Intelligencer is a blog featuring thoughtful essays on mass communication history teaching and research as well as highlighting the work of our members.

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  • 18 Jun 2017 10:04 PM | Dane Claussen

    The American Journalism Historians Association is seeking nominations for three board positions and the office of second vice president. Board members serve for three years and are expected to attend board meetings at the annual convention. The 2nd VP, under normal circumstances, rises to the presidency in two years, then serves on the board for an additional two years. A nominee to the Board of Directors or to any of the other Officer positions must have been a member of the AJHA for at least one calendar year immediately preceding the date of the election. No more than one person from an institution can serve on the board at one time. To make nominations and to vote in an election, an individual must be a member of AJHA.

    Those who wish to nominate candidates may do so by sending an
    email with the nominee's name, contact information and affiliation to
    election and nominations committee chair Amber Roessner,
    University of Tennessee, Please confirm the candidate's 
    willingness to serve before sending the nomination to Amber, and if possible, you should send a brief bio of the candidate.

    Deadline for nominations is 5 p.m. August 26. Nominations may also be made from the floor.

  • 31 May 2017 10:03 AM | Dane Claussen

    Media and Communication's Volume 6, Issue 1
    Title: Media History and Democracy
    Editor: David W. Park (Lake Forest College, USA)
    Deadline for Abstracts: 30 June 2017
    Deadline for Submissions: 30 September 2017
    Publication of the Issue: March 2018

    Information: The journal Media and Communication hereby announces a thematic issue (to be published in 2018) dedicated to the topic of media history and democracy. Democracy, in its many guises, has long been an influential concern for media historians. The emphasis on democracy in this thematic issue is intended to link up with media histories that take on the intersection of democracy and media as understood through any one of a number of lenses. The issue of democracy brings this thematic issue in contact with numerous approaches to media history. Authors will find connections to be made between democracy and concerns for: history of technology, social history, cultural history, political history, the history of social networks, intellectual history, and more. Democracy need not be conceptualized as a formal political system for this thematic issue, and many authors may find it fruitful to consider the multifarious aspects and meanings of democracy as they reflect on how they might draft a submission to this thematic issue. Media and Communication is an international journal, and we are particularly interested in programming a thematic issue that features historical scholarship from around the world, including manuscripts that address transnational communication flows. This thematic issue of Media and Communication would be a good match for articles addressing the following topics:

    The history of democratic ideals in the development of media technology;
    Considerations of democratic formations as they relate to journalism history and historical understandings of the role of journalism;
    Histories of media as they relate to political activism;
    The history of alternative and independent media outlets as they relate to democratic processes;
    The history of public service broadcasting and its applications worldwide or transnationally;
    Histories of media reform movements;
    Treatments of the history of literacy and its political meanings;
    Internet histories as they relate to citizenship or democracy;
    The historical roles of interpersonal communication and social networks as they relate to democracy;
    The history of media policies and regulation designed to arrange for (or thwart) democratic communication;
    Historical themes concerning the relationship between capitalism and democracy.

    Instructions for Authors: Authors interested in submitting a paper for this issue are asked to consult the journal’s instructions for authors ( and to send their abstracts (about 200–250 words, with a tentative title and reference to the thematic issue) by email to the Guest Editor (Dave Park: by 30 June 2017.

  • 31 May 2017 9:58 AM | Dane Claussen

    Voice of Witness' 7th Annual Amplifying Unheard Voices Oral History Training will take place from June 27-30, 2017 at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, led by Education Program Director Cliff Mayotte and Erin Vong.

    This unique four-day training highlights the power of personal narrative and provides educators, storytellers, and social justice advocates with the tools to conduct oral history projects in their classrooms and communities.

    Workshop participants engage in an interactive process that introduces the skills, ethics, and social significance of creating oral history, as exemplified by Voice of Witness and other leading practitioners in the field.

    This training is geared towards new and experienced practitioners from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and community settings. Past participants have included high school teachers, university professors, advocates, journalists, artists, and more.

