From the viewpoint of most historians of the United States today, journalism is not a subject of great importance, nor has it ever been. There are few history departments in the country that oﬀer a course on the history of journalism or, more broadly, media history. I suspect that there are no country-andperiod-speciﬁc courses on the media in any PhD-granting history department in the United States the way there are speciﬁc courses on, say, “Colonial Economic History” or “Intellectual History in the Gilded Age” or “Twentieth Century US Diplomatic History.” The media are sources for historians more than they are topics. The history of ﬁlm is taught in ﬁlm departments and the history of journalism in journalism schools and the history of books and libraries in library schools. Faculty in the history departments that have the greatest inﬂuence in deﬁning what counts as a historical problem worth investigating rarely think of journalism as a topic ﬁt for their graduate students or themselves. Despite some notable individual achievements I will discuss, the result is a
remarkable underdevelopment of studies in the history of journalism. What’s to be done? Not very much, at least not very much from outside
prestigious PhD-granting history departments. Even to have a historian of the stature of Robert Darnton use his presidential address to the American Historical Association to announce the importance of “the problem of how societies made sense of events and transmitted information about them, something that might be called the history of communication” could not, by itself, transform the teaching of history in history departments, although the power of Darnton’s work on eighteenth-century French political, cultural and intellectual history has certainly brought the topic of communication into much enlarged prominence in historical studies of pre-revolutionary France. But there has been no Darnton for American history, that is, no prestigious scholar inside a leading history department who has urged the formation of a new specialty in the discipline or exempliﬁed it in his or her own work. In his presidential address, published as an article in the American
Historical Review, Darnton makes an oﬀ-hand remark about where his understanding of communication comes from. It is not from the theorists,
Benedict Anderson and Jurgen Habermas, who write about Europe in the period of Darnton’s specialization. Instead, he attributes his understanding of the ﬁeld to “conversations with Robert Merton and Elihu Katz” and, following Katz, ﬁnds inspiration in the work of Gabriel Tarde. For Darnton, as for Katz and Tarde, the process of communication
always involved discussion and sociability, so it was not simply a matter of messages transmitted down a line of diﬀusion to passive recipients but rather a process of assimilating and reworking information in groups – that is, the creation of collective consciousness or public opinion.