Media history as a concept in its own right possesses a relatively recent lineage. In the early decades of the twentieth century, when references to “the media” – newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio, and the like – were entering popular parlance, university academics tended to be rather skeptical about whether these institutions were important enough to warrant scholarly attention. Historians, in particular, were inclined to be dismissive. Matters would gradually improve over the course of the century, due to a number of factors (several of which will be identified below). Even today, however, media history continues to occupy a contested terrain between the principal disciplines informing its development, namely media studies (broadly inclusive of communication, cultural, and journalism studies) and history.
Pertinent scholarship is more likely to be found in schools of journalism than in history departments. Media history, when defined narrowly within the terms of press history, benefits from the perceived centrality of the news media to the governance of modern societies. At the same time, though, much of this research has been criticized for relying upon conceptions of history where the press is regarded as advancing unwaveringly in the cause of freedom over the centuries. In order to overcome the limitations of this “Whig interpretation” of journalism history, as it has been described, media historians have begun to diversify their sources and methods. Moreover, some are striving to look beyond the views of the powerful and privileged so as to recover and interpret the experiences of those who have been traditionally defined as “marginal, deviant and rebellious” where the making of media history is concerned (Carey 1985; see also Williams 1998; Gorman and McLean 2003; Chapman 2005).
Definitions of media history stretching beyond the press have frequently encountered resistance from those who regard the entertainment media as too inconsequential to public life to justify investigation. Serious reservations have been expressed by some historians about the very legitimacy of media history as a “proper” academic subject when it encompasses ostensibly trivial, ephemeral media items (advertisements, comics, graffiti, soap operas, paperback fiction, music videos, computer games, and the like) within its purview. Others have challenged this perspective, insisting that such value judgments be avoided so as to engage with the whole spectrum of emergent media in all of their complexity.
Defining Media History
Depending on how one chooses to define “the media,” a case can be made that media history properly begins in the earliest days of human social life and communication. For researchers interested in the emergence of media in oral or pre-literate communities thousands of years ago, for example, the insights of archaeologists and anthropologists have proven invaluable. The advent of reading and writing is of particular significance, enabling the dissemination of “news” or information at a distance, and thereby helping to sustain a shared sense of social order (Innis 1986; Stephens 1998). Studies have examined the emergence and use of various media facilitating communication, ranging from “pictographs” written on clay tablets, to papyrus, paper, and eventually the movable type of the printing press (Eisenstein 1979; Fang 1997).
For many media historians, it is the connection between emergent media of communication and the creation of democratic society that is particularly fascinating. In this context, Anderson’s (1983) analysis of the rise of print as commodity in western Europe illuminates the emergence of nationality – “the personal and cultural feeling of belonging to a nation” – toward the end of the eighteenth century. In conceiving of the nation as an “imagined community,” he points out that it is possible to “think the nation” to the extent that certain media products are available to “re-present” its characteristics. He singles out for attention in this regard the fictional novel and the newspaper, arguing that the corresponding print languages helped to engender national consciousness in important ways.
Complementing this line of inquiry into how print enriched the ability of people to relate to themselves and to others in new ways have been efforts to understand how these media shaped the formation of public opinion. Here researchers have found the notion of a “public sphere,” as theorized by Jürgen Habermas (1989), to be useful, especially when investigating how spaces for public discussion and debate were initiated and sustained. Habermas identifies a range of institutions facilitating this process, with special attention devoted to coffee houses and the newspaper press. This normative conception of individuals participating in reasoned dialogue and debate about the conduct of social life, and thereby compelling “authority to legitimate itself before public opinion” (Habermas 1989, 25), highlights a range of intriguing issues for exploration (see also Starr 2004; Zaret 2000).
For media historians, the broad historical sweep of Habermas’s treatment has served as a conceptual backdrop for more narrowly focused inquiries. Related studies have highlighted the ways in which various media forms and practices helped to give shape to new kinds of public sociability. Such studies include examinations of advertising, art, music, street literature, exhibitions in museums and galleries, as well as reading and language societies, lending libraries, and the postal system, among other concerns.
Media historians continue to rehearse contrary views on the extent to which the normative ideals of a public sphere have been realized in actual terms, a debate which continues to percolate. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that a consideration of the relative freedoms espoused by these ideals throw into sharp relief many of the factors that have acted to constrain public discussion over time. Most successful in this regard have been the efforts of journalism historians, many of whom – from the nineteenth century onwards – have helped to formalize the more influential conceptual and methodological frameworks broadly indicative of modern media history. Even here, though, various problems have beset the craft, several of which have come to the fore in recent years.
