Michael Schudson at UCSD office
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Ground zero for Professor Michael Schudson is his office on the UCSD campus. What appears to be a den of isolation is in fact an intellectual Grand Central Station. But the molecules bouncing around this 12- by 12-foot space are usually just Schudson's and those of a solitary student. Still, the energy flowing through the office is extremely active. It is the passion generated by ideas, of what professors love calling "the life of the mind."
Books are everywhere. They do more than just fill the black metal, utilitarian shelves that occupy two walls of Schudson's office. Paperbacks and hardbacks of all shapes and sizes dominate, enveloping, surrounding, tumbling out hundreds of the assumptions that Schudson loves to crack open like walnuts.
Holder of a Harvard doctorate in sociology, now employed in UCSD's Department of Communication, Schudson, like every professor you'll ever meet, will promptly assert how his scholarship embraces many disciplines. The books back up the claim. Certainly there are dozens of sociology standards, as well as many works devoted to Schudson's specialty, American media and culture. Tucked away are versions of the six books Schudson has written and edited. But there are also, to cite a few, Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, Thomas Mann's Felix Krull, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Michael Herr's Dispatches, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
Scattered throughout, particularly on Schudson’s large desk and side table, are photocopies of articles, research papers in progress, and assorted notes. Up over one row of bookshelves are back issues of the journal of Communication. Down on the ground, inches from where Schudson rests his feet, are copies of the Nation and the New Republic. These are just a few of the 15-20 publications Schudson receives, from the San Diego Union-Tribune to the New Yorker, New York Times, weekly Washington Post, and a half-dozen professional journals. “No,” he shrugs, “I don’t have time to read them all.”
His desk faces a window that looks out onto a small plaza where a crowd of six constitutes a traffic jam. On the desk rests a Macintosh Performa com'puter, the kind that includes a color monitor and CD/ROM drive. Schudson loves the way electronic mail has enabled a return to the intellectual tradition of letters — so much the better to continue his life as a yeoman farmer of the information age. A small table holds an IBM Selectric typewriter. In the middle of the office is an orange plastic couch, right next to an orange felt swivel chair, each kwking vintage 1973. Half of the couch houses a foot-high stack of papers. Against another wall stand four large tan-and-beige file cabinets, bulging with Schudson’s notes.
What’s remarkable about all this literature is the way it is deployed. These books are not first editions for status, nor are they hardbacks for display. The strewn magazines and papers represent more than chaos (although Schudson is no doubt aware of the biblical concept that out of chaos comes order).
Pages are underlined and highlighted. Notes are scribbled in margins. Scraps of paper poke out of dozens of volumes. Others are partly open, folded over, resting on the floor, sideways on shelves, in stacks of two, three, or six. The creases in many volumes indicate that Schudson has reread and reassessed his thoughts on these thinkers dozens of times, picking and poking his way through assumptions, assertions, and evidence.
Take the case of Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a work sociologists virtually memorize as grad students. You’d think by now Schudson could just relegate Weber to back-shelf duty. But there’s a dog-eared copy on Schudson’s side desk, close at hand in the same way you might keep the Joy of Cooking nearby on a Sunday afternoon.
What chefs do with cookbooks is a good analogy to what Schudson does with his books and articles. Like Julia Child’s masterpieces, or any of the cookbooks a chef dips in and out of, Schudson’s books and papers rest on an intellectual chopping block and are splattered with grease. They are living, breathing, dynamic entities. Books wander in and out of here from many eras. It suggests a community, a democracy of ideas. Should a book enter the Ellis Island of Schudson’s mind, there’s no question it will become a citizen in a land of plenty, a nation where ideas will be given a thorough opportunity to make their mark on his brain and earn their share of intellectual capital. But they’ll also have to work rather strenuously.
A William Faulkner line that Schudson quotes in his book Watergate in American Memory is vividly demonstrated in Schudson’s office: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Signs of Schudson’s 50 years on earth adorn the space. There’s a wall calendar from his undergraduate venue, Swarthmore (class of ’69). Above the desk are pictures of his family, including his wife. Sue. On a wall are several drawings by his three children. “I love my Dad,” reads one, "because he gives me popsicles.” And, of course, everywhere there are great authors, a rolling narrative of intellectual consciousness that began for Schudson decades ago in the public libraries of suburban Milwaukee.
Contrast all this with a corporate office, where executives are encouraged to essentially airbrush all signs of intellect and history from their workspace. A consulting firm I worked for once requested any books be placed out of view. In business, the more senior the executive, the more austere the office, decorated at most with a neutral painting, perhaps a glass table, two tasteful family portraits, and a coffee-table book (or maybe a few how-to volumes related to the business). Considering how much the world of contemporary business values information and trumpets such concepts as “the knowledge worker,” it is remarkable to see the way the raw ingredients that compose mental output — books, publications, notes — are kept under wraps, as if bringing these materials front and center would desecrate the world of commerce. “Those liberal-arts professors who teach communications,” says a public-relations director at a $500 million company, “they’re all into theory. A professor is ‘book-smart.’ We’re practical.”
