Pickard on Forgotten Critical Histories of Communication Research

05 Apr 2017 6:44 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Victor Pickard presented the paper, “Communication’s Forgotten Narratives: The Lost History of Charles Siepmann and Critical Policy Research,” at the National Communication Association convention in November 2016 in Philadelphia. The Intelligencer asked Prof. Pickard to tell us more about how and why he’s been researching Charles Siepmann, including why it’s important and interesting to the field.)

By Victor Pickard

University of Pennsylvania (Annenberg School for Communication)

The intellectual history of communication research has much to recover, especially from its critical traditions that have been marginalized within standard historiographies. These include Marxist political economy, critical cultural studies, and social democratic policy research. Elevating these traditions’ histories is inherently a political project since narratives about the field often reflect tacit assumptions about the parameters of legitimate scholarship and discursive boundaries. Dominant historical narratives typically emphasize certain sub-fields and research traditions while de-emphasizing others, suggesting deeper tensions and larger erasures in the communication field’s history. One such neglected thread that I focus on in my research is embodied by a reformist policy scholar who is all but forgotten in communication research: Charles Siepmann.

A BBC programming director in the 1930s and the author of the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial “Blue Book” report in the 1940s, Charles Siepmann figures prominently in my recent book America’s Battle for Media Democracy. My ongoing research, however, goes beyond focusing on his role as a leading media reformer to begin recovering his legacy—and also his disappearance—in the academic field of communication. For over the past decade I have been tracking down Siepmann’s surviving students and acquaintances, and searching for archival and textual traces of his teaching, research, and activism. For someone who was so prolific and visible, his omission from the academic historical record is glaring. 

Siepmann fled to the academy at a critical moment in the 1940s when the field of communication was first forming. After fleeing an increasingly toxic Washington, D.C., as anti-communist hysteria began to take hold, Seipmann joined New York University in 1946 to become the founding director of arguably the first American doctorate-granting communication program. For over two decades, he mentored dozens of media scholars and practitioners and authored a number of influential books. His scholarship typically engaged with key policy problems and he often spoke out publicly on issues related to media reform. For his entire time in the academy and afterwards until his death in the mid-1980s, he was a prominent public intellectual who intervened in key policy debates across three countries. In addition to remaining engaged with British media policy debates long after he left the BCC in the late 1930s, his policy activism extended to Canada, where in 1949 he led a comprehensive survey of Canadian broadcasting for the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (the “Massey Commission”). 

However, most of his efforts were focused on American media policy, where for over three decades he fought tirelessly to establish public-interest broadcasting. While advocating for a more socially responsible commercial media system, he also pushed for nonprofit educational programming. For example, he advised the National Educational Television Center (NET) during its struggle to define an American vision for educational/public broadcasting. He also was a key adviser on educational broadcasting for the Ford Foundation, which played an instrumental role in establishing American public broadcasting in the late 1960s. Carrying BBC-inspired social democratic visions, he valued a structurally diverse media system, a “mixed system” involving public interest protections, subsidies, and active community engagement, while allowing both commercial and noncommercial models of media production to flourish. Most important, Siepmann’s social democratic orientation recognized that media are not just business commodities but also public services, and such critical services and infrastructures shouldn’t be left entirely to the market’s mercy.

Despite this engagement, Siepmann goes almost entirely unmentioned in communication’s historiography. Why has he been forgotten? I suggest in my research—and I plan to further develop this argument in a future book project—that such absences reflect ideological orientations in the field that are rarely examined. Historically, much of the communication field has been characterized by a liberal consensus that, to varying degrees, embraces pluralism and tolerance toward a diverse range of theoretical frameworks and methodologies. This ecumenical approach has yielded many benefits and overall the field has been richer for it, even encouraging communication departments to occasionally hire radical scholars. This orientation has led toward diversifying students and faculty in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, with a greater emphasis on globalizing communication research. But these positive developments notwithstanding, the field’s liberal pluralist center has been too often complacent toward—and thus indirectly complicit in—core structural problems such as inequality and racism that require more activist-oriented types of research. In general, an implicit defense—or quiet acquiescence—vis-à-vis status quo power relationships, especially as they pertain to accommodating a commercial media system, has persisted throughout the communication field’s history. 

Many factors contribute to this de-politicization. The field’s early social science influences tend to privilege the predictive and descriptive over the prescriptive and normative. Furthermore, tendencies in the field to acknowledge only limited media effects, valorize active audiences, and celebrate the affordances of new technologies may also disfavor more critical and structural analyses. And in some cases, the field’s direction has been steered by more overtly ideological forces. Indeed, radical traditions that intervene against structural inequities have often been pushed to the discursive margins, especially during the Cold War era when various kinds of red-baiting and surveillance were common. National security imperatives and corporate influences during the field’s early days also left a mark. Although the Frankfurt School’s influence usually receives at least a nod in the received origin narratives, critical scholars such as C. Wright Mills, Dallas Smythe, and Charles Siepmann are not central characters in such historical dramas, while Wilbur Schramm, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Robert Merton are granted this special status.

To be sure, critical sub-fields have persisted and even flourished at times, and even most mainstream approaches have at least implicitly embraced normative commitments toward positive social change. Moreover, a diversity of tactics, whether activist or academic, are required to confront today’s myriad problems, and advocating for field that’s rigidly defined by political agendas is counter-productive. Nonetheless, given our contemporary moment, more engaged research is needed, which requires a broader political imaginary and a commitment to social justice. To ignore the historical decisions and conflicts that helped shape the communication field as it now exists is to render it impossible to have an informed debate about the field’s future possibilities.

Forgotten activist scholars like Charles Siepmann may help open up alternative trajectories. His insights are as vital now for digital media—including debates about the future of journalism, public media, and even the internet—as they were 50 years ago for broadcasting. If anything, Donald Trump’s ascendance in the US, the Brexit decision in the UK, and the rise of far-right parties around the world suggest a failure of core institutions and democracy-sustaining processes, including media and information systems. The problems facing democratic societies today—the collapse of journalism, worsening inequality, structural racism and xenophobia—demand that scholars fully engage with political struggles. This will require recovering and mainstreaming critical scholarship that aims to not merely study and describe the world, but to also change it.

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