Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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Dangerous Questions: Aborted Studies of the News Media, 1920-1960
Stephen Bates

Last modified: 2018-01-26


Between 1920 and 1960, several proposals for large-scale studies of the press fizzled, even when funds were available. Based on documents from archival collections, this preliminary work-in-progress examines four unsuccessful proposals for research projects, in the context of several successful projects. Although some scholars have addressed one or another of the aborted projects, usually in passing, it seems that no one has viewed them together and extracted lessons.

The first was a $170,000 examination of propaganda and foreign news in 1924, to be overseen by Willard G. Bleyer of the University of Wisconsin and others, with funding from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation and the Twentieth Century Fund. Editor & Publisher ran an article about the project. Though positive, the publicity prompted the foundations to pull out, evidently because of rivalries between them.

The second study was proposed by Henry R. Luce, editor in chief of Time Inc., in 1938, five years before the launch of the Time-funded Commission on Freedom of the Press. Luce offered to fund a study of public opinion about the press at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Dean Carl W. Ackerman was eager to proceed, but the American Newspaper Publishers Association, Editor & Publisher, columnist George Sokolsky, and, most consequentially, New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger opposed it. Calling the project “dangerous,” Sulzberger persuaded Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler to kill it.

The third proposal also arose in 1938. The Twentieth Century Fund considered a $25,000, year-long, real-time study of inaccuracies in the press, with findings broadcast each week on radio. “Few public issues are more heavily charged with dynamite than this,” cautioned the Fund’s executive director, Evans Clark. The management committee decided to proceed if the project won the support of a few newspaper owners and editors. It didn’t.

The fourth proposal involved Robert Maynard Hutchins, chair of the Commission on Freedom of the Press from 1943 to 1947. In 1954, the Fund for the Republic, which Hutchins headed, agreed to finance a study of news coverage of the 1956 presidential campaign, to be carried out by Sigma Delta Chi. But after sounding out its members, Sigma Delta Chi abandoned the project rather than provide ammunition to critics of the press.

The four failed studies can be contrasted with several successful ones. The Hutchins Commission may have succeeded because University of Chicago president Hutchins was running it; opponents couldn’t go over his head. Many studies of entertainment media proceeded without hindrance, conducted by Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Leo Rosten, Payne Fund researchers, and others. Perhaps the leaders of entertainment media were less frightened of criticism, or else the sponsors of the studies were less frightened of those leaders. Comparing the aborted studies of the news media with the successful studies of news and entertainment media can help illuminate the sensitivity of industry leaders to criticism as well as the concerns of foundation executives and would-be researchers.

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