The Culture War in Communication Studies
Mural at Bockenheimerstrasse, Frankfurt, portraying Max Horkheimer.

The Culture War in Communication Studies

Terry Newman
Terry Newman
19 min read

There have been more infamous civil wars within higher education, but perhaps none more ironic: In September, the National Communication Association (NCA) shut down the discussion feature on its Communication, Research and Theory Network Listserv: These scholars are experts at communication, apparently—just not with each other.

The controversies that led to the decision were of the (by now) predictable sort—an argument about what kind of language should be used to discuss immigrants who enter the United States illegally, intertwined with concerns about the racial composition of the NCA’s (virtually all-white) membership. But the underlying tensions had long been developing within the communications field—as I learned back in May, when I attended a pre-conference entitled #CommunicationSoWhite: Discipline, Scholarship, And The Media at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as part of the larger 2019 International Communications Association conference. The sub-conference was organized by professors Eve Ng, Alfred L. Martin, Jr., and Khadijah Costley White, who’d taken inspiration from a 2018 article of the same name appearing in the Journal of Communication.

Communication studies is a broad field, encompassing verbal, written and non-verbal sub-categories. And it has been affected by some of the same ideological forces whose influence is now felt throughout the liberal arts. During my postgraduate work in Canada, in fact, I abandoned communications (in favour of sociology) largely because of this phenomenon. As I recounted in a 2018 Quillette article, a professor stood up in front of one class and proclaimed to all of us that the sociology academics at another well-known Canadian university were “white racists.” For this, the professor received applause.

The call for #CommunicationSoWhite abstracts were very much of this broad-brush type, as was the mission statement: “to decenter white masculinity as the normative core of scholarly inquiry.” The keynote speaker was Roopali Mukherjee, an Associate Professor at Queen’s College, New York. She opened with a history lesson. It was American Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi Germany who essentially founded the field of communication studies, Mukherjee told us. These Frankfurt School scholars, having escaped a nightmare world of anti-Semitism and hatred, focused their work on issues of race, on how media spreads hate, and on how propaganda works against vulnerable groups. But once the Second World War was over and these scholars were comfortably ensconced in American universities, Mukherjee lamented, their focus wandered. This is where Mukherjee believes the field lost its way.

These scholars ceased, in her view, to study how media affects members of disenfranchised groups, and instead began to study how media affects everyone, the human animal. Under this approach, the generalized human, according to Mukherjee, was now conceived as a white American. Hence did communications begin to grow #SoWhite.

This portion of the presentation was thought-provoking. But then Mukherjee went further. Suddenly she was criticizing the insertion of white writers into communications course packs. She began to accuse people of terrible things. Mukherjee, whose publication credits include The Racial Order of Things: Cultural Imaginaries of the Post-Soul Era and Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, claimed the entire field of communications now is marked by what she called a “single monolithic racism.” And the reason it remains “so white” is that “someone is deliberately keeping it so.”

* * *

Communication studies became a subject of popular interest at various points during the 20th century, usually coinciding with points when people were coming to terms with new media technologies. Some of the major scholars in the field included Marshall McLuhan (“The medium is the message”); Jean Baudrillard, who argued that humans were losing their sense of meaning thanks to the “precession of simulacra”; Jurgen Habermas, with his examination of the “bourgeois public sphere”; and Neil Postman, who warned that we were “amusing ourselves to death.” These scholars all wrestled with the question of what human life becomes in an age of profit-driven, technologically-mediated mass communication—a question that remains equally urgent in our own era of social media.

In its early days, the communications discipline was dominated by rhetoricians. But in the post-war period, it was transformed by the larger academic trend by which even the liberal arts were expected to employ scientific methods of truth-seeking. Some communications experts found they had much in common with their psychology-department peers, and used their expertise to study how people communicate within organizations. Intercultural communication entered the discipline during the 1970s and 1980s, which included the late adoption of the Frankfurt theorists whom Murkherjee mentioned in her origin story. But today, most scholars in this intercultural branch focus more directly on issues such as colonialism and racism (despite Mukherjee’s complaint that such subjects get little attention). In some cases, the pronouncements offered by these scholars seem indistinguishable from what you might hear from theorists in half a dozen other disciplines, such as Gender Studies or Postcolonial Studies.