“The study of journalism history remains something of an embarrassment,” Carey (1974) wrote in an essay titled “The problem of journalism history,” widely regarded as a classic appraisal of the field in the mid-1970s. Even efforts to justify its ambitious objectives, he remarked, have to acknowledge a doubt about the value of its contribution thus far. “Each generation of journalism historians has been dissatisfied with the nature of our knowledge and the forms of our presentation,” he continued, before making the point that “the existing critiques of journalism history are superficial: they fail to get at a deeper set of historiographical problems” (1974, 86, 87). In his view, historians have chosen to define their craft too modestly, thereby narrowing the range of questions examined (and claims derived from their analysis) to an unnecessarily restrictive degree. This tendency, in turn, has made it more difficult to refute other, related types of criticisms, namely that journalism history “is dull and unimaginative, excessively trivial in the problems chosen for study, oppressively chronological, divorced from the major current of contemporary historiography, and needlessly preoccupied with the production of biographies of editors and publishers” (1974, 87). In conceding that there is some truth in these charges, Carey issues a call for the guiding assumptions of history writing to be examined anew (see also Briggs & Burke 2005; Czitrom 1982; Solomon & McChesney 1993; Uricchio 2004; Winston 2005).
Matters have improved considerably in this regard since the time of Carey’s intervention, although answers to several of the questions he raises have proven stubbornly elusive. In a British context, Curran (2002) echoes these concerns, maintaining that media history continues to suffer from its marginalized status in relation to the dominant paradigms of media research. “It is now the neglected grandparent of media studies,” he observes: “isolated, ignored, rarely visited by her offspring” (2002, 3). Media historians “labour in the shadows,” with much of the research they produce being overlooked in favor of studies engaged with seemingly more pressing concerns. This neglect is regrettable, not least because media history “sheds light on the central role of mass communications in the making of modern society” (2002, 3). In so doing, it provides a range of alternative ways of thinking about the nature of that relationship, helping to render explicit issues that would otherwise remain difficult to discern from a contemporary perspective.
Competing Narratives of Media History
In seeking to make the case for a revitalized conception of media history, Curran charts a series of competing narratives that, taken together, usefully elucidate certain core themes. Specifically, seven narratives are identified – liberal, feminist, populist, libertarian, anthropological, radical, and technological determinist – each of which highlights its preferred reading of media history consistent with its vantage point. In the course of briefly outlining the principal features of these narratives, additional studies will be referenced so as to provide an even wider survey of relevant research in media history.
Liberal Media History
Easily the most pronounced of the seven is the liberal narrative, the tenets of which revolve around the presupposition that the media have played a central role in the democratization of the political process unfolding over the last three centuries. Two key arguments are especially important here, Curran suggests.
First, the media – long pitched in a struggle with government to be free – have successfully secured their independence. Much scholarly attention has been devoted to the liberty of the press in this regard, with a range of studies focusing on efforts to regulate media content in different national contexts. Examples identified by Curran include challenges to the political agenda espoused by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) which, from 1912 onwards, aimed to manage issues of censorship with regard to what was shown in cinemas. What began as a “voluntary” system of self-regulation evolved into a “tyrannical system of ideological control” endorsed by the state. “During the interwar period,” he writes, “the BBFC banned films criticizing the monarchy, government, church, police, judiciary and friend foreign countries” (2002, 4). Related studies of broadcasting in this context have similarly underscored the extent to which certain rights and freedoms have been wrested from the state.
The second key argument builds on this first one, namely by contending that free media empower people in a manner that promotes the democratic project. The media are seen to provide the information necessary for citizens to engage with public affairs, subject authority to critical scrutiny, represent public opinion to government, and – especially in the case of public service broadcasting – encourage social communication, and thus cohesion, among different groups in society. In essence, then, this liberal tradition relates media history “as a story of progress in which the media became free, switched their allegiance from government to the people, and served democracy” (Curran 2002, 7).
Feminist Media History
The feminist narrative, Curran suggests, “views the development of the media in terms of a chequered, incomplete but nonetheless ground-breaking movement towards the liberation of women” (2002, 14). Research in this area, most of it conducted in recent decades, takes as its central concern the ways in which the media have connected with the social revolution promoting women’s advances in public life. In this regard, the ways in which patriarchal values are embedded in popular culture, for example, have been privileged for critique.
Pertinent investigations include those of women’s magazines published between the eighteenth century and 1918, where a certain ideal of domestic femininity was articulated, such that patriarchal ideology was effectively conflated with social morality. This ideal, Curran writes, “became part of the discourse of class, in which femininity was associated with refinement, delicacy and elegant domesticity, while lack of femininity was identified with work-calloused hands, roughness, coarseness, lewdness, the ‘male’ world of paid work” (2002, 10). Further examples of media representations under feminist or gender-sensitive scrutiny include advertisements, women’s and girls’ magazines, romantic fiction, newspapers, popular films, and television programs, among others.
