Intelligencer

Intelligencer is a blog featuring teaching and research essays as well as news about the organization and its members.

To submit member news or suggest a blog topic, contact Intelligencer editor Dane Claussen.

PDFs of the Intelligencer in its previous newsletter form can be found at the Intelligencer archive. Visit the News page for press releases on the organization's activities.

  • 04 Apr 2017 6:54 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)
    (Editor's Note: Prof. Gerry Lanosga presented his research-in-progress, “The Dean, the Diplomat, and Democracy: Exporting American Values Through the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes in Journalism,” at the AJHA convention in October 2016 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Lanosga to tell us more about how and why he became interested in the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, and why it is interesting and important.)

    By Gerry Lanosga

    Indiana University

    For many years I have had a fascination with journalism prizes, but my interest in them started out in a very narrow way. Initially, I was simply seeking a means of documenting the extent of investigative reporting in American journalism during the first half of the twentieth century. I found what I was looking for in the little-examined administrative records of the Pulitzer Prizes, which contained details not only about prize winners but about thousands of non-winning entries going all the way back to 1917.(1)

    In that limited approach, I was following the lead of others who have used prizes in a strictly instrumental fashion. Before long, however, I began thinking about prizes on their own terms, with a history of their own that could offer a unique vantage point to study journalism’s professional culture. As my research expanded beyond the Pulitzers, I came to realize that journalism prizes don’t exist in a closed system. Rather, they are susceptible to external influences and likewise can make an impact beyond the journalistic professional sphere.(2)

    That is certainly the case with the Maria Moors Cabot prizes, the subject of my research-in-progress presentation at the AJHA conference in St. Petersburg last year. The Cabot prizes were launched in 1939 by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, home of the Pulitzer Prizes. Named in honor of the diplomat John Moors Cabot’s late mother, the prizes were the first international awards for journalism, established with the official aim of recognizing journalism that “advances public understanding and sympathy among the peoples of any two countries in the Western Hemisphere.” 

    The first Cabot prizes were given to two South American newspapers, whose leaders were feted during a weeklong celebration in New York. The official story of the awards was told in grand speeches with lofty rhetoric about international friendship, mutual aid, and journalism as a tool of public education. But behind the press releases and speech transcripts there is an intriguing origin story of a top journalistic institution that worked closely and secretly with the U.S. State Department on the prizes at a time when the United States was wary of developing security threats south of its borders. The prizes were shaped in important ways by top foreign policy officials, and in turn they played an important role in promoting American journalistic and political norms in Latin America.

    This compelling back story emerges from the letters of Columbia’s first journalism dean, Carl Ackerman, a prominent but somewhat-neglected figure in early twentieth century journalism history.(3) The official school files at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, as well as Ackerman’s personal papers at the Library of Congress, contain correspondence that details an extensive collaboration between the dean and various diplomatic officials over the course of more than two decades of Cabot prizes.

    At the time of the prize founding, John Moors Cabot was assigned to the American legation in the Netherlands, but he would go on to serve as ambassador to four Latin American nations and also as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs. Cabot came up with the idea of the prizes and recruited his father, industrialist and philanthropist Godfrey Cabot, to help endow them.

    Cabot, of course, figures prominently in the correspondence files, but Ackerman also had numerous and detailed contacts with other State Department officials, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull, various under-secretaries, and ambassadors to a number of Latin American countries. While Cabot and Ackerman’s early letters suggest a reluctance for the program to become “semi-official,” it is clear from the overall record that the State Department played more than a casual role in the prizes. Correspondence reveals Ackerman met with Department brass throughout 1937 and 1938 seeking advice and sub rosa endorsement of the prize idea. He called Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle an advocate for “final approval” of the prizes. Once the competition was established, he routinely communicated with “friends” in the Department about the choices for prize winners. He also sought guidance from top journalists of the day, at least some of whom were also closely connected with State Department officials.

