The absolute contribution of Paul Lazarsfeld's to the development of empirical communications research has perhaps led to his engagement with more normative questions of media reform been overlooked or under-explored. Viktor Pickard (2016) makes passing reference to Lazarsfeld's friendship with, and public defence of, the left-wing media reform scholar Charles Siepmann. Glenda Balas (2011) offers a more substantive account of Lazarsfeld's engagement with the media reform movement in her account of his participation in the 1949 Allerton House Seminar on Educational Broadcasting, but even so such accounts offer only partial glimpses into Lazarfeld's response to the fiercely contested political debates surrounding media organisation and performance at a time when Lazarsfeld was a leading, indeed public, figure on the communication research landscape. The intention of this paper is to add to our understanding of Lazarsfeld’s interest in normative questions. It will also illustrate the politics of research.
This paper focuses on Lazarsfeld's work at the Ford Foundation, and specifically his work leading the Television Advisory Committee (TAC) between 1952 and 1954. During this period Lazarsfeld was tasked by media reformer Robert M Hutchins with leading a wide-ranging review of the place of television in American life. This paper argues that it was Hutchins' intention that the TAC follow the model established by his own Commission on the Freedom of the Press. Under Lazarsfeld's direction, however, the TAC's emphasis shifted away from the normative, philosophical model preferred by Hutchins. By the completion of the TAC's work, it had taken on characteristics more closely associated with Lazarsfeld's work. The final publication was methodologically focused on empirical investigation into viewer behaviour, and crucially, stripped of any criticism of broadcasting as a commercial enterprise.
Drawing upon material held at the Ford Foundation archives, this paper attempts to understand why Lazarsfeld's early association with the media reform movement did not develop into the fully-fledged activism of colleagues such as Siepmann and Hutchins. It critically interrogates previous accounts of Lazarsfeld's time at the Ford Foundation (Morrison 2000, 2008), and calls into question Lazarsfeld's own rationalisation for the failure of the TAC.
Balas, Glenda R. (2011). Eavesdropping at Allerton: The recovery of Paul Lazarsfeld’s progressive critique of educational broadcasting. Democratic Communiqué, 24, 1.
Morrison, David E. (2000). The Late Arrival of Television Research: A case study in the production of knowledge in Tumbler, Howard (Ed.) Media Power, Professionals and Policies. Routledge: London
Morrison, David E. (2008). Opportunity Structures and the Creation of Knowledge: Paul Lazarsfeld and the Politics of Research in Park, David W. and Pooley, Jefferson (Eds.) The History of Media and Communication Research. New York: Peter Lang
Pickard, Vicktor (2016). Communication’s forgotten narratives: the lost history of Charles Siepmann and critical policy research, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33:4, 337-351.