Accordingly, research in this area has not only spoken to silences in conventional media history in important ways, it has also created spaces for feminist media historians to contribute to academic debates previously defined in predominantly male terms.
Populist Media History
The populist narrative has emerged even more recently than its feminist counterpart. Interestingly, Curran characterizes it as possessing a “villain and a hero” at its center. “The ‘villain’ is the Victorian intelligentsia, and their heirs, who sought to foist their cultural tastes on the people,” while the “ ‘hero’ is the market which made the media more responsive to popular demand” (2002, 14). These tensions, played out in a variety of cultural contexts, correspond with the decline of social deference, and with it the erosion of the values of hierarchy in favor of an increased social egalitarianism. The media, as a result, become more responsive to popular demand, in effect being transformed into major sources of popular pleasure.
The rise of the market as a democratizing force, a central theme celebrated by advocates of this narrative, is described as having a profound influence in opening up the cultural experiences of the few to the many. “The response of the cultural elite to the rise of mass culture is thus portrayed as either taking refuge in obscure intellectualism or enlisting the power of the state to impose elite preferences on the people,” Curran writes. “Much of populist history is devoted to revealing gleefully how this latter strategy came unstuck” (2002: 17). Relevant studies have investigated, among other topics, the emergence of the public library system, the rise of “new journalism” from the 1880s onwards, the populist pressures brought to bear on elitist conceptions of radio and television broadcasting, or the ways in which cinema responded to the rise of social democratic values.
This narrative, in portraying the media as evolving from paternalism to consumerism, similarly highlights the ways in which they connect with the everyday lives of their audiences. “Above all,” Curran observes, “this tradition offers a rather compelling account of how each new medium – film, radio, gramophone and television – was the object of widespread wonder and excitement, became absorbed into the rituals of family and social life, and was the staple of everyday conversation” (2002, 22).
Libertarian Media History
The libertarian narrative revolves around a clash between the liberal or “modern” tradition of tolerance and moral pluralism on the one hand, and moral traditionalism (often expressed in religious terms) on the other. The media’s development is described by the libertarian narrative as a “Manichean struggle” between these respective traditions. Periodic “culture wars” bring these contending traditions to the fore, a struggle “often contested in relation to symbolic ‘out’ groups: members of youth cultures, from 1920s flappers to 1970s punk and moral ‘deviants,’ from sexual minorities to unmarried mothers. These battles marked out where the outer perimeter of the ‘acceptable’ lay” (2002, 24).
Pearson’s (1983) cultural history of hooliganism is illustrative, showing as it does that from “the outcry against ‘street arabs’ in the 1840s and ‘garrotters’ in the 1860s right through to the denunciations of ‘Teddy Boys’ in the 1950s and ‘muggers’, in the 1970s, these cyclical outbursts bore little relationship to the changing rate of crime.” Time and again, Curran adds, “they identified the same sinister processes at work: moral deterioration among the young, malign foreign influence and the ill-effects of the media (whether this be the Victorian music hall, the Edwardian comic 1920s film, or television)” (2002, 23).
Historical accounts of these and related moral crises have succeeded in revealing, in turn, the ways in which the moral regulation of the media has been caught up in this larger conflict between liberals and traditionalists. In addition to opposing definitions of public morality, those of taste, permissiveness, obscenity, among others, have similarly figured prominently in varied instances of media prejudice and discrimination on the basis of age, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.
Anthropological Media History
The anthropological narrative takes as its theoretical point of departure Anderson’s (1983) conception of the nation as an “imagined political community” (as discussed above). In conceiving of the nation in this way – and thereby attending to the interweaving of narrative strands revolving around different languages, religions, histories, traditions, and identities – the importance of the media is underscored, not least with regard to their role in forging collective terms of social identification.
Examples discussed by Curran range from print-based media in the eighteenth century – promoting “the view that Britain was a freedom-loving, constitutional, Protestant country in contrast to the tyrannical, Catholic nations of Europe” – to the imperialistic pretensions of British virtue promulgated in BBC radio broadcasts to the Commonwealth, and beyond. In the case of British cinema during its “golden age” (1930 – 1970), for instance, a framework of shared national experience (and thereby common talking points) encouraged cinema-goers to visualize the country within these terms. “It portrayed the nation in terms of geographically defined archetypes – canny Scots, lyrical Welsh, plain-spoken northerners, dodgy but loveable cockneys, simple West Country people – that made the nation seem both knowable as a community and also a familiar object of affection” (Curran 2002, 29 –30).