    U.S. foreign policy toward at the time was becoming increasingly preoccupied with German and Italian penetration in Latin America, as well as the beginnings of Russian activity in the hemisphere. Ackerman was eager to provide backing for a defense of democracy and American journalistic values. He even described the prizes as a “journalistic Good Neighbor program,” embracing the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s official policy toward Latin America. At the same time, this alignment with government officials and policy was not for public consumption. For instance, Ackerman wrote to Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler in 1938, “From the beginning of my conversations with the Cabots and with Latin American journalists I have emphasized that this is an educational project – not the byproduct of any governmental enterprise. Therefore, my present intention is not to make any reference to the private action of Dr. Cabot in obtaining the “okay” of the State Department.” Naturally, Ackerman’s own back-channel communications with the Department were also kept under cloak of secrecy.

    The Cabot prizes present a fascinating case that sheds light on journalistic acquiescence in the government’s post-World War I project of spreading American political ideals. Margaret Blanchard has demonstrated how the press joined hands with the government in “exporting the First Amendment.”(4) My study uncovers a similar effort to promote American journalistic principles that also helped support U.S. geopolitical priorities in the face of increasing totalitarian influence in Latin America. 

    Notes

    (1) Lanosga, Gerry. “New views of investigative reporting in the twentieth century,” American Journalism 31, no. 4 (2014): 490-506.

    (2) Lanosga, Gerry. “The power of the prize: How an emerging prize culture helped shape journalistic practice and professionalism, 1917-1960.” Journalism 16, no. 7 (2015): 953-967.

    (3) A recent study examines how Ackerman secretly worked with foreign policy officials during World War I. See McCune, Meghan Menard and John Maxwell Hamilton. “‘My object is to be of service to you’: Carl Ackerman and the Wilson administration during WWI.” Intelligence and National Security, online first publication, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02684527.2017.1294643.

    (4) Blanchard, Margaret A. Exporting the First Amendment: The Press-Governance Crusade of 1945-1952. White Plains, N.Y.: Longman Inc (1986).

  • 02 Apr 2017 1:09 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

    David Sloan reports that the 10th edition of his The Media in America textbook was published in February. It includes several new items that AJHA members wrote. Erika Pribanic-Smith (University of Texas-Arlington) and Rob Rabe (Marshall University) wrote historiographical essays for the chapters, and Erin Coyle (LSU), Tracy Lucht (Iowa State), and Ford Risley (Penn State) wrote one-page features. AJHA members also serve as authors of most of the book’s 25 chapters.


  • 01 Apr 2017 5:45 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

    By Dave Vergobbi

    The 2016 presidential election was the seventh one I’ve taught through here at the University of Utah, and this one has impacted my courses unlike any previous election.  What I’ve found is that journalism history has never been more central to educating not just students, but citizens. Because when the democratic process and democracy itself becomes the constant touchstone of a course, the Fourth Estate’s historical checking value provides students purpose, context, meaning, and application for those courses outside the classroom. Journalism history provides students a way to understand how and why the ideal of democracy is supposed to work.  

    A recent media law class session on newsgathering exemplifies my point. Students were polarized on the Freedom of Information Act. The only thing they seemed to agree upon was that it wasn’t needed, and why was I bothering them about it. The larger group argued that the government is in charge of government information and if the government doesn’t want to release the information then it knows best; that’s why we put those people in charge. Appalled, the smaller group argued for full transparency, exemptions be damned. History proffered the common ground for resolution and understanding.  

    We discussed the long 11-year battle to pass the FOIA, and how two historically adversarial institutions, sharing a common frustration over lack of access to administrative agency records, became highly unlikely confederates to wage and win that battle. I shared how the pre-FOIA press had to rely on agency handouts that favorably summarized detailed information when the reporters wanted to see the original documents. Students were more surprised to realize that Congress itself—The Federal Government—could not get information out of the federal administrative agencies, which consistently refused requests from Congressional investigators. The two institutions finally came together in 1955 thanks to Representative John Moss from California, chairman of a House subcommittee on government information and an access-to-information bulldog. After 11 years of hearings, debate and deal-making the bill passed and, even though every administrative agency asked President Lyndon Johnson to veto it, Johnson made it law in 1966. And the students yawned.

