My dad recently confessed to me that, even after reading 1-1/2 of my books and following my career for 15 years, he has "no idea" what my work or my field is about (my historian sister and law student brother have an easier time justifying themselves). While this is a bit close to home, it is unfortunately not uncommon for people I know to express confusion or even disdain about my chosen field. As the comedian Marc Maron responded when a recent interviewee on his WTF podcast said he'd majored in Communication as an undergraduate, "isn't that just a catch-all field for people who don't know what they're interested in?" (I'm paraphrasing).
At the recent International Communication Association conference in Phoenix, ICA president (and my former doctoral advisor) Larry Gross gave a blistering speech, outlining several challenges faced by the academy in general and our field in particular. One of his points was the challenge of "cultivating engaged scholars and scholarship." In the course of these remarks, he delivered what I thought was a pretty spot-on description of why -- and how -- I do what I do:
Today we see political leaders everywhere agreeing on the necessity of imposing austerity on the 99% to pay the bills run up by the 1% -- and education is prominent among the institutions being sacrificed in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
While conspiracy theories are often more fervently held than they are empirically sustainable, in this instance a fair case can be made for a conscious effort on the part of the “establishment” of the post-1960s era to roll back what they saw as an assault on their power. The case rests in part on a 1971 memorandum that a successful corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell addressed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum outlined the dangers Powell believed the corporate establishment needed to comprehend and counter:
"No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack. This varies in scope, intensity, in the techniques employed, and in the level of visibility…what now concerns us is quite new in the history of America. We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts…The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians."
The Powell Memorandum laid out in great detail not only the causes for alarm but a strategy for counter-revolution. Powell’s advice has been credited with turning on the faucet that poured millions of dollars into funding right-wing institutes, think tanks and advocacy groups. Powell understood the need for a long march strategy and his vision has been vindicated by the political shifts in the United States during the past four decades. President Richard Nixon must have appreciated Powell’s wisdom, as he appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court shortly after the memorandum was written.
In the spirit of the Powell memorandum the right wing in the U.S. broadened the focus of the counter-revolution from their perennial target of popular culture to encompass the domain of elite culture. Communication scholarship and teaching figured in an important way in the debates over the role of the academy because we are among those who can be accused of "diluting or displacing" canonical texts in favor of the degraded products of popular culture.
By devoting serious attention to the mass media, communications scholars were among the first members of the academy to question the sanctity of the elite cultural canon. In fact, I would argue that the status of communications study within the American academy suffered for years -- and probably still does -- from our association with mass culture.
What these "threats" had in common, and what provoked the enmity of right-thinking politicians, journalists and academics, is that they represented a specter haunting our society: subordinates getting uppity, silenced voices starting to speak out, new perspectives shifting the center of gravity towards the margins. But, despite the ferocity of the counterattack mounted against them, the marginal voices and forces were not in fact remotely as successful as the public was told.
However much communication scholars expanded – or corrupted – the curriculum, and however much they challenged the universality of traditional canons, the field of communication studies in the United States was also retreating from an explicit engagement in the realm of political economy at the very moment that upheavals in communication technologies and media industries were transforming the national and global landscape. Whether by design or unhappy coincidence the critical engagement of communication scholarship with these momentous developments and policy debates diminished, along with the imperative to train our students to participate in and contribute to these important decisions.
The result is that public policy debates are taking place in the US today with little meaningful input from communication scholars, and thus often with too little socially contextualized and theorized empirical data and research to inform them. While many of our programs train graduate students to study media effects, media content, and media processes, too few of our students are trained in the study of media economics, law, regulation and policy, and fewer still are able to do this in a way that produces research that is both academically rigorous and yet useful and accessible to policymakers, media activists, and interested citizens.
We’re all familiar with the condescension if not contempt with which many academics view colleagues who address lay audiences rather than scholarly peers and graduate students. One of the ironies of the hostility to writing that addresses a broad audience rather than a peer cohort is that one such audience is comprised of our undergraduate students (and even some of our graduate students and colleagues in somewhat distant corners of the discipline). As Jan Radway put it,
“the largest and most predictable audience for the material we generate is not composed of our professional peers. Rather it is made up of young men and women, aged roughly eighteen to twenty-two, ranged before us in the classroom, seeking not only professional middle-class validation, but often guidance and reassurance about the appropriate emotional, moral, and political standpoint to take with respect to a confusing and oppressive world.”