    During the training, participants will:

    • Conduct and share an oral history interview
    • Explore various media in relation to "amplifying" oral history narratives
    • Hone transcribing and editing skills
    • Read and discuss narratives from the Voice of Witness book series
    • Work in small groups to discuss ideas related to oral history projects, lessons, and units
    • Work with members of the Voice of Witness staff and prominent local oral history educators
    • Have an opportunity to explore the permanent collections of the Asian Art Museum
    Time: 9:00am to 4:00pm daily
    Location: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco at 200 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102
    Tuition: $250-500 (sliding scale)

    Date: June 27-30, 2017


    Check out our website for more information:

    Contact Info: 

    Erin Vong, Education Associate at Voice of Witness

    Contact Email:


  • 12 May 2017 12:13 PM | Dane Claussen

    By Teri Finneman

    One of the primary tasks of the Oral History Committee is to conduct interviews with members at the convention. This year, committee members Melita M. Garza and Pamela E. Walck interviewed Jean Folkerts and Mike Sweeney. Below are summaries of those interviews, with more to come later.

    Interview by Melita M. Garza:

    Mileposts in the journalism history career of Jean Folkerts include a stint as a pupil in an 8-student, 1-room Nebraska schoolhouse, a doctoral dissertation on William Allen White at the University of Kansas, and the deanship of the highly regarded UNC Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. 

    Along the way, she became editor of the influential scholarly publication, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, a co-author of the important journalism history textbook Voices of a Nation, and also a leading historian of journalism education.

    It’s easy to see why Folkerts, was named the 2016 winner of AJHA’s Sidney Kobre Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism History. Folkerts received that award at AJHA’s St. Petersburg, Florida, convention, where she also sat down for an oral history interview. During the discussion, she shared her consternation at the steady elimination of journalism history as a requirement in undergraduate and graduate programs. Now more than ever students across disciplines and majors need a solid understanding of journalism and its role in the polity, Folkerts said.

    “I’d like to see it (journalism) as a general education requirement, and I’d like to see it incorporated more into journalism schools and history departments,” said Folkerts, now Interim Director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism & Mass Communications at Kansas State University. “Students across the board will understand the intersection between democracy and the media. Scholars and teachers of history need to learn new ways to incorporate into the curriculum, sell it as a way to understanding the world.”

    Interview by Pamela E. Walck

    Michael Sweeney’s first college-level teaching gig was unpaid. He was working at the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram as a features editor, having successfully made the jump from news reporter to editor, when a newsroom buddy asked him if he wanted to try teaching at the local community college.

    “So I—just as a lark—taught literature classes for free to old farts, people 55 and older, and now I am one at 56,” Sweeney said in an oral history interview during AJHA’s annual convention in St. Petersburg, Florida. “What I learned was that as much as I loved journalism, I loved teaching more.”

    After taking night classes at North Texas to earn his master’s degree, Sweeney arrived at Ohio University for his doctorate and found himself terrified.

    “I remember not knowing whether I would be a good teacher or not, and thinking in my mind that I was, but the proof in the pudding is in the eating. I remember the first time I taught at Ohio University just being scared out of my mind in front of these 18-and 19-year- olds,” Sweeney recalled. “But I had nothing to be afraid of. They were probably more afraid of me. But once I did it, I got juice out of it. I get electricity. Energy. . . . A good day of teaching just leaves me exhausted because I burn so much energy and so much excitement.”

    To learn more about Sweeney’s foray into academia, how he began researching the wartime press and writing books for National Geographic, and how he once injured himself over an awesome headline in his news editing class, check out the latest additions to AJHA’s oral history collection.

  • 26 Apr 2017 11:47 PM | Dane Claussen

    Dr. Dane S. Claussen, Editor of the American Journalism Historians Association's The Intelligencer newsletter and the James Pedas Professor of Media, Communication and Public Relations at Thiel College (Greenville, PA), has been appointed as the next Editor of Newspaper Research Journal. The refereed, quarterly, scholarly journal has been published since 1979 by the Newspaper and Online News Division, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

    His term will run from Jan. 1, 2018, until Sept. 30, 2021, although a transition period will start in September 2017. He will be eligible to apply for additional three-year terms as NRJ's editor starting in 2021. Dr. Claussen previously was a very active member of the Newspaper Research Journal’s Editorial Board from July 2000 to September 2012.