    But when my students understood the democratic motives that drove Congress and, especially, the press, the discussion shifted. We started with the United States ratifying the First Amendment in 1791, when James Madison reasoned in the National Gazette on December 19 that “[w]hatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, [such] as…a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people, is…favorable to liberty.” Also, how Madison maintained his view in an 1822 letter concerning “Public Instruction” to William Barry that emphasized citizen access to government information as the basis of self-governance. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both,” Madison wrote, “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

    I passed on a quote from a 1960 report of the House Committee on Government Operations right in the middle of the FOIA battle that said, “Secrecy—the first refuge of incompetents—must be at a bare minimum in a democratic society, for a fully informed public is the basis of self-government,” then showed the students how the report channeled John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s influential 1720 “Cato Letter No. 15.”

    I reminded students of how our friend from early in the semester, Thomas Emerson, connected past to present in “Colonial Intentions and Current Realities of the First Amendment” (1977) when he clarified that a key democratic function of the press was as purveyor of critical information. “The public, as sovereign, must have all information available to instruct its servants, the government,” Emerson wrote. “[T]here can be no holding back of information; otherwise, ultimate decision-making by the people, to whom the function is committed, becomes impossible.” 

    With these and other historical arguments, students started to see and discuss how the democratic self-governing process depends upon an informed citizenry, which in turn depends on the free press — Herbert Altschull’s Democratic Assumption. They began to see and discuss how the news media use open record laws and their First Amendment guarantee to bare the secrets of government and inform the people, and why they have to inform the people. That 40-minute visitation with journalism history showed students how and why news media earn their constitutional protection by providing citizens a marketplace for discussing diverse, often conflicting ideas; a voice for public opinion; surveillance of the political scene and politician performance; and a public watchdog or checking value that uncovers governmental misbehavior, corruption and abuses of power.  

    This discussion did have an impact. I didn’t get to all the issues and points I wanted to make that day, but it has been one of the semester’s most rewarding and successful class sessions. My bet is that you’ve had similar experiences in your courses this year.

    However incorporated in whatever class, journalism history provides students purpose, context, meaning, and application for our courses outside the classroom. Journalism history is more relevant than ever because it produces informed, engaged citizens. Go make that argument to your chair, dean, RTP board, provost, vice president and president. To assist you in that argument, I’ll be emailing you the AJHA Board of Directors’ draft of guidelines “that identify important considerations historians can use to provide context for evaluating their work.” Please look for it and provide the board input and suggestions. Thank you, and enjoy your spring.

  • 20 Mar 2017 6:28 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

    Provincial Newspapers: Lessons from History

    to be held at the Journalism Department,

    Liverpool John Moores University on September 8, 2017.

    Closing date for proposals: 1 June 2017

    Papers are invited for a one-day conference on the theme of provincial, regional and local newspapers. The conference is being jointly organized by media historians from Coventry University and Liverpool John Moores University at a time when newsprint journalism has moved from the intensive care ward and obituaries are being pondered and some written. Yet local and regional journalism has been challenged before and emerged altered if not unscathed. This event will bring industry representatives and academics together to take a retrospective look at the current conundrum faced by the regional local newspaper industry in an effort to extrapolate lessons for the future.

    We welcome paper proposals from all eras and nationalities, shedding new light on longstanding or recent media historical topics. We anticipate sessions of 90 minutes (20 minutes per paper plus 30 minutes of questions /discussion). It is expected that suitable papers will be developed into chapters for an edited volume on this subject for Routledge.

    Themes to explore might include (but are not limited to):

    • The future of the local press and local newspaper businesses
    • Newspapers and regional identity
    • The role of local newspapers in their communities
    • Political and judicial accountability
    • Economic models
    • Trans-regional collaboration
    • Media as political and social discourse
    • Advertising
    • Production and reception histories

    The event is organized by Dr. Guy Hodgson, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at LJMU, and Dr. Rachel Matthews, Principal Lecturer in Journalism, Coventry University. In order to encourage a wide range of papers, there will be no conference fee and lunch will be provided.

    Please include an abstract of no more than 300 words and a cover sheet with a brief biographical note, your institutional affiliation (where relevant) and your contact details (including your email address). Abstracts should be sent to r.matthews@coventry.ac.uk <mailto:r.matthews@coventry.ac.uk>

    Closing date for proposals: 1 June 2017.

    You will be notified of the acceptance of your paper by 15 June 2017.

    More details can be found at: https://historyoftheprovincialpress.wordpress.com.

