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Film & History, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2&3, May/September 199183 Doing Media History Research Janet Steele I am a cultural historian. My degree is in American History from the Johns Hopkins University, and I teach in the Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies at the University of Virginia. My specialty is the history of journalism, and I am completing a biography of Charles Anderson Dana, who was the late-nineteenth-century editor of the New York Sun. Although my research method~biography~is rather primitive according to the Douglas Gomery scheme, I want to go on the record as saying that I don't subscribe to the "Great Man" theory of anything.1 I am going to talk about my experiences first in doing media research in a history department, and then in teaching media history in a communication studies department. My intention is to shed some light on the differences between the two fields, and also to suggest some ways that we might try to reconcile them. First, I'm glad to say that as a media historian, I am no longer as rare a species as I used to be. Today there are many promising young scholars who are interested in the history of the mass media. This is a big change since I started out in graduate school a little over ten years ago. At that time, historians who looked at newspapers in the course of their research usually did so in a simplistic way-as sources of "facts." In looking up the stories of past events, they paid little attention to the social and cultural context of the newspapers they were examining. They gave even less notice to particulars such as the make-up of a newspaper's audience, the professional ideology of the reporters who wrote the stories, or the social construction of news itself. To give just one example, the most frequently used newspaper in political histories of the nineteenth century is the New York Times. This is not because the Times was the most influential newspaper-which it wasn't~or because it had the largest circulation-which it didn't-or even because it was, by modern, commercial standards, the most successful. Rather, the reason that historians have traditionally relied on the New York Times as the nineteenth-century newspaper of record is that the paper is (1) readily available on microfilm and (2) indexed. As obstacles to the pursuit of good media history, the problems of microfilm and lack of indexes can be overcome. More troublesome is the notion still prevalent in some history departments that the history of the media is too trivial a topic for scholarly research. According to this view, a biography of a newspaper editor (preferably a dead one) is acceptable, because it fits into the realm of intellectual history. A study of television news, however, is not. Ianet Steele isAssistant Professor in the Department ofRhetoric and Communication Studies at the University of Virginia. 84 Ianet Steele I can illustrate this limited appreciation of media history with a story I heard when I first started graduate school. Evidently there had been a brilliant young student at Johns Hopkins who dropped out of the program because no one would let him write a dissertation on the topic he had chosen: a social history of Mad magazine and its impact on the "New Left" of the 1960s. To the history faculty, Mad magazine was simply not weighty enough to stand as a dissertation topic. Of course now that I teach in a department of rhetoric and communication studies—where one of my colleagues studies comic books, and entire sections of courses are devoted to analyses of Star Trek: The Next Generation—& dissertation on the rhetoric of Mad sounds almost conventional. At any rate, this kind of research was frowned upon in the history departments of the 1970s. Well, times have changed. When I chose my dissertation topic in the early 1980s, I decided to write an intellectual biography of New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana. My justification for selecting Dana was not that he had been the editor of the largest newspaper in New York, but rather that he had...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 83-87
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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