the Veterans For Peace website memorializes “Dr Harry Skornia, the ardent peace activist who founded PBS, but is virtually unknown, even to those who work in public broadcasting.” Skornia died in 1991. And yet ‘World Storytelling Day‘ (“If I can hear your story, it’s harder for me to hate you.”), held around the world almost 30 years later on March 30, 2018, was dedicated to him in its Minneapolis iteration. Veterans For Peace was one of the sponsors of the event there.

Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough1 cited Skornia in remarks to the Senate from September 12, 1969:

Consider for a moment the rigors of qualifying as a third grade teacher. The applicant must have a college degree from a school of education. She must be qualified under standards established by the state for a teachers’ certificate. She must meet the standards of the local school board. She must have spent some time as a “practice teacher.” She may continue to take in-service training. She must meet these standards because she is going to spend time with a group of perhaps 25 children for a few hours a day for a few months out of the year. She will be giving them ideas, information, opinions, attitudes, and behavior patterns that must hold them in good stead throughout life. We don’t want to trust their minds to any but the most skillful and responsible of hands. Contrast these concerns and standards, if you will, with those we associate with broadcasters, with their access to millions of young minds for far more hours every year. As Harry Skornia has said, “Although broadcasting is one of the most powerful forces shaping social values and behavior, broadcast staffs and management in the United States generally have no specific professional standards to meet.” There are exceptions. But of the NAB Code Skornia says, “A document so vaguely worded, so defensive, and so flagrantly violated, can hardly be seriously considered a real code of either ethics or practices.” He believes that the mass media “should be entrusted only to professionals, who study their effects as carefully as new drug manufacturers are expected to test new drugs before putting them on the market.” News is, of course, a special concern: “It must be recognized that news, like medicine or education, is too important to be entrusted to people without proper qualifications.” Let me hasten to make clear that I do not urge that the FCC is the most appropriate agency to establish such professional standards, or to engage in licensing. But I do urge that the American people have the right to expect professional standards from those who instruct millions of young people Saturday morning that are at least as high as those it imposes upon the teachers who instruct a classroom of 25 on Monday morning. And I share Harry Skornia’s concern that: “In news and public affairs, particularly, the fact that there is no national academic standard prerequisite to practice, and that neither the names of the schools from which newsmen graduate, nor their diplomas or degrees, if indeed they are even considered necessary to employment, represent any definitive standard of intellectual accomplishment, morality, character qualification, or even technical skill, is disturbing if not shocking.” (25286) 

That same year Skornia was quoted extensively by Congressman William D Hathaway of Maine in his “extended remarks” from Monday, December 1, 1969 on “censorship of the broadcast media”.

Professor Harry Skornia has alleged: “In case after case it appears that the broadcast industry itself has firmly blocked release to the public of certain facts. Although this blockage sometimes has been on behalf of the political party in power, or the military, with which large corporations are closely allied, most of it seems related to the financial and profit interests of corporations controlling broadcasting, either as station or network operators, sponsors, or a part of the business community generally, as opposed to the over-all national interest.”
Here’s another comment from Mr. Skornia: “The press might render a great service if it let the public know how things stand between say, the copper companies and Central America. Or the oil companies and the Middle East. In the broadcast area, questions might be raised regarding the pressures exerted on the United States government by fruit, oil, sugar, tobacco, and other companies with investments in Cuba since Castro’s rise to power. Why are these enormous problems so little discussed in view of the overwhelming importance they have in making United States foreign policy?” (36300)

  1. From his Wiki bio: “Yarborough was known as “Smilin’ Ralph” and used the slogan “Let’s put the jam on the lower shelf so the little people can reach it” in his campaigns. He staunchly supported the “Great Society” legislation that encompassed Medicare and Medicaid, the War on Poverty, federal support for higher education and veterans, and other programs. He also co-wrote the Endangered Species Act and was the most powerful proponent of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Yarborough criticized the Vietnam War and supported Robert F. Kennedy in the 1968 presidential election until the latter’s assassination.”