  • 19 Mar 2017 5:06 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

    (Editor's Note: Prof. Jennifer Abbott presented her paper, "The Lessons of Yesterday’s Public Journalism for Tomorrow’s Citizen-Engaged Journalism," at the National Communication Association convention in Philadelphia in November 2016. As public journalism from the early 1990s already is becoming history, not current events, The Intelligencer asked Dr. Abbott to tell us more about why she is researching this topic, what it means and why it's important.)

    By Jennifer Abbott

    Wabash College

    How might the news media help readers deliberate important public issues? How can journalists encourage citizens to work through a tough issue by bringing diverse perspectives together, developing mutual understanding, weighing tradeoffs, and making collective choices about how to best address the problem?  

    I asked these questions a few years ago after being trained in deliberation facilitation by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. I learned how to arrange and moderate face-to-face conversations in my community about problems like drug addiction. As a scholar and teacher of rhetoric with a background in communication studies, such oral engagements felt familiar, albeit difficult.

    I wondered, however, how the news media might aid such deliberations in their local regions. I had studied and taught about journalism and mass media for several years, but always in terms of their general influence and power to shape readers’ understanding of reality. Now I was curious about how they might citizens approach public issues more deliberatively and productively. The question seemed timely since the digital age had enabled news consumers to publicly interact with and comment upon topics covered by news organizations.  

    When I began this project, I was already somewhat familiar with public journalism, the field of practice and study that began in the late 1980s. Public journalists sought to produce news reporting that empowered citizens to identify, deliberatively engage, and improve important public issues. Given its relevance to the questions I was asking, I thought public journalism would be a good starting point to relearn how journalists had attempted to engage readers, and what scholars had concluded about their efforts.

    I found in the public journalism scholarly literature that while no consensus existed about what constituted public journalism, scholars repeatedly associated it with a clear mission and four reporting strategies. Public journalists sought to enable citizens to ameliorate public life. To this end, they covered important public issues, chosen by or with citizens. They tried to include citizens’ voices in the news, such as by turning more often to non-elite sources. Public journalists also enabled and encouraged the public to deliberate and possibly solve civic problems, and, finally, they motivated the public to get involved with the issues.  

    By the early 2000s, however, scholars largely turned their attention away from public journalism and toward newer forms of digital journalism that also attempted to involve citizens. I wondered how these newer forms similarly or differently engaged citizens compared to public journalism.  I asked how their journalistic practices and assumptions about citizens might compare or contrast. And what can we learn from public journalism to inform and improve the future of citizen-engaged journalism?

    With support from the Kettering Foundation, I set off to find some answers. I initially collected recent scholarship on four current versions of citizen-engaged journalism—participatory journalism, citizen journalism, network journalism, and community journalism—and I compared and contrasted the findings with the scholarship on public journalism. The resulting paper, however, was overly lengthy, and two of the literatures were more interesting than the others. So I cut out network journalism and community journalism and focused only on participatory journalism and citizen journalism.  

    I discovered three things as I compared scholarship about these two more current versions of journalism with public journalism. First, and this won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the research, the literatures lack consistency in how they define and differentiate types of journalism. So I created basic definitions based on what I read. I defined participatory journalism as occurring when citizens contribute to professional journalists’ news production, such as by providing eyewitness imagery and observations, commenting on or liking a story, or even co-writing and editing stories. Citizen journalism refers to news produced by people untrained in journalism without the help of professional journalists, such as through blogs, websites, and social media posts.

    My second discovery regarded the mission and goals of journalism. I found that although participatory and citizen journalisms share some aspects of public journalism, such as encouraging citizen interactivity and involvement in public life, they don’t necessarily share public journalism’s mission to improve public life by helping citizens identify, engage, and improve important civic issues. In contrast, the newer forms of journalism tend to seek to inform the audience or to create interactivity among users. Thus, the fulfillment of public journalism’s mission through these newer forms of journalism seems more the result of chance, luck, or exception than a necessary entailment of the practices themselves. I think that difference in mission or goal is important, as I’ll explain below.

    My third discovery concerned scholars’ assumptions about citizens. Proponents and scholars of public journalism often made their assumptions about citizens explicit: they assumed citizens were willing to solve, and capable of solving, public problems. Consequently, they brought citizens into their work. Scholars of the newer forms of journalism rarely stated their assumptions about citizens explicitly, but they were implied in their findings and discussions. They assumed citizens are willing to actively participate in public life, but they offered conflicting assumptions about citizens’ capability to contribute to or produce journalism that aids public life.  

