4 — Media

Sub-project 4: Mediating civilization: Debating the role of the United States in the appropriation of media in the Netherlands, 1890-1990

PhdD candidate: Jesper Verhoef


This project examines the referential role of the United States with respect to values associated with twentieth-century media technologies, formats, and content. The focus will be on Dutch appreciation of media that emerged during the twentieth century and was associated with American technologies and cultural values, such as illustrated magazines, film, radio, television and the early internet.


It has often been assumed that as far as twentieth-century media are concerned, the United States set the terms of the debate. The ‘American Century’ that media tycoon Henry Luce famously announced in 1941, was very much a media century. As Luce claimed, ‘American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common.’ By then, mass media—a term only coined in the 1920s—appeared to have become a vehicle for the dissemination of American ideas, images, and mass culture.


There is some truth in Luce’s assertion. Entrepreneurs in the United States invested heavily in refining popular applications, which they aggressively turned into patented commercial successes. American media formats, ranging from the newspaper column and the radio talk show to sitcoms and blogs, provided models and set standards for journalists, publishers and producers across the Atlantic. Media content from the United States, for example Hollywood movies, was exemplary to Europeans.


The American-style entertainment that fascinated mass audiences everywhere worried some European commentators. Opinion makers feared that ‘Americanization’ would lead to an erosion of local cultural values and hierarchies. The ambivalent Dutch attitude towards the United States factor in the rise and development of modern mass media seems to mirror the general European perspective. Yet, we do not know how the Dutch vacillated between fascination and resistance in their reception of media technologies and media techniques. The question of how the United States functioned as a reference culture in this area is especially poignant for the Netherlands, as country whose elite prided itself on its regard for ‘high’ culture—while at the consumer level, popular culture was often appropriated without compunction.


Did these later developments mark the final embrace, at long last, of cultural forms emanating from the United States? Or had the Dutch always regarded the United States more as a boon than a bane? This project seeks to answer these questions. When did the Dutch begin to approve or disapprove of American media, and in what ways did they do so? What values were accorded to which media technologies, formats and content? How did the Dutch appreciation of transatlantic media vary over time? And how do we explain variation and change in attitudes?


To answer these questions, this sub-project will relate the results of the Dutch newspaper analysis to three historical developments: the integration of emerging media technologies into Dutch society, the changing face of Dutch culture, and the incorporation of the Dutch economy into the global economy. Did changes in attitude towards media in the United States reflect a technological catch-up effort on the part of the Dutch? Perhaps appreciations varied because Dutch culture itself evolved—a case in point (but certainly not the only one) is ‘depillarisation’ (ontzuiling), which reduced religious (and elite) influence on Dutch society after the 1960s. Relating the timing of variations in public debate to ‘objectifiable’ data such as statistics on radio ownership, cultural change, and commercial broadcasting, we will offer a new perspective on both the referential role of the United States and Dutch attitudes to modern media.


The sub-project will provide an inventory of technologies, formats and content related to the appropriation of Dutch media that emerged during the twentieth century. The occurrence in Dutch newspapers of sentiments concerning each of these items will be systematically analyzed, making allowances for the shifting nature of the newspapers themselves. To assess the quantitative results of e-history, a selection of Dutch newspaper and magazine articles will be examined in order to determine which social groups appeared to be making which claims.