Methods for the Study of the History of Broadcasting and Mass Communication
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 21, Numbers 2 & 3, May/September 1991
- pp. 55-63
- Additional Information
Film & History, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2 & 3, May/September 199155 Methods for the Study of the History of Broadcasting and Mass Communication Douglas Gomery We have been studying the history of broadcasting and mass communication for less than a century. No fact is more central to us historians. The rise of radio and television stand as purely twentieth century-phenomena. Indeed, they have been with us as mass communication forms for less than three quarters of our current century. Only the movies can claim a century of production, distribution, and exhibition. For traditional historians, the analysis of mass communication is simply "too new." They warn us to be careful. They tell us that what we as historians of mass communication are doing is not history, but some sort of study of current events. In more scholarly terms the label is "contemporary history." Properly, they alert us to a multitude of problems and issues with which we ought to grapple, one from which historians studying the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seem to be exempt. In my discussion below I hope to take careful note of the special problems associated with the study of contemporary history. Fully alerted, I still-compulsively-wish to plunge ahead. How should the mass communication historian answer his or her questions? The data seem to be there, in archives bulging with audio and video sources, with papers no one can fully expect to read in a lifetime. Where should we start? I say we ought to start by inventorying and analyzing the methods for historical analysis we have in our portfolios. Thus this short intervention is a personal look at the question of historical method, aimed only at the analysis of mass communication. The usual reaction to any discussion of historical method is a yawn; it is necessary, but so dry, so boring, so dull. Yet, I argue, the consideration of method is too important not to be taken seriously. The study of history should not be assumed to be simply an inevitable chain of events. History as a means of study ought to answer questions we raise about the past. How should we go about answering these important questions about the history of radio and television in the United States?1 How should we properly do broadcast and mass communication history? Our predecessors began with two dominant methodologies. Let me take a quick look at each one. Douglas Gomery is Professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the University ofMaryland, College Park, and is Senior Researcher at the Media Studies Project. He is the author of Shared Pleasures (1992), among other books. 56 Douglas Gomery METHOD 1--SURVEY. The first method adopted by early historians was the general survey approach, which enabled them to sketch out, in general terms, the basic story of "what happened." The questions posed are straight forward; the tools are ones familiar to the work of journalists. They ask, how did radio get started and develop? How did television come on to the scene and how did it become such an important force in our lives? Here, early historians responded to the desire to simply get down on paper some fundamental information. For their skills at that task, I thank them. I single out and honor Erik Barnouw's readable, coherent, and fascinating three-volume survey history ofAmerican broadcasting, which concluded in 1970.2 I also praise Larry Lichtys and Mal Topping's fine sevenhundred page anthology of basic readings.3 For the second generation of broadcast and mass communication historians, these two vast works served as the basic texts. We need to fully appreciate that these authors tried to grapple with history as events changed daily. They took on the "facts" as best as they could get them; there were few video recorders or indexed archives in the 1960s. They faced an academy which thought they were crazy and which complained, "This isn't real history; this is simply fun and games." This first generation tried to do it all-and that is as daunting a scholarly task as I can think of. METHOD 2--BIOGRAPHY. Barnouw, Lichty and Topping's rivals for the methodological heart of the...