    On one hand, scholars implied that citizens are capable of aiding and, in some cases, even producing journalism that benefits public life. Particularly in the scholarship on participatory journalism, scholars assumed that ordinary citizens can effectively assist professional journalists’ creation of the news. They celebrated citizens’ collaboration with trained journalists and lamented professional reporters’ unwillingness to give more control of the news production process to such capable citizens. They called on professionals to shift their role from informing to engaging citizens in order to increasingly bring citizens’ contributions into their work.

    On the other hand, scholars of the newer forms of journalism also implied that citizens are less capable than professional journalists of producing news and commentary that adequately serve public life. Though this assumption can be found in some of the research on participatory journalism, it most strikingly appeared in the scholarship on citizen journalism. When citizens worked on their own, scholars questioned their ability to produce news that achieved the quality or impact of news reported by trained journalists. Scholars advised professional journalists to remain closely involved in news production so as to guide citizens’ contributions and moderate their discussions. 

    I think these findings prompt several questions for scholars interested in the future of citizen-engaged journalism. Are citizens today capable of contributing to the news in ways that benefit the public’s welfare? I’m not always sure they are, especially with the circulation of fake news and politically motivated reporting. Yet I think public journalism showed us that this capability can exist if journalists nurture and facilitate it. Such an investment, however, assumes a news organization is devoted to empowering citizens to identify, deliberatively engage, and improve important public issues. That investment raises another question, prompted by my findings, about mission. Should journalists—trained or untrained—who work in digital contexts more purposefully adopt public journalism’s mission to improve public life?  I think they should in order to help make citizen involvement with the media more purposeful, more deliberative, and more impactful on public life. The mission or goal would, ideally, drive more productive reporting practices and activities. 

    Of course, all of this means journalism scholars may need to find and study where citizens’ news efforts are already encouraging deliberative and productive civic engagement even when they alter the definition or production of news. By discovering the merits of such alterations, and not just lamenting their drawbacks, scholars might encourage professional journalists to expand and adapt their practices in the name of nurturing citizen involvement and improving public life.

    Frankly, I’m continuing to think through these implications of my findings as I consider the feedback I gained at the National Communication Association national convention and from a journal reviewers as I work to revise and resubmit this essay for publication. After I make revisions, I plan to return to a case study I’ve written, but need to significantly revise, about two community newspapers that adapted the practices of public journalism for the 21st century. I’m also interested in keeping up with current collaborative efforts happening between people involved with journalism and with deliberation, such as through the Kettering Foundation and through the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) and Journalism That Matters. I think the fields of journalism and deliberation have much to gain and learn from each other as we move forward in thinking about how the news media might help readers deliberate important public issues.

  • 19 Mar 2017 3:20 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

    NPHFI Tenth Annual Conference, Newcastle University, UK, 10-11 November 2017

    Fake news is a term that has become familiar in late 2016 and early 2017, not least because of international political developments. But is it necessarily a new phenomenon? The control, presentation and manipulation of news has played a key role in the, sometimes tumultuous, history of Anglo-Irish relations. And a similarly important role in the assertion and subversion of power in colonial, totalitarian and radical societies throughout history worldwide.

    To what extent does fake news, and its close relative propaganda, represent active falsification of information and the dissemination of misinformation, as opposed to the reporting of mistakes or errors due to confusion? What are the implications of the accusation of fake news for a report or news outlet? How does historical perspective change the evaluation of whether something is fake news? The Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland (NPHFI) seeks to investigate this phenomenon and its historical application in the print media at its tenth annual conference. Papers are invited that interrogate and/or challenge these questions from a range of disciplinary perspectives. The focus of papers should be on print media.

    Topics that may be addressed include, but are not, limited to:

    • Propaganda, political lobbying and activism.
    • Irish views of Britain and British views of Ireland.
    • News manipulation across the political spectrum.
    • Representations of ‘the Other’.
    • War reporting and embedded reporting.
    • Representing and reporting civil unrest and conflict worldwide.
    • Fake news and celebrity.

    Papers may address any historical period, up to and including the present day, and any geographical region.