A case in point was a talk titled Disabled Voices, in which Carolin Aronis of Colorado State University introduced herself as an Israeli who’d moved to the United States and gradually become aware of “latent practices that dismiss people who do not speak the right white language.” Aronis read aloud a poem she’d written “to bring into consciousness practices of talk that participate in the construction and reassurance of white dominance.” The poem was as follows:

I hate those fluent speaking people
With their speech smooth and liquid
Flowing, leaking from their whitish, pinkish bluish mouths
What takes them ten seconds,
Takes me ten yards
What they can do without thinking
I don’t have words to think with
Their words keep dripping and dropping and dribbling on me
Covering me up to a total
Until I disappear
And only rarely I can still phantomize the echo of what I thought I could say.
Blindly tracing back the soil where my crops used to flourish and now no flowers grow there anymore
I want to tear out my voice
my accent
my crooked teeth
my wrinkles
my confused talk
my strangeness
my weirdness
I want to tear it down to wreck it to destroy it
To become one with you
To become you
With your stretched skin on your face
And stretched words sliding from your perfect lips
Teeth, jaw, like pearl necklaces like frozen highways
Like white prejudices that get organized so smoothly in your head
I want to have your eyes
Your enlightened eyes
Your venerable ears shaped so eloquently
I want to have your serene posture
Your upright head that hesitantly turns away when hearing my first crooked word
Bursting out from my mouth
The upwards mouth of a disabled foreigner
That holds a PhD

In a speech entitled The Prevailing Discourse of Whiteness in Canadian Communication Studies, Yasmin Jiwani of Concordia University in Montreal set out the results of her study of back issues of the Canadian Journal of Communication. According to Jiwani, between 2008 and 2019, there were 659 articles published, out of which only 81 were authored by people of colour (or about 12%). “This is how bad the stats are,” she told us. Jiwani also argued that non-white authors were being editorially ghettoized and otherwise consigned to less prestigious subjects and article types.

Deb Verhoeven, previously of the University of Technology in Sydney Australia, now at the University of Alberta, presented a talk entitled Relationality: The Generative Entanglement of Indigenous and Intersectional Feminist Ontologies. On a screen, she projected a network visualization of Australian research funding, with colored dots representing academics doing research in selected fields.

“Red is men,” she said. “The good thing about these sorts of visualizations is,” and here she started pointing to the dots, “I know that man’s name. I know that man’s name. I know that man’s name. I know that man’s name. I know their names. I know who they are. Why do we continue to fund these men? And what you need to know about these men is they exclusively work with other men. I call men who work with other men gender offenders because what I do is I apply criminal-network analysis to their visualizations using the work of counter-terrorist agents and police and finding how they break these sorts of cartels up. What do they do? What they do is they just take the guys out. I know their names, and we could do that.”

The audience laughed a little at this—a low laugh, a sort of uncomfortable rumble. It was unclear whether the speaker was serious. “We could do that tomorrow,” she continued. “It wouldn’t cost anything, and it would have an immediate impact. Why don’t we? Because we’re very focused on the numbers. Even when we’re resisting these networks, we focus on adding ménages and stirring, and we don’t focus on the relationships of domination that are mutable, fungible, they persist, they’re tenacious. We need to start focusing on how they do that. If we throw Harvey Weinstein off the ship, someone else is just going to take his place. How do they do that?

In an afternoon session titled Challenging Whiteness in the Academy, Marian Lyles from Seattle Central College told us about how, 22 years ago, she had had been hired for an adjunct-professor position by a black female dean. This sounded like a good-news story—except that Lyles then introduced a villain character, a perpetually scowling male instructor who’d been absent during her hiring. Upon return from his sabbatical, she said, this man greeted her with a “non-verbal” expression that “spoke volumes,” including “cold stares” and “silence.” Two years later, when Lyles applied for a full-time tenure-track position, she found herself being questioned by this same white male instructor. His “white male gaze operated from a perspective of power, privilege and suppression,” and his tone was “contemptuous and demeaning.” Each time he asked her a question, she said, “it felt as if the room echoed incapable, incompetent, inefficient.” This felt less like an interview to her than an “interrogation.”