In tracing the changing nature of national identity, advocates of this perspective on media history have sought to explicate its constructed nature, that is, the ways in which ideologies of nationalism facilitate the projection of unity out of diversity.
Radical Media History
In marked contrast to the five narratives discussed thus far, all of which exhibit varying degrees of optimism about the progressive nature of social change, stands the more pessimistic account of the radical narrative. Habermas’s (1989) assessment of the ascension and decline of the public sphere, as noted above, is an exemplar of this latter tradition.
“The early part of Habermas’s history is loved by liberals,” Curran writes, “while the latter part is relished by radicals. This is because Habermas offers an impeccably liberal history, with an unhappy ending derived from the Frankfurt school” (2002, 44). A radical treatment of the public sphere model, it follows, places its emphasis not on the rise of new spaces for “rational-critical debate” (with their attendant forms of exclusion, including those based on gender discrimination), but rather on its decline from the 1850s onwards. The “forward march of the people,” advocates of this narrative contend, gradually came to a halt soon after, with certain crucial gains effectively reversed. In this light, the socalled “free” media, a central tenet of the Whiggish orientation of much media history writing (see above), are shown to be increasingly subject to elite control.
Studies of twentieth-century media have focused on topics such as the emergence of propaganda, public relations, the alternative, underground, or dissident press, and media events, including elections, sports, and royal occasions (Williams 1998), so as to show how systems of control have converged, much to the detriment of free expression. This radical tradition underscores the contention, therefore, that “the media came broadly to support the social order as a consequence of controls exerted through the market, state and elite cultural power” (Curran 2002, 39; see also Solomon & McChesney 1993).
Technological Determinist Media History
The seventh and final narrative in this schematic is typified as the technological determinist tradition. Its “sprawling literature,” Curran maintains, can be condensed into four key arguments.
First, the advent of new means of communication – ranging from hieroglyphics carved in stone to, say, wireless telegraphy – alters dimensions of space and time, thereby influencing the larger organization of society. Second, there is a corresponding change in the nature of human senses and perception. Third, the structure of interpersonal relations is altered by the evolution of the media, creating different forms of social identification. And, fourth, new types of media disturb pre-existing flows of communication and influence, thereby impacting on (possibly subverting) established authority relations.
Over recent years, the influence of the technological determinist account on media history has proven to be considerable, with some advocates – citing theoreticians such as McLuhan (1962) in support – believing that it renders more traditional forms of history writing redundant. This approach belies a number of weaknesses, including a tendency to overstate the influence of communications in relation to other determining influences. “This either takes the form of simplistic mono-causal explanations or, more often, mono-track interpretations which monitor only the effects of communications technology,” Curran contends. Moreover, this tradition “tends to view communications technology as an autonomous cause of change,” that is, as possessing “some inner technological logic,” rather than accounting for the ways in which the invention, development and application of new communications technology are shaped by the wider context of society (2002, 53). This is not to deny that it can generate important insights nonetheless, such as with regard to histories of the Internet.
These seven narratives, taken together, facilitate efforts to map the broad contours of much media history research and writing. Each of these narratives has its relative strengths and limitations: none is above criticism, while each has something significant to contribute. Future work in the area, he believes, will repay efforts to find ways to interweave these narrative strands together, for it is through their synthesis that the excessive overspecialization of media history can best be overcome. “Instead of telling a story of things getting better or worse,” Curran observes, a commitment to synthesis “offers a more contingent view of ebb and flow, opening and closure, advances in some areas and reverses in others. The contextualization of media history dissolves linear narratives – whether of progress or regress” (2002, 51).
Researching Media History
The importance of media history may appear to be self-evident. More often than not the merits of a historical approach are justified with reference to familiar sayings, such as: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This admonition, and variations of it, reminds us that a study of the past better equips us for engaging with the future. For media historians, the rationale for their craft is often expressed as a commitment to interdisciplinary so as to situate the evolution of media forms, practices, institutions, and audiences within broader processes of societal change. “The history of the media,” writes Nerone (1993), “cannot be understood apart from the history of the social and cultural contexts within which media developments occurred; the proper unit of study is not the individual medium, but the whole set of media within a particular ecology.” It follows, he adds, that “the history of the media should be written as social history: as the history of societies” (1993, 39).