    To submit a proposal please email an abstract of no more than 250 words to the NPHFI secretary, Dr James O’Donnell, at nphficonference@gmail.com.

    Abstracts must contain a clear title and present clearly the main thesis/ argument proposed. Each abstract must also include name(s), affiliation, institutional address and email address(es) of the author(s).

    Deadline for submission of abstracts: 31 May 2017

    The Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland seeks to achieve gender balance on its conference panels and welcomes proposals from researchers of all career stages working in academia, media, and in professional organizations.


  • 19 Mar 2017 3:14 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

    American Journalism: A Journal of Media History, official scholarly journal of the American Journalism Historians Association, announces a call for proposals for a special issue to be published in April 2019 to commemorate the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution that granted the women of all states the right to vote. We seek original historical research on the role of media in and about the suffrage movement, work that illuminates lasting cultural, political, economic, ideological, and social problems. Research could center on movement, mainstream, ethnic or alternative media; strategic communication, visual culture, or closely related themes.

    Much can be gleaned from examining pro- and anti-suffrage media strategies and the public responses they elicited. For the past forty years, an important body of scholarship has emerged about the movement and media. For the occasion of this centennial anniversary, our goal is to build on this foundation with work that asks new questions and presents new theoretical and methodological approaches, insights, and arguments.

    The proposal should be five to ten pages, including a title or a two-sentence summary, a 250-word abstract, and a narrative that explains the scope of the project, its theme or argument, and its importance. It should demonstrate familiarity with the relevant literature and historical context as well as historiography, provide examples of primary sources, and address how the author plans to develop and structure the work.

    Topics may include, but are not limited to, studies of:

    • iconography and visual culture
    • constructions of womanhood and sexuality
    • the business and economics of the suffrage media
    • publicity and strategic communications
    • the politics of race and racial tensions
    • suffrage and the media within the broader women’s rights agenda
    • audiences and reception of suffrage media
    • popular culture representations and media interpretations of this history
    • intersection of suffrage with the mainstream media
    • the recalibrated movement media image in the amendment’s aftermath
    • audiences and reception of suffrage and anti-suffrage media

    Submission Schedule

    July 1, 2017: Proposals are due.

    September 1, 2017: Invitations to submit the full article will be delivered.

    April 1, 2018: First drafts of articles are due, with final decisions, edits, and requests for revisions to follow.

    Please send your title/description, 250-word abstract, and five- to ten-page proposal to: 

    https://suffrageandthemedia.submittable.com/submit

    Prospective authors should feel free to contact members of the editorial board listed below.

    The Editorial Board

    American Journalism’s Special Issue on Women’s Suffrage and the Media

    Maurine Beasley mbeasley@umd.edu

    Jinx Broussard jinxy@lsu.edu

    Kathy Roberts Forde kforde@journ.umass.edu

    Carolyn Kitch ckitch@temple.edu

    Brooke Kroeger brooke.kroeger@nyu.edu

    Linda Lumsden lumsden@email.arizona.edu

    Jane Marcellus jane.marcellus@mtsu.edu

    Jane Rhodes rhodesj@uic.edu

    Linda Steiner lsteiner@umd.edu

  • 15 Mar 2017 1:35 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)
    (Editor's Note: Carolin Aronis presented her paper, "Letters, Newspapers, and Communication with the Dead: Practices of (Im)materiality," at the National Communication Association convention in Philadelphia in November 2016. TheIntelligencer asked Dr. Aronis to tell us more about why she is researching this topic, what it means and why it's important.)

    By Carolin Aronis

    Colorado State University

    Opening the popular newspapers in Israel on days of national tragedy such as war, terrorist attacks, wildfires and alike, one usually finds next to the common hard news items framed texts that look like opinion pieces but are actually strange letters addressing people who died at the covered event. The letters open by the first name of a dead person. These texts tell in the second person to the deceased relatives and friends, in personal and emotional language, their deep longing to him or her, what happened at the event that caused their death and what happened after it, including the terrible void and sorrow that dead addressee have created by his or her leave. Many of these letters close with promises to the dead—some make certain requests to watch the living from above and to wait for them before uniting again. The letters end with warm and loving words, and a personal signature. These letters, strangely enough, are not brought to the newspaper from another context, as republishing a text that has been written and read in a funeral or Memorial Day, but the discussed letters are purposely written to and for the publication in the newspaper. 