It’s hard to know how much of the ill will assigned to this unnamed man was real, and how much existed in the speaker’s imagination. Certainly, we all have known men who act like this—even if her description was suspiciously congruent with the sort of stereotype that fit the conference agenda. That’s one of the problems with an event designed around a pre-formed, ideologically prescribed template: An observer who isn’t already on board with the premise can experience it as propaganda.

But that said, Lyles’ description of her own childhood had the ring of truth to it, and she opened up about her insecurities in a way that I can only describe as courageous. Lyles, who is black, wondered aloud if her one-time male colleague could see her 10-year-old self in a barely de-segregated Georgia, when her internalized oppression began. Could he see her being demeaned by a fifth-grade teacher and silenced in the classroom? Could he see her 11-year-old self traumatized by the shooting death of an older brother in a racially motivated incident?

Lyles’ autobiographical digression provided a valuable reminder that, notwithstanding the dubious nature of some of the sweeping accusations on offer at the conference more generally, many of the speakers had ample reason to suspect prejudicial treatment in their day-to-day encounters with the educational establishment.

Andrea Vickery, a white professor from the University of Richmond, spoke about how she tried to make her general-education “Interpersonal Communications” course less white. Her students were not communications students, but rather were enrolled in other programs, such as Business and Pre-Med. And she feared that if these students didn’t see themselves represented in the material, they’d have little interest in the field. So she found a book of essays that she believed were more diverse and culturally sensitive than the usual material. But the experiment was a failure, Vickery reported. And she suspects she knows why: When she projected the bios and photos of the authors from the book at the front of the classroom, lo and behold, they were, to her dismay, largely white, each slide reflecting “another white face staring back at them.” The table of contents may have seemed to offer diverse fare, but the photos indicated otherwise.

University of Illinois professor Angharad Valdivia presented on her experience co-applying for the editorship of the aforementioned Journal of Communications, the field’s flagship academic publication. She told the room she hadn’t been able to talk about this subject until now, because the whole process had been “traumatic.” A friend, Tulane University professor Vicky Meyer, had been encouraged to apply for the editorial position, and Valdivia had thought she might apply too. Unusually, this became a joint application. “We would have rocked the hell out of that journal,” she proclaimed. The room laughed.

So Meyer and Valdivia put together a proposal to be joint editors. “We planned to operationalize communications to include the entire field; we proposed to make the journal inclusive,” she said. In response, she and Meyer got follow-up questions from the International Communications Association. Valdivia deemed these questions to be offensive—especially as the email containing them was sent on March 8, International Women’s Day.

Valdivia projected the questions onto a screen and scrolled through them, sometimes supplying commentary as she did so:

An important goal of the Journal of Communications is to publish the best scholarship to advance the discipline. The team in the editor position, by virtue of their scholarship and history, may send a signal to the membership about which type of scholarship the editor is most familiar [with]. How can you reassure scholars in other areas of the discipline that you are open to a variety of perspectives, and how can that be communicated in our discipline? How would you invite/make sure that you do, in fact, receive a variety of submissions and publications?

“I recognized this as a rejection,” Valdivia explains, telling the room she was convinced (for reasons unknown) that other applicants were being asked different questions. The tenor of the questions directed to her, she claimed, revealed the existence of a “paradigm war.” Then more text on the screen:

How would you articulate a vision of the journal that is forward-thinking and departs from the past history of JOC? What are your opinions about how an editor may need to deal with contemporary trends or “hot spots” in the discipline (e.g. having adequate reviewer expertise to review computational social science; replication; issues of resubmission of manuscripts; empirical and non-empirical research?) How will you work to assure a place for diverse international and transnational perspectives in the journal (to encourage reviewers and submissions from diverse perspectives, locations, and viewpoints)?

“That was our whole career, so that was silly,” Valdivia said.

JOC receives well over 600 submissions. How will you handle desk rejections?

“That’s a dumb question,” Valdivia said bluntly, without elaboration.

If you had ideal “associate editors and editorial board,” who would they be? (Note we do not expect you to have asked individuals, but we do want to know what the ideal team would look like and how your associate editors would augment areas outside your expertise.)