    Dr. Claussen, who also is Chair of the Department of Media, Communication and Public Relations and Executive Director of the James Pedas Communication Center at Thiel College, is the former publisher and editor of daily, weekly, biweekly and monthly newspapers in Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington state and a former newspaper management consultant and media mergers/acquisitions broker. Throughout his teaching career, he has taught newspaper-oriented courses such as news writing, feature writing, opinion writing, public affairs journalism, news editing, and newspaper/magazine management, as well as other many other mass communication courses (media history, First Amendment law, media ethics, social science research methods, mass communication theory, media literacy, public opinion, advertising sales, etc.).

    The Newspaper Research Journal’s current co-editors, Sandra H. Utt and Eleanor Kelley Grusin, both of the University of Memphis, have edited the journal since early 2001.

    Dr. Claussen was Editor of the international, refereed Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, also an AEJMC quarterly, from March 2006 to September 2012, and served on its editorial board both before and since his editorship.

    In AEJMC, he also has served as Head of the: History Division; Media Management, Economics & Entrepreneurship Division; Mass Communication & Society Division; Magazine Media Division; and LGBTQ Interest Group, among other roles. Claussen has been an elected member of AEJMC’s Teaching Committee; appointed member of its Publications Committee; and ex officio member of its Diversity Task Force.

    Before joining Thiel, a liberal arts college in northwest Pennsylvania, in 2015, he was Visiting Professor of International Journalism at Shanghai International Studies University in China (2013-15); Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada (2011-2013); Professor & Graduate Programs Director, School of Communication, Point Park University (2001-10); and Assistant Professor of Media, Journalism & Film and of Gender Studies, Missouri State University (1999-2001). Claussen was a Fulbright Specialist (2009-2014) and has done extensive consulting for universities and nonprofits in Bangladesh.

    Claussen holds the Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Georgia, an MBA from the University of Chicago, an M.S. in mass communications from Kansas State University, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon.

  • 22 Apr 2017 11:45 PM | Dane Claussen

    Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression

    November 2–4, 2017

    The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

    Deadline: August 28, 2017

    The steering committee of the twenty-fifth annual Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression solicits papers dealing with U.S. mass media of the 19th century, the Civil War in fiction and history, freedom of expression in the 19th century, presidents and the 19th century press, images of race and gender in the 19th century press, sensationalism and crime in 19th century newspapers, the press in the Gilded Age, and in particular, the antebellum press and the causes of the Civil War. Selected papers will be presented during the three-day conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, November 2–4, 2017.  The top three papers and the top three student papers will be honored accordingly. Due to the generosity of the Walter and Leona Schmitt Family Foundation Research Fund, the winners of the student awards will receive $250 honoraria for delivering their papers at the conference.

    The purpose of the November conference is to share current research and to develop a series of monographs. This year the steering committee will pay special attention to papers on such antebellum topics as press coverage of the Nullification Crisis of 1832, Bloody Kansas, the presidential election of 1856, the Dred Scott decision, and the presidential election of 1860. Papers from the first five conferences were published by Transaction Publishers in 2000 as a book of readings called The Civil War and the Press. Purdue University Press published papers from past conferences in three distinctly different books titled Memory and Myth: The Civil War in Fiction and Film from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Cold Mountain (2007), Words at War: The Civil War and American Journalism (2008), and Seeking a Voice: Images of Race and Gender in the 19th Century Press (2009). In 2013, Transaction published Sensationalism: Murder, Mayhem, Mudslinging, Scandals, and Disasters in 19th-Century Reporting, and in 2014, it published A Press Divided: Newspaper Coverage of the Civil War.

    The symposium is sponsored by the George R. West, Jr. Chair of Excellence in Communication and Public Affairs, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga communication and history departments, the Walter and Leona Schmitt Family Foundation Research Fund, and the Hazel Dicken-Garcia Fund for the Symposium, and because of this sponsorship, no registration fee will be charged.