    For the last two decades, these letters have become an Israeli journalistic genre for the coverage of national tragedies. While approaching the dead through electronic media technologies (telegraph, television, telephone, internet, etc.) is a historically and currently known phenomenon in Western culture—writing to the dead by using an integration of interpersonal and mass communication technologies (e.g., letter and newspaper) provide media scholars with some additional and essential thinking about the field.

    It positions meaningful issues in the intersection of written technologies, inter-mass communication, death and recipiency. My work, which I would like to introduce here, deals with the rhetoric and “operation” of these letters. 

    The first letter I found was of a mother writing to her baby who died due to a failure in a baby food company in Israel (known as the Remedia Affair, 2003). I studied this case for my master’s thesis, looking at the journalistic discourse about mothers, and of mothers, in the public construct of blame, among others—of the mothers that did not nurse their babies. However, this letter (“They Murdered You, My Baby”), which was published on the cover page of the most popular newspaper in Israel, at first reading brought tears to my eyes, and it kept “bothering” me. It initiated something special in the newspaper, and attracted me as a reader in a different way than other journalistic items. It is said that from every M.A. thesis one can produce one to two academic articles, and I was willing to open a new direction with this letter. I dealt previously with holocaust witnessing and the gaps of space and time along with the unreachable dead. I found in this letter some of these aspects. I also found some unexpected intimacy in a mass medium and I was willing to study and understand it. 

    During the last few years I kept thinking about the reasons for this genre to emerge and the functions it serves—regarding the writers, the newspaper, and its readership. These inquiries lead me to additional questions about what these letters can tell us regarding the role of newspapers in our society and in our media environment; what is the character of rhetoric the letters build with challenges of materiality and the missing addressee; and what kind of communicative acts these letters establish with the newspaper readership and with the dead addressee. All those focuses represent different aspects that lead to understand the essence of mass communication, and especially journalism—either generally or particularly—through another point of view than it is customary in studies in the field. 

    I would like to introduce a paper I presented at the latest National Communication Association convention in Philadelphia, and to shortly discuss issues of im/materiality within this case. The title of my presented paper, in the Media Ecology Division, is “Letters, Newspapers, and Communication with the Dead: Practices of materiality and immateriality.” I am thankful to John Dowd (Bowling Green State University), the NCA division chair who made me notice how relevant my work is to Media Ecology, which is all about mediums and matters themselves. A first draft of this paper was presented in a seminar of the 2015 Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) as “The Practice and Materiality of the Jewish Death.” The seminar, which was thought provoking for me, was led by Sean Burrus, an archaeologist and a Jewish studies scholar, and it was my first foray into areas of matters and materiality with this case study. During the last few years, and parallel to others’ studies, I have conducted research about balconies as urban communication media in the Mediterranean city.

    Moving to Colorado few years ago, I started to be immersed in the scholarship of spatial and material rhetoric thanks to connections I made with Greg Dickinson (Colorado State University) and John Ackerman (University of Colorado Boulder). Yet, it was an exciting move for me in bringing matters and the material into the analysis of letters, journalism, and the intersection between communication, life and death. And it was not surprising that some of this move also found an anchor at the media ecology scholarship that usually look at the medium more than at its message, giving more emphasis to the material act of communication. 

    I figured out that in several aspects these letters written to the dead are material and immaterial at the same time. In their content, they are based on material and immaterial rhetoric when they relate to the actual body and environment of the writer—some letters include descriptions of the writers’ tears, their shaking body, the wet keyboard or the view that is seen from the window next to the desk. At the same time, the letters describe the absence of the dead addressee, its immateriality—the orphaned chair, the memory of the touch, the disappearing smell from the dead’s clothes, and the dead’s essential non-existence—various of things that represent void and absence. 