Valdivia told us that she interpreted this question to mean “who [would we] invite to make people feel comfortable”—the word being used here in the sense of preserving the status quo or assuaging established interests. “We’re two feminist scholars with trans-nationalist and intersectional identities editing a journal of the field. This was wrong. unfair,” she said.

On April 12, Valdivia and Meyer were informed they were not going to be the journal’s new editors. Valdivia said she sent a reply asking who’d been chosen and how the decision had been made. She told us she never received an answer.

* * *

After the pre-conference, I was left wondering what I had just experienced. Was this an academic conference—or just an airing of professional grievances from people who just happen to have academic jobs? In many cases, the language of academia had been nominally in use. But mostly, we were being asked to accept anecdotes and sweeping generalizations.

Feelings of inadequacy injected into poetry became evidence of discrimination. White men became targets on a map. Students taking a communications elective were cast as vulnerable flowers who’d forever be lost if they failed to see their skin hue represented by the authors they read. Departmental competition and job precarity were overlooked as possible interpretations of rude comments, not to mention the infamously toxic baseline state of faculty-lounge politics and the social dysfunction of many academics. Mukherjee claimed in the keynote talk that they all had “binders full of such insults laced with insult and injury.” I would like to see those binders.

I am sympathetic to the fact that a racial imbalance exists among scholars in communication studies: the numbers bear that out. And in such an environment, it is credible that even stray comments may be seen as evidence of a larger, unspoken animus. Real racism exists in all sorts of places, including the academy, and there is no excuse for it. But these sessions did not provide evidence that scholars are fighting the claimed “single monolithic racism,” nor of the hinted-at conspiracy to silence and erase people of colour. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but little was supplied. Instead, the speakers made serious, grievous accusations against many of their own colleagues, based on what appeared to me to be little more than fears, childhood traumas, readings of vocal tone, and facial expressions. The whole day really just felt like an exercise in bias conformation.

* * *

Weeks after the conference, in early July, I discovered that two former presidents of the National Communication Association had resigned from the NCA, with one noting that the communications field had become infested with practices such as public vilification, demands for loyalty oaths, and forced public confessions—all under the guise of promoting diversity, inclusion, equity and justice. Their departures were connected to a controversy surrounding the committee that names “Distinguished Scholars”—NCA members who have demonstrated “a lifetime of scholarly achievement in the study of human communication.” Only three to five people are named Distinguished Scholars each year.

On April 2, Distinguished Scholar David Zarefsky had written a letter, co-signed by several other Distinguished Scholars, to the NCA Executive Committee, expressing concern for changes that were being proposed to the Award Selection Committee, particularly one that stipulated that future award winners would no longer be chosen by Distinguished Scholars, and that a new selection committee would be formed, at least in part, on the basis of credentials unrelated to scholarly bona fides.

In response, a Vice President of the NCA, Star Muir, wrote a letter on May 8, stating that the structural changes were “necessary for the achievement of NCA’s diversity and inclusion goals.” These “necessary changes” included the addition of the Chair of the Diversity Council to the Executive Committee. In addition, the Diversity Council and Publications Council were now said to be “developing a plan for creating more diverse pathways to becoming an NCA journal editor,” because, as noted further in the letter, “racial equity holds society to a higher standard and demands that we pay attention not just to individual‐level discrimination, but to overall social outcomes.” The letter then adds, “Harassment policies have been dramatically changed and publicized to foster a safer and more inclusive environment at all NCA‐sponsored events and meetings.”

At best, the NCA was taking steps to ensure a diverse array of candidates are considered for top awards. At worst—and this is how critics seemed to interpret it—the NCA was engaging in an ideologically-motivated campaign of affirmative action that would turn the Distinguished Scholar Award into a condescending public-relations exercise.

In June, Baylor University professor Martin J. Medhurst, Distinguished Scholar and editor of the interdisciplinary journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs, made known his disagreement with the Executive Committee’s approach. “There’s a difference in running an issue of a journal that features two female scholars, a black scholar, and a graduate student, all of whose work has been accepted through the process of blind peer review versus saying to oneself, ‘I need to publish some female scholars and black scholars and graduate students so everyone will know that I believe in diversity,’” he wrote in a statement drafted for publication in Rhetoric and Public Affairs. “Along that pathway lies disaster, for once we substitute identity for scholarly merit as the first consideration, we have lost our reason for being academics.”

