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Why We Need More Essays About Media

And what we offer to democracy

Conversation may or may not be the soul of democracy — but the essay is. Essays are about grey-zones, multi-layered meanings, ambiguity. These are all qualities any good autocrat detests. The autocrat wants you to absorb his one-liner, his all-encompassing propaganda slogan, his simplistic social media post. He wants you to be with him, his message and framing of the world. The essay never provides you with such a clear-cut message. A good essay leaves you uneasy, unsure, perplexed. After a good essay, you have the hard-to-read facial expression of a cat on an Internet meme as you still work on what you actually think.

So we need essays. But why do we need more essays about media? Why do I advocate for more speech when there is so much talking and painfully little listening? And why essays about media when there is too much talk about tweets anyway? Here are five reasons:

We need essays about media because most of media research still rarely leaves the circle of media researchers. John Durham Peters called communication studies an academic Taiwan, “claiming to possess all of China while isolated on a small island.” Another media scholar, Jefferson D. Pooley, likened communication studies to Hotel California, where “ideas flow in, but they can never leave.” Most media research is written for media researchers. At the same time, knowing more about media is increasingly essential for everyone. Just consider the recent media-related topics that shaped public debates: Russian hacking of the U.S election, the global #MeToo movement, fake news on Facebook, presidential tweets (not only in the U.S.), and Kylie Jenner’s well-concealed pregnancy (okay, the last one mostly rocked the universe of my undergrad students). All these events need smart and perceptive commentary by those who actually research the media.

There are perhaps no myths that are stronger than the ones related to media. Did Kennedy win over Nixon because he looked great on television? Not really. Are people confined to social media bubbles? Powerful myth, but still a myth. Did social media give us President Trump? Not alone. Did the power of individuals and social movements bring down the Berlin Wall? Sorry, they did not. And the list is much longer… Somehow media, be it radio, the press, television, or the Internet, have always triggered the imagination of people, leading to powerful belief systems. Short essays can clarify these myths to wide audiences, even if they will not erase them.

Every media professor dreads the phrase in undergraduate papers “in this media-saturated world.” But there is some fundamental truth to that phrase. We do live in a media-saturated world. Commonplaces are boring, but that does not make them less true. The “media” are excessively admired and dreaded at the same time. Parents try to delay purchasing cell phones for their kids, grandparents introduce “screen time rules,” and professors are struggling to remain interesting when students have the option to listen to us or to buy shoes online. I am choosing this example as I was once asked to observe a great lecture of my colleague at the University of Michigan. Looking at all the student laptop screens in front of me, the ones that were not about football were all about shoes. This is the environment in which we live, love, and teach. This is the environment where our children will grow up. We need to think hard and deeply about this environment, and perhaps we could use some “experts,” even if their importance is so often questioned today.

Essays about media can trigger interdisciplinary debates. More and more academic disciplines turn their interest towards media. Sociology, which has mostly abandoned media research since the 1930s, shows increasing interest in the topic reflected in media sociology events at annual conferences. Humanities departments, especially English, German, and art history, have started to establish media programs, certificates, and initiatives. All this is driven by growing student interest in the topic. In the United States, courses about media tend to be very popular both on the graduate and the undergraduate level. While some institutions are still reluctant to let media scholars in, this position will be harder and harder to maintain. Essays about media can help this intellectual transformation.

Finally, we need more essays about media because they are fun. The Media/Publics section of Public Seminar hopes to be a venue where you can find easy-to-read, thoughtful, and funny essays about the media. Enjoy!

Julia Sonnevend is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Communications at The New School for Social Research and the author of Stories Without Borders: The Berlin Wall and the Making of a Global Iconic Event (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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Julia Sonnevend

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