    Papers should be able to be presented within 20 minutes, at least 10 to 15 pages long. Please send your paper (including a 200–300 word abstract) as an MS Word attachment to For further information, please contact:

    Dr. David Sachsman

    George R. West, Jr. Chair of Excellence in Communication and Public Affairs, Dept. 3003

    The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

    615 McCallie Ave.

    Chattanooga, Tennessee 37403-2598

    (423) 425-4219,

  • 22 Apr 2017 11:42 PM | Dane Claussen

    The School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina is delighted to announce the winner of the 2017 Ronald T. and Gayla D. Farrar Award in Media and Civil Rights History: R. Joseph Parrott, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. Professor Parrott wins the Farrar Award for his article published in the July–September 2015 issue of Race & Class: “A Luta Continua: Radical Filmmaking, Pan-African Liberation and Communal Empowerment.” This award recognizes the best journal article or chapter in an edited book on the historical relationship between media and civil rights published during the previous two years.

    The contest judges, a national panel of three historians with expertise in civil rights and media history, selected Dr. Parrott’s article as the award winner from the largest field of submissions in the Farrar Award’s five competitions. In commenting on the award-winning study, the judges wrote: 

    “With a probing examination of activist filmmaking and transnational anti-imperialism efforts, this insightful, imaginative, deeply researched, and richly engrossing article compels us to rethink the temporal and spatial boundaries of the Black Freedom Struggle. Mining a range of compelling archival sources, including oral interviews and FBI reports, Parrott is to be commended for drawing renewed critical attention to (Robert) Van Lierop’s film and its profound impact among African American activists, journalists, and intellectuals.”

    Dr. Parrott delivered the Farrar Award Lecture at the Media and Civil Rights History Symposium sponsored by the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina on Saturday, April 1.

    Parrott completed his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, having held graduate fellowships with International Security Studies at Yale University, the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium at the University of Chicago. His dissertation, “Struggle for Solidarity: The New Left, African Decolonization, and the End of the Cold War Consensus,” is a broad transnational history that considers Portuguese decolonization in Africa as a noteworthy component in transforming western engagement with the global south. Parrott’s work cuts across intellectual, diplomatic, and socio-political history to illuminate how questions of race and empire drove the policy choices of U.S. leaders, African nationalists, and Portuguese officials, as well as the agenda of a wider western Left.

    Finalists were:

    • Derek Charles Catsam, “The African Drum, Bantu World and South Africa—United States Transnational Linkages, 1949-1954,” in Human Rights, Race, and Resistance in Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Toyin Faola and Cacee Hoyer, 109-125. New York: Routledge, 2016.
    • Caroline Emmons, “Respectable Activists: Media Images of Women in the Early Civil Rights Era Images,” in Women’s Magazines in Print and New Media, edited by Noliwe Rooks, Victoria Rose Pass, and Ayana K. Weekley, 45-57. New York: Routledge, 2016.
    • Edgar Simpson, “ ‘A Traitor to His Class’: Race and Publisher W.E. ‘Ned’ Chilton III, 1953-1984,” Journalism History 42, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 70-80.

    The Farrar Award judges were Drs. Patricia Sullivan (University of South Carolina), Phillip Jeter (Winston-Salem State University), and Bobby Donaldson (University of South Carolina).

    Honoring University of South Carolina Professor Emeritus Ronald Farrar and his late wife, Gayla Dennis Farrar, this award recognizes the best journal article or chapter in an edited collection on the historical relationship between the media and civil rights. Ronald Farrar joined the faculty of what was then the College of Journalism and Mass Communications in 1986. He served as the College’s interim dean from July 1999 until his retirement in 2001. During his time at the College, Farrar served as director of graduate studies, helped develop the school's mass communications doctorate program and was instrumental in the development of Newsplex, a training center to define and demonstrate best practices for the future of journalism and strategic communication. He is a noted journalism history scholar and has published multiple textbooks about journalism, media history and media law. Gayla Farrar was an instructor of English at Arkansas State University and the University of Missouri. A scholarship is named in her honor at the University of Mississippi. She also devoted her time to helping journalism students at the University of South Carolina, including many international students. (Source: University of South Carolina press release)

  • 21 Apr 2017 11:55 AM | Dane Claussen

    By Erika Pribanic-Smith, University of Texas-Arlington

    When AJHA met in Salt Lake City in October 1993, organizers chose a local woman with far-reaching impact as the recipient of the organization’s first Distinguished Contributions to Journalism History Award.