In response to Medhurst, a group of communications scholars wrote a grandly titled Letter to Leadership in the field of Communication. It attracted signatures from over a thousand members of the NCA (though, as is often the case with such controversies, it is hard to know how many people even read the thing before endorsing it). The authors’ demands included that “Dr. Medhurst must immediately resign as editor of Rhetoric & Public Affairs”; that “current members of the Rhetoric & Public Affairs editorial board should resign en masse in protest if Dr. Medhurst does not himself resign”; that “the University of Georgia should cancel next year’s biannual Public Address Conference during which Dr. Medhurst has been designated as an honoree”; and that “current NCA Distinguished Scholars should publicly and unequivocally condemn Dr. Medhurst’s editorial.” It was, in other words, an academic mobbing, one that followed the same pattern as others.

Given the professed moral urgency of the campaign to change the manner of selecting Distinguished Scholars, one might assume that important scholars of colour had been passed up for DS consideration in the recent past. But this apparently was not the case. In response to a 2018 petition to the Executive Committee of the NCA claiming that “each year, despite nominations of senior scholars of colour, NCA’s Distinguished Scholars remain an overwhelmingly white institution,” University of Maryland professor Trevor Parry-Giles pointed out that since 2015, the rules have permitted any member of the National Communication Association to nominate a candidate for the DS award. He included a table showing that before 2014, when only DS scholars could nominate and choose DS award recipients, the mostly white internal committee had, in fact, nominated two scholars of colour and selected one of those nominations for the award. The table also shows that in 2017, one scholar of colour was nominated and not selected, though we know nothing about the nominated candidate or their qualifications. In 2015, 2016 and 2018—all years when any member of the association could nominate a scholar of colour—no scholars of colour were nominated by anyone in the association.

This data is obviously germane to claims of institutional racism within the NCA: As Medhurst, Zarefsky, Parry-Giles, and the other Distinguished Scholars who critiqued the changes to the DS selection process noted, “We focused [our critique] on the nominating process because our analysis indicated that the slow progress on enhancing diversity was primarily the result of lack of nominations that would make the pool more diverse, not from the selection process for choosing the award recipients. It is a truism that people who are not nominated cannot be selected.”

Such statistical disclosures might have spurred a moment of clarity—perhaps even humility—for those who’d called for Medhurst’s head and declared that the paucity of non-white DS awardees demonstrated a culture of racism within the NCA. But no: Those same aforementioned Letter to Leadership in the Field of Communication authors simply reframed their complaint. “Indeed, one cannot win an award for which they are not nominated,” they acknowledged. “But our colleagues’ line of argument is either naïve or willfully omits several fundamental truths regarding processes such as the one under scrutiny. A homogenous group of scholars will almost certainly judge merit on the basis of their own experiences and standards of rigor, and presume that such experiences and standards are universal. They are not.”

The signatories then went on to claim that the 2018 #CommunicationSoWhite academic paper that had inspired the Washington, D.C. pre-conference I’d attended had proven that “homogeneity breeds homogeneity…through empirical methods, clearly demonstrating that [the] discipline has a race problem—a problem people of color in [the] field have known in their bones without such empirical support.”

In fact, I have read that 2018 article carefully, and it provides no such proof—or at least none beyond the type that can only be felt within one’s “bones.”

That article’s stated purpose, as with the pre-conference of the same name, was “to decenter white masculinity as the normative core of scholarly inquiry.” But it contains no explanation as to why scholarship that isn’t focused explicitly on race should be dismissed as “white” or “masculine.” The authors claim that non-white scholars are “underrepresented in publication rates, citation rates, and editorial positions in communication studies,” in part on the basis that non-whites were first authors on only 746 out of 5,262 (14%) documents published in a set of examined journals published between 1990 to 2016. This is similar to the 12% figure in the above-cited Canadian study. But the significance of such statistics is hard to assess unless we know how many articles by people of colour were submitted.

