Dr. Jean Folkerts' Acceptance Speech on Being Awarded the 2016 AJHA Sidney Kobre Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism History

21 Jan 2017 11:07 PM | Dane Claussen

At the AJHA Convention, St. Petersburg, Florida, October 6, 2016:

I am delighted to accept the Sidney Kobre Lifetime Achievement Award. When I first became involved in journalism history, much of the work being done was what we would term progressive professional history. It was the story of how journalism developed as a profession and how it improved over the years. Rarely did journalism historians address the broader media landscape or make an attempt to anchor journalism history in what was happening in the larger society.

There were a few exceptions to this. One of those exceptions was embodied in the work of Sidney Kobre, who, as David Sloan has pointed out, in many ways adhered to the progressive professional approach, but who approached journalism history from a sociological framework. By using that approach, Sidney Kobre introduced the concept of interdisciplinary approaches to journalism history.

Lifetime achievement awards cause us to look backward perhaps more than forward. I recently received a congratulations note from former Kobre winner Hazel Dicken-Garcia, and in it she included a quotation, “If we celebrate the years behind us, they become stepping stones of strength and joy for the years ahead.” I thought it particularly appropriate, especially when coupled with an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote she cited:  “There is no time like the old time, when you and I were young!”

Looking back—into the old time--, I want to recognize and thank colleagues and mentors. I’d like us all to think about the mentors who helped us create the stepping-stones that will carry us through the years. Our colleagues are important to our achievements, but all of us together serve a greater good – to preserve the teaching of history throughout our universities.

I’d like to thank my colleague Betty Winfield. Many of you know Betty, who has been active in this organization, who is a Sidney Kobre Award winner and who nominated me for this award. Betty established herself as a presidential scholar and throughout her career, Betty always graciously gave her expertise to students and colleagues. I suspect she advised dissertations for some of you in this room.

I’d also like to thank Hazel, who encouraged many of us with serious criticism. One presenter at an AEJMC History Division meeting once referred to her as “Hazel the Knife,” because we all knew Hazel would not let us off the hook if we presented sloppy work. But Hazel, like Betty, always had time for anyone interested in research.

My dissertation adviser, Rita Napier, advised me that the dissertation was not the book and that the only good dissertation was a finished one. Her field was different from mine, but she was an insightful critic and a champion of her students. She taught me the difference between journalistic and scholarly writing and helped me develop a narrative style that gave life to history. The article recently published in American Journalism was begun many years ago under her guidance.

The late Dwight Teeter helped me secure my first book contract. He was to be lead author on Voices of a Nation. But when life intervened and Dwight didn’t have as much time to devote to the book as I did, on his own initiative, he graciously revised the contract, made me first author and assigned me 75% of the royalties. I hope that all senior authors show the same regard for newly minted assistant professors. When I decided to leave Texas, where Dwight was department chair, to get married to my husband, he wouldn’t let me resign, but gave me a leave of absence instead. He said he just wanted to give me time to make sure I was making the right decision. That was nearly 35 years ago.

None of us can succeed without the help of others. In other words, we all are in it together. In 1982, Dave Nord and Owen Johnson came to the first presentation I made at AEJMC – despite the fact it was scheduled for late afternoon on the last day of the convention. Owen often organized a crowd to sing happy birthday to me at the annual AEJMC convention, which almost always fell on my birthday. The late Catherine Covert introduced me to a group of women at that same convention, and one of those women, Mary Ann Yodelis Smith, later wrote a letter supporting me for promotion to full professor.  

One of the people who wrote a letter supporting me for this award, James Baughman, recently died at an altogether too young age. Jim was a kind and supportive colleague and mentor, not only for Wisconsin students and faculty, but also for those of us who interacted with him primarily at annual journalism or history meetings. He always cheered me onward with great good humor and high standards.

Not only are our mentors important in helping us achieve our goals, but also our students inspire us, force us to stay current, challenge us with their questions and rely on our good judgment and our willingness to support and challenge them. It is our obligation to treat them with respect and good will, to be there for them when they need us, and to let them fly away when they need to become independent.

It is this circle of being mentored and mentoring—of creating an environment of graciousness and respect—that allows us to create the world of intellectual inquiry important to us all.

Which brings us back to the present and to the necessity of looking forward. I can repeat the lamentations of how media programs have dropped history requirements in favor of teaching digital techniques and how freedom of speech is in jeopardy and must be defended constantly. These issues are of major concern. These two concerns seem quite different, but in reality they are not. They both speak to the necessity of preserving the freedom of—and the need for—intellectual inquiry. I think that’s what excites many of us about studying the past. We are curious about what happened and when and why. We want to know what implications different events have for the present and future. And we simply revel in following the curious pathways that lead us to our conclusions.

Some years ago a distinguished Southern historian, C. Vann Woodward, wrote about the meaning of time and place in a slim volume titled Thinking Back. Woodward said, "Much has been made of time and place and ideas as influences on the writing of history.” In this retrospective view of being a historian, Woodward describes how time, place, ideas and audiences influenced the subjects he chose to write about and the questions he chose to ask.  

In this election year, we are confronted with time and place and the seeming lack of intellectual inquiry. We lament the horse-race media coverage of the elections and wish for more in-depth analysis of issues.  We ask ourselves what questions will emerge from this time and place for historians in years to come.

Despite current predictions of democratic demise, we know, because we are historians, that some things change while others remain the same, or at least similar. And the democracy probably will survive.

During the 1884 presidential campaign, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph reported that Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland had fathered an out-of-wedlock child in his youth. There was more than a little doubt about whether Cleveland was indeed the father, but he had supported the child for some years. During the campaign the press pressured Cleveland into admitting his affair with Maria Crofts Halpin, at which point opponents marched in the streets, crying, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?  Gone to the White House, ha! Ha! Ha!” The suffrage press was particularly outraged. A political cartoon depicted Cleveland throwing an angry tantrum while a woman weeps, holding in her arms an infant who cries, “I want my pa.” At the time the cartoon was published the “infant” was ten years old.  

Two years later, when Cleveland married the twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom, a woman less than half his age (Cleveland was 49), reporters for the leading newspapers staked out the president’s Maryland honeymoon cottage and tried to peer into the bedroom windows with spyglasses.  

President Cleveland was outraged, chastising reporters for repeating “ridiculous” stories and writing to the New York Evening Post that the press had “used the enormous power of the modern newspaper to perpetuate . . .a colossal impertinence.” The Washington Post told the president he had no right to consider his public First Lady a mere private citizen, stating that “privacy about a private matter does not suit the American people who, since the advent of modern journalism, have no private matters.

The rhetoric during the Cleveland campaign could be likened to that of this time and place—but during this time pegged more to social media and the result of everyone having his or her own voice. Perhaps these are the voices we will question when we look back from the future, wondering whether they reflect a certain time and place or whether they misrepresented the true voices of early twenty-first century society.

Whatever questions arise, we know that our time here—at this moment—will give rise to new historical questions. I hope we will be able to organize the current “noise” voiced through so many avenues and apply a sense of true historical inquiry to better understand the societal climate. Sidney Kobre was one of the pioneers in trying to understand how media are interwoven with society. I hope that this award reminds us all of the importance of his pioneer work.

This organization—AJHA-- has done much to foster historical inquiry and the teaching of media history. I’ve used materials from the website in my own classes, and I’ve always appreciated the shared wisdom, the guidance of those who have been in the field for a long time, and the enthusiasm and new ideas from the young. I hope that you continue the good work you have carried out over the years and that young historians continue to benefit from your collegial efforts.

Thank you again. I am very grateful to all of you. 

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