Gwyneth Mellinger is a professor in the School of Media Arts & Design at James Madison University. She is serving her second term on the AJHA Board of Directors. Her research focuses on the southern press of the 1950s, the newsroom diversity movement, and journalism ethics. Mellinger is the author of Chasing Newsroom Diversity: From Jim Crow to Affirmative Action and co-editor, with John Ferré, of Journalism’s Ethical Progression: A Twentieth-Century Journey.
When and how did you first become involved in AJHA?
I was recruited by Carolyn Kitch. While working on my doctorate in American Studies, I presented a paper at the 2004 conference of the Middle-Atlantic American Studies Association in Lehigh, PA. This was my very first paper presentation, and I had the good fortune to draw Carolyn as the moderator and respondent. She suggested that AJHA would be an appropriate venue for the research I was doing on race and press history. In 2005 I attended my first AJHA conference in San Antonio and have missed only a few since then. Although American Studies influences my approach to scholarship, AJHA and the AEJMC History Division have been my primary academic homes.
You'll be receiving two awards for your paper at the upcoming AJHA convention. What inspired this research? How does it fit into your overall research agenda?
The paper examines criticism of the Pittsburg Courier’s Double V campaign that appeared in the white press during the early years of World War II. The paper is in conversation with the extensive research on the wartime Black press by Patrick Washburn and others, but my project asks why prominent whites like syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler and newspaper editor Virginius Dabney, who wrote for magazines, used their national platforms to disparage the Black press in 1942. Given the existential threat posed by fascism, why was the Black press suddenly their priority? The historical context of the wartime civil rights movement is important, as is the oppositional relationship between the Black and white presses. Ultimately, I am concerned with how this discourse fed into the segregationist backlash during the 1950s.
What can you tell us about other research projects you're working on?
I am on leave from JMU this semester to work on a book I hope will be published in the Journalism and Democracy series at UMass Press. The AJHA paper has already been folded into a chapter in that manuscript, which explores the ways that the white press, particularly in the South, tried to use journalism standards like objectivity to control the news narrative as civil rights gains chipped away at the legal and social structure that supported white privilege and Black subjugation. I’ve been collecting research for this book for years; earlier AJHA papers on the Associated Press and the Southern Education Reporting Service also contribute to this historical narrative. This also underscores one of the benefits of the AJHA scholarly community, where a project like this can evolve over time.
How has your career as a professional journalist informed your historical research?
I love doing archival research, which feels like doing journalism except all my sources are dead. My methodological technique, specifically the way I focus the scope of an inquiry and triangulate information, is something I knew how to do before graduate school. The perspective of the journalist also has allowed me to see that nothing happens in isolation, that historical events or episodes (topics for conference papers) are part of an overarching narrative. Graduate seminars that teach this are useful, of course, but being a journalist is on-the-job training for work in the archive. In addition, my years as a journalist provide insight into newswork and the function of the press. These are not theoretical concepts for me, even if I am doing research on a period that preceded my own time in the newsroom.
How do you incorporate your historical knowledge into your teaching of non-historical subjects?
In the spring my teaching portfolio will be courses in media ethics and media literacy. I am this year transitioning from administrative duties to full-time teaching and research. In neither of my spring courses will it be possible to draw students through the content without placing it in historical context. Our conceptions of both media ethics and media literacy have evolved over time, and the fact of this change makes history relevant to how students perceive the subjects today. Nothing about media is static and that is one of my themes in the classroom.
What are some of your interests and hobbies outside of academia?
I’ve been fortunate to travel a fair amount and am looking forward to doing more now that we have vaccines for covid. I also have a semester-long teaching-abroad opportunity coming up in a few years. I was fortunate to spend a semester in the UK and to take numerous side trips then. My husband and I have a list of places we want to visit before we hang up our passports.
My relaxation is gardening. When I get writer’s block, I often head outside, where the act of pulling weeds or working the dirt gives me the space to reflect on my work. Even if I don’t return to the den with an insight, I’m in a different place mentally when I do resume my writing. This year I harvested 88 heads of garlic, along with tomatoes, squash, asparagus, peppers and melons.