Moreover, how many students of colour are there in communications undergraduate programs to begin with? It’s perfectly true that communication studies was, until recent decades, an almost entirely white field in the West—in large part because universities themselves were usually very white places. But that has changed. In Canada, it’s been obvious for decades that visible minorities have made enormous inroads, especially in the hard sciences. I know this firsthand because I worked my way through my communications studies as a teaching assistant in the Engineering department, and was able to compare the student populations. Because many immigrant groups understandably prioritize high-paying fields such as engineering, medicine and computer science, more esoteric fields such as communications have remained, in relative terms, bastions of privileged whites who can afford to attend non-professional programs. Is this evidence of discrimination? Or is it just a case of students of colour concluding (quite sensibly) that they’d rather educate themselves in real-life job skills rather than watch privileged white people find new and creative ways to accuse one another of racism?

If deans want more people of colour in their communications departments, the way to do it isn’t to change the way they give lifetime-achievement awards to tenured profs who graduated from university when Ronald Reagan was president. It’s to visit high schools, and recruit students when they’re young. But that takes hard work and initiative. It’s so much easier to write a memo ordering the reconstitution of an awards committee—and then launch a campaign of character assassination against anyone who objects. You never even have to leave your desk.

One reason why many smart students have given up on not just communications, but the liberal arts more generally, is that they don’t see value in paying tens of thousands of tuition dollars each year for lectures from professors whose ideas and methodology are increasingly difficult to distinguish from the kind of rants one finds on YouTube. In the sciences, standards of true merit and excellence are easy to establish, since numbers either add up or they don’t. Structures stand or fall. Cultured cells live or die. In the liberal arts, the concept of merit is mushier—and becomes mushier still when organizations such as the NCA redefine it for no other purpose than to ward off faddish criticisms. Far from making the field of communications more attractive to new students, the NCA’s move may only reinforce the negative impressions that students (of all colours) already have.

Ten days later, the NCA’s Vice-President announced that the association would be moving forward with plans to change the Distinguished Scholars award selection process, separating the decision-making process from the most celebrated and prolific academics in the field. The association would also “train, recruit, and select a diverse group of editors for their journals,” and continue to “discuss the NCA’s Code of Conduct and Anti-Harassment efforts to ensure attendees’ safety at meetings and events”—an ironic pledge given that the instances of intimidation I observed on the Communication Research and Theory Network mailing list and related social-media pages consisted mostly of casual anti-white racism and jokes about the deaths of older, whiter DS awardees.

Indeed, it was amid such toxicity that two communications professors who’d been accused of racism threatened to sue other NCA members for libel, with the result that the NCA Listserv completely shut down its unmoderated discussion section. That probably didn’t inconvenience too many people, however: Increasingly, discussion takes place in policed bubbles such as the Communication Scholars for Transformation Facebook Group, purpose-built “to facilitate signatures to an open letter in response to the recent editorial drafted by Marty Medhurst.”

* * *

One of the most important texts in the history of communications was Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, originally authored (in German) by Frankfurt theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in the 1940s. Published amid the cultural transformations wrought by radio, film and the still-nascent medium of television, the authors gave voice to Marxist-inspired concerns that mass-produced culture would allow society’s commercial class to program our cultural tastes in a way that served its own needs and justified pre-existing hierarchies. From this early stage, those who developed and studied the field of communications imagined themselves to be—and sometimes really were—independently minded people who could resist this cultural programming and stand outside the media onslaught that was seducing society at large. And this idea of communications scholars as a sort of special priestly class, uniquely resistant to the effects of propaganda, was a hubristic conceit that survives within the field to this day.

Whether or not this conceit was ever fully justified, the #CommunicationSoWhite controversy now has made a mockery of it: The scholars I observed at that May event, like those I see calling for heretics’ heads on campuses, now traffic in the same sort of ideologically-driven propaganda that giants of the Frankfurt School warned of. They deliver lectures without evidence, elicit applause for coarse attacks on broad swathes of the population, and use social media to scream at the people they’re instructed to scream at.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno warned that new media were transforming audience members into passive receptacles, “in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs…No mechanism of reply has been developed, and private transmissions are condemned to unfreedom.” It is sad to see these dire predictions vindicated—without any hint of self-awareness—by the very academics purporting to follow in their footsteps.