    In addition, as in any technology of communication, both the letters and the newspaper hold messages that have material performance—printed words, photographs, the paper itself—but represent immaterial messages: emotions, information, requests, things that one cannot necessarily feel with his or her senses. The contradiction or the relation between material and immaterial is at the very core of communication and media. Especially with written technology, and even more so with technologies of mass communication as the newspaper, there is a significant gap between the place and time of the writing act and the reading act. In this case, the writers and the addressees are just an abstract idea for each other, not tangible people. The writer does not know to where his text will arrive if at all, readers and the action of reading, as Walter Ong brightly explains, are never known to the writer. In the case of letters written to the dead and published in the newspaper, the unknown addressee is intertwined with the dead, the non-existent reader, or with substitute “eavesdropping” readers, who might read the letter, but it does not address them directly. The unknown destination of the letter/newspaper is intertwined with the unknown realm of death. 

    While examining the actual rhetoric of the letters and their journalistic frame (performance) in the newspaper, I considered also the materiality that is embraced in the notion of letter and newspaper, as they both represent a geographical movement, or as can be adopted from Marshal McLuhan – a certain “paper route.” The notion of a letter evokes in our mind the material route of the paper, the envelope with its stamp, a mailbox, the transportation through spaces, and the waiting in another mailbox. The notion of the newspaper evokes the printing process and the distribution to everywhere and anywhere (paraphrasing Jeffrey Sconce’s definitions). The materiality and immateriality are also part of life and death, of existence and non-existence. 

    Following the axis of materiality–immateriality that stands in the heart of both media and death, I address these issues in my paper and explain the nature and rhetorical practices of the latter and newspaper technologies—together and separately—and how their reconstruction of this communicative act seems to bridge between the realms of life and death. 

    This case study could be viewed through several prisms of journalism research. It demonstrates the growing populism of the newspaper, especially in competing with electronic media. It demonstrates the ordinary voice in the shaping of the news, even to a point where the source speaks for itself, almost without any mediation of a journalist. It also demonstrates a change in the language and topics of the news – instead of writing about facts that happened in the past, this genre creates an illusionary situation, in present and future tenses. Additionally, the case demonstrates the newspaper as a site for mourning and remembering, and of course reminds the tight relationship between the historical emergences of the newspaper letters exchange.  

    This project will hopefully produce three published articles (the first one is in an R&R procedure) and in the future a book about letters written to the dead and mass communication.  

    * * *

    Dr. Carolin Aronis received her Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Department of Communication and Journalism. She is currently teaching at Colorado State University and previously was a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the past, Dr. Aronis worked as a journalist. For further interest/information please write to carolin.aronis@colostate.edu or carolin.aronis@gmail.com

  • 14 Mar 2017 6:55 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

    Jhistory posted on March 10, 2017:

    "Jim Leonhirth, Jhistory's longtime moderator, is stepping down.  He's done an amazing job over the years and was one of the early members of the list; we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his years of service. 

    "We are looking for another moderator (or two) to help manage the list.  You'd be moderating the list about three or four months a year (we take turns) and the workload is about an hour or two a week when you're on."

  • 10 Mar 2017 12:24 AM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

    American Journalism, the flagship journal of the American Journalism Historians Association, seeks applications for its Rising Scholar Award. The application deadline is Thursday, June 1, 2017.

    The award provides research assistance of up to $2,000 for a junior, untenured faculty member or a media professional who has transitioned within the last four years to full-time work in the academy. The proposed research project must be related to media history, and all methodological approaches are welcomed.

    Applicants must be current AJHA members at the time the proposal is submitted. Proposals may be for sole authored or co-authored work (award amount will be shared).

    Applicants must submit the following to Jinx C. Broussard, Manship School of Mass Communications, 205 Hodges Hall, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, or via e-mail to jinxcbroussard@gmail.com:

    • Cover letter with name and contact information for applicant(s).
    • Three- to five-page prospectus of the project timeline, describing and explaining the topic, scope, objectives, primary sources, and justifying its contribution to the historiography of the mass media.
    • One-page itemized budget. Indicate if additional funding will be used, including the source and amount.
    • If appropriate, include Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from the university.
    • A list of possible publication venues for the finished project.
    • A letter of support from the applicant’s department chair or dean.
    • A curriculum vita of no more than three pages.

    Founded in 1981, the American Journalism Historians Association seeks to advance education and research in mass communication history. Members work to raise historical standards and ensure that all scholars and students recognize the vast importance of media history and apply this knowledge to the advancement of society. For more information on AJHA, visit ajhaonline.org.


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