In his canonical 1974 article, “The Problem of Journalism History,” James W. Carey dubbed the study of journalism history “something of an embarrassment”1 – an avenue of historical inquiry characterized by a seeming conceptual myopia. This lack of vision, Carey argued, relegated its practitioners to seeing journalism solely as the outgrowth of “those large impersonal faces buﬀeting the press: industrialization, urbanization, and mass democracy.”2 While undoubtedly these faces helped journalism historians understand the past, they provide, as Carey believed, only one narrative – and a tired one at that. This so-called “Whig history” became what journalism historians have since strived to deﬁne their work against, as David Paul Nord notes in his paper, “the history of journalism and the history of the book.” While a collective dismissal of this Whig history has prevailed, as scholars have sought to reinvigorate a ﬁeld once moving toward what Carey saw to be a dead end, journalism historians remain a fractured group, divided by varying ways of addressing the tensions that have characterized the ﬁeld’s own historical trajectory. Underlying these tensions are such questions as: What should constitute the locus of attention for journalism historians – the institution or the individual? Where should journalism historians turn for their theoretical frameworks – sociology or anthropology? How should texts themselves be positioned vis-à-vis their historical settings? There are no “correct” answers to any of these questions, nor are the
answers “either-or.” Yet whether or not one agrees with Carey’s 1974 call for studies of the cultural history of journalism,3 journalism historians can agree on one thing – the assumption underpinning Carey’s claims. Journalism must be foregrounded as the subject rather than the object of historical inquiry, not merely a source used by historians as evidence but an active agent. Journalism, according to Carey, is a “cultural act,” “a state of consciousness, a way of apprehending, of experiencing the world,”4 that requires sustained investigation. How to in fact negotiate journalism’s place within culture and study it productively, without reverting to the pitfalls of journalism histories past, is a central theme uniting the papers of David Paul Nord, Michael Schudson and Robert McChesney. Approaching the study of journalism history from varying
entry points, Nord, Schudson and McChesney highlight not only the internal fractures and points of departure within journalism history, but also what these avenues of inquiry can ultimately oﬀer our understandings of the past, present and future. Tracking the trajectories of the “new book history” and the “new journal-
ism history,” David Paul Nord grapples with the causes of their divergent paths. Arguing that “the new book history is largely a reaction against the decontextualized study of texts, while the new journalism history is a reaction against the decontextualized study of institutions,”5 Nord compares surveys of media and book history by examining the themes and theoretical frameworks their respective practitioners choose to privilege. While these two branches share similar interests in texts – precisely how these texts are analyzed and positioned are issues that delineate them. While journalism historians, according to Nord, mine publications for content, fundamentally it is the publication itself that stands at the heart of the project. Historians of the book, in contrast, situate the text’s content as the locus of inquiry. Similarly, as Nord points out, “the journalism historians pay more attention to professional practice and to the organizational side of media institutions, while the book historians focus more on forms and formats of printed material and the contexts of their use.”6 Despite their trajectories, the divergence of journalism history and the history of the book should not concern us, according to Nord. It should, however, force us to pause to consider the ways of answering questions that necessarily traverse the two modes of inquiry. Michael Schudson similarly considers the issue of conceptual frameworks
and categories in journalism history in his discussion of “Public spheres, imagined communities, and the underdeveloped historical understanding of journalism.” Seizing the words of former American Historical Association (AHA) president and eighteenth-century French political, cultural, and intellectual historian, Robert Darnton, Schudson laments history departments’ lack of attention to the ﬁeld of communication history. While acknowledging Darnton’s work in carving a space for communication on the historian’s agenda, Schudson reﬂects upon Darnton’s claims surrounding Jürgen Habermas’s conceptualization of the “public sphere” and its subsequent reiﬁcation. As Schudson writes, “Journalism is not something that ﬂoated platonically above the world and that each country copied down, shaping it to its own national grammar. It is something that – as we know it today – Americans had a major hand in inventing.”7 Acknowledging this, according to Schudson, means not only understanding news organizations as businesses or as arbiters of the oft-cited dream of objectivity. It means schools of communication and journalism must take the reins in eﬀorts to reinforce journalism’s place in the public sphere and in democracy. In “How to think about journalism: Looking backward, going forward,”
Robert McChesney joins Schudson in reﬂecting upon the role of journalism in the public sphere. Considering the “crisis” of contemporary American
journalism, McChesney argues that despite the “low grade”8 earned by current news media – media which have unfortunately seen “the decline of investigative reporting, the degeneration of political reporting and international journalism, the absurd horserace coverage of campaigns, the collapse of local journalism, [and] the increased prevalence of celebrity and scandal”9 – American journalism now stands at a crossroads. Yet productively “going forward” in ways that concurrently revitalize journalism and democracy in the United states more broadly requires an historical/political economy perspective, according to McChesney. However, understanding the structures and policies underpinning the contemporary “crisis” of American journalism, as McChesney argues is not the only advantage a political economy approach oﬀers. It provides an interpretative frame encouraging dialogue between political and social movements, individuals and institutions seeking reform. As McChesney writes, “[I]t is only in the context of people coming together to struggle for social change that depolicization is vanquished and victory becomes plausible, even inevitable.”10 Historical context, for McChesney, thus provides the requisite backdrop against which the contemporary movement for media reform is set. Nord, Schudson and McChesney provide us with lenses through which to
read journalism histories past, reﬂect upon the current state of journalism research, and look toward a future of fresh research which would not only answer Carey’s 1974 call but pose a diﬀerent, albeit equally valuable, set of questions regarding journalism and its place within history. While these essays draw our attention to the areas in need of research, they should also excite us to the possibilities that await.