    Elma “Pem” Gardner Farnsworth received the award at a reception sponsored by Deseret News and KSL television/radio for her work toward developing the technology to broadcast television. 

    Time Magazine named her husband Philo T. Farnsworth the “Father of Television.” Don Godfrey and Alf Pratte wrote in Journalism History (Summer 1994) that historians had overlooked Pem’s involvement, even though Philo himself had stated, “My wife and I started this TV.” Godfrey and Pratte’s essay outlines Pem’s contributions.

    A Utah native, Pem got engaged to Philo on her 18th birthday. From then on, she devoted her life to supporting Philo’s work, including keeping the log books of Philo’s experiments and spot welding tube elements. A photograph of Pem and her brother—who worked as a glass blower in Philo’s lab—was among the first images of humans to be televised.

    Godfrey and Pratte’s essay notes that Pem always was humble about her contributions, generally diverting attention to her husband’s genius. Co-organizer of the Salt Lake City conference, Pratte said that when he and his Brigham Young University colleague Jack Nelson invited Pem to be honored, she was “hesitant and scared to speak before such a large and prestigious group.” Nonetheless, she attended, and AJHA members gave her a standing ovation.

    Attendees of the convention remember the event fondly. Julie Williams said she found the award presentation meaningful in that AJHA gave Pem the credit she deserved. David Copeland said he continues to use some of Pem’s remarks in his media history classes.

    “She talked about meeting Philo and dancing to jazz,” Copeland said. “She was a delightful person.”

    Leonard Teel recalled that Pem gave AJHA heartfelt thanks, mostly because the organization remembered her husband. Copeland noted that part of her talk centered on her decades-long fight to get Philo recognition for his work; Philo had died in 1971.

    “Even in 1993, she had not given up and believed he had been robbed of much,” Copeland said.

    Godfrey and Pratte’s Journalism History essay explains that the large electronics corporation RCA fought the Farnsworths’ claims to television’s invention. Ultimately, the Farnsworths won their patent case against RCA, but RCA “won the public recognition battle”—a victory Pem still was working to reverse at the time AJHA honored her.

    Pem’s obituary in the April 26, 2006, issue of the Salt Lake Tribune indicates that she continued fighting to obtain credit for her husband until her death.

    Godfrey, who gave the opening remarks and introduction at the 1993 AJHA award reception, penned a biography of Philo that the University of Utah Press re-published in paperback last year.

    Others interested in conducting research on the Farnsworths’ work will find a substantial collection at the University of Utah, where Pem donated her husband’s papers.

    AJHA will return to Salt Lake City next year for its 37th annual convention. However, the Awards Committee currently is accepting nominations for this year’s Distinguished Service Award, to be presented at the 36th annual convention in Little Rock. For details, see

  • 12 Apr 2017 11:09 PM | Dane Claussen

    The 2017 AEJMC History Division Book Award, honoring the best journalism and mass communication history book published in 2016, has been won by Robert G. Parkinson for The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press). Parkinson is an assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, where he teaches courses in colonial America, the American Revolution and Founding, American slavery, and Native American history.

    A panel of three distinguished media historians chose The Common Cause from a field of 26 entries. The judges praised Parkinson’s “impressive archival and primary source work that led to a fundamental revision of two historiographical streams: the history of the American Revolution and the history of journalism.” The Common Cause argues that patriot leaders united the thirteen colonies by defining the British as the enemies of American freedom, using narratives about resistant slaves, hostile Indians, and German mercenaries that would imbed ideas of racial difference into the ideology of the new nation.

    Parkinson, who will receive a plaque and a cash prize, has been invited to speak about his work during the History Division business meeting on Friday, August 11 (7:00 - 8:30 p.m.) at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication convention in Chicago.

  • 05 Apr 2017 6:44 PM | Dane Claussen

    (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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