Briggs and Burke (2005) concur, pointing out that the “immediate intentions, strategies and tactics of communicators need at every point in the story to be related to the context in which they are operating – along with the messages that they are communicating.” That said, they acknowledge that it is always difficult to identify, even with the benefit of hindsight, “the long-term effects, especially the unintended and sometimes surprising consequences of the use of one means of communication rather than another one” (2005, 5). Compounding this difficulty, of course, is the recognition that media processes can be ephemeral, and thereby elusive in conceptual and methodological terms. In any case, their very normality, that is, the extent to which they are simply taken for granted as a part of everyday life, means that efforts to de-normalize them face considerable challenges.
Media historians, it follows, must strive to be sufficiently self-reflexive about their chosen strategies when gathering source material and interpreting evidence, especially where questions related to “effects” or causation are being addressed. Pertinent in this regard is the status of electronic media, for example, which may pose particular problems for the historian seeking to establish relations of significance. Not only are the actual texts under scrutiny – e.g., an early radio play or television broadcast – unlikely to be amenable to more traditional, print-based methods, but issues with regard to such logistical considerations as access, physical artifacts (microphones, receiver sets, and the like), and format-compatibility (changes in formats can make playback difficult) may surface. In addition, an investigation into a creative production environment will necessitate a different type of evidential basis being secured. “In many cases,” as Godfrey (2006) observes, “media records may be compared and substantiated against existing production records, such as scripts, rough drafts, site maps, organizational outlines, production notes, oral histories, and written materials utilized in creating a program or series.” It is precisely this type of documentation, he adds, that enables the media historian to discern the array of factors giving shape to the program, and to help interpret their relative importance. “Peeling away the layers of production reveals those illustrative historical facts and enhances analytic understanding of the creative process itself ” (2006, 14).
At the same time, media historians recognize the ways in which such programs can simultaneously provide valuable insights into their audiences. “From this body of evidence,” Benjamin (2006) writes, “researchers can deduce attitudes, assumptions, and values of both (creators and their audiences) from past programming.” She proceeds to point out that “listening to an audiotape or viewing a videotape of a speech, for example, provides a more accurate experience than reading a printed copy. Voice inflection, body posturing, and other nuances add rich texture to the speech” (2006, 44). For these and related qualities to be analyzed, new methods are being crafted to address the specificities of electronic media in historical terms.
The advent of digital technologies is already engendering similar types of issues for media historians. Thrown into sharp relief are certain assumptions about how intellectual work proceeds, many of which are derivative of print-based culture (Stephens 1998). Print, the Victorian historian Lord Acton wrote in 1895, “gave assurance that the work of the Renaissance would last, that what was written would be accessible to all, that such an occultation of knowledge and ideas as had depressed the Middle Ages would never recur, that not an idea would be lost” (cited in Briggs & Burke 2005, 16). This presupposition no longer holds true in a digital age, where media history scholarship increasingly entails finding alternative ways to manage, interpret, and preserve the extensive array of materials available across different storage systems.
The sheer volume and range of these materials, coupled with continuing innovation in hardware and software (the obsolescence of technology rendering some types of data difficult to retrieve), can make for challenging decisions about how to maintain libraries, archives, databases, and other repositories of information. New questions are being posed in this regard by electronic records, including items such as emails, voicemail messages, word-processing documents, Internet websites, message boards, blogs, and the like, all of which are highly perishable.
These questions have been anticipated, at least to some extent, by media history research concerned with still photography since the early 1990s, when analogue formats began to give way to digital ones. Digitization can make the verification of photographic records very difficult (Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort 2003). A variety of digital editing tools enable the easy manipulation of a digital photographic file’s pixels, in marked contrast with the relative immutability of analogue records (where alteration is usually detectable). Seamless edits may include, for example, the removal of a person or object from a photograph, or more subtle effects at the level of framing, shading, or hue – all accomplished with a click of the computer mouse. For the media historian, then, new tests of authenticity need to be determined for visual (and aural) evidence (Beadle 2006).
Precisely how media history research will evolve invites thoughtful consideration. Current efforts to build on the foundations set down by the press histories of the nineteenth century are making progress, not only by enriching these traditions, but also by pursuing new directions that recast familiar assumptions – sometimes in unexpected ways. The types of criticisms of “standard” media history identified by Carey (1996), namely that its arguments were based on “nothing more than speculation, conjecture, anecdotal evidence, and ideological ax grinding” (and where conclusions were not “theoretically or empirically grounded; none was supported by systematic research”), no longer aptly characterize the field (1996, 15 –16). Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest, on the basis of the range and depth of the research surveyed above, that there is every indication that media history will continue to develop in ever more methodologically rigorous – and intellectually exciting – directions. Still, while there are grounds for optimism, much work remains to be done.
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