The purported dichotomy such as the one between the “theory" of liberal arts and the “practical” nature of vocational training is the kind of accepted truism that makes Schudson wince. “Michael Schudson takes his social-scientist skills and uses them to illuminate issues a working journalist should think about every day,” says Roland De Wolk, a producer at KTVU and a journalism professor at San Francisco State University. “The problem is, not enough journalists actually do think about this. They think a professor like Schudson, by dint of being intellectual, is overly theoretical. That truth is that questions pertaining to the history of objectivity and what constitutes news are exceedingly practical.”
“Whenever there’s some form of conventional wisdom,” Schudson says over a plate of hummus, “my tendency is to say, ‘Wait a minute, what makes you think that? How come?' I get angry when people are thickheaded, when they claim understandings of the world that they don’t really know.”
But not too mad. Michael Schudson approaches his life of the mind in the most tranquil of manners, as low-key as a CPA, with a pulse rate no one who knows him can ever recall rising. “My life is boring,” he says. “I read, I teach, I write. Lots of time in libraries, lots of time alone. I like it that way.” He’s five foot seven, with slightly wavy brown hair, not too long, not too short, framed by light silver aviator glasses. His wardrobe leans toward the unobtrusively bland, from khaki pants to blue-gray blazers and tepidly colored ties. He drives a blue-gray Volvo station wagon and carries his papers in an overstuffed light brown leatherette satchel? Even the food he eats while I’m with him — hummus, tuna, pasta salads — tends to lack color. “I admit it,” he says, “I’ve always played it pretty straight." “As our colleague ! |ex-SDS leader and NYU professor) Todd Gitlin, puts it, ‘Michael’s ! tendency as a scholar is to de-excite the debate in the name of [ reason,’ ” says Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University. “He doesn’t overpresume the importance of the media, and because of that, he brings a special kind of perspective many scholars overlook.”
In his books Discovering the News, Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion, Watergate in American Memory, and The Power of News, Schudson writes extensively about the media and what he sees as its overstated power in shaping our lives— from the way we remember the past, to the journalistic cult of objectivity, to the forces impacting consumer culture, to the chimera of the well-informed citizen. “So much junk is written in the communication sphere,” says E.J. Dionne, author of the 1992 bestseller Why Americans Hate Politics. “Schudson operates at a much broader level of historical and intellectual analysis. He helps us journalists think about how we should think about ourselves.”
Enrolled in Harvard’s graduate anthropology program, Schudson watched with frustration as his colleagues each discovered the tribes they would study. “I didn’t have a tribe somewhere else in the world,” he is telling a group of first-year UCSD grad students. “And then I realized that my tribe was America."
Media interests Schudson because of its direct meaning to American democracy. As Mark Leyner recently wrote in Esquire, “the news is our lingua franca. The headlines provide us with a kind of public, mythic vocabulary with which we can probe one another’s states of mind. And people are invariably more revealing about their deepest fears and most passionate desires when discussing olestra or Dennis Rodman than they are when asked intimate questions about their own emotional lives.”
Walk into any newsstand, and you’ll have no problem finding articles and books about the media’s negative impact on America. One of the more attention-getting books of 1996 is James Fallows’s Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. It opens with a chapter titled “Why We Hate the Media.” They Only Look Dead, Dionne’s latest book about politics, includes a chapter called “No News Is Good News: Why Americans Hate the Press.” Rest assured that throughout this election year there’ll likely be any number of angry viewers, listeners, and readers. Right-wingers perceive media as way too liberal. Leftwingers see it as controlled by corporate interests. Members of all factions hail the Internet as a new way for citizens to take control of their informational destinies and in the process build wonderful new democratic communities.
Yet in an era when getting a group of citizens agitated about the media takes little more than the trial of an ex-football player, Michael Schudson believes that “everybody thinks the media is Superman, but it’s really Clark Kent.” He believes this because he spends hours peeling back assumptions examining historical evidence and. most of all, believing in his — and even American citizen's — ability to act far more independently than many media critics would dare believe. “Misunderstanding media hurts our society,” he says. “It’s an all-too-convenient scapegoat for not looking at ourselves. I guess that’s partly because we have more [media] forums for our obsession, somewhat of an echo-chamber effect. But when you look at how people live their lives, there are many things that connect us besides media.”
As Schudson writes in a new afterword to The Uneasy Persuasion, “Having watched my five-year-old go off to kindergarten, it seems painfully obvious to me that the kind of control advertising exercises is not half as determinative, controlling, influential, or potentially as destructive as that offered by the institution of schooling.”
It stands to reason, of course, that a lifelong scholar who earns his living in a university would have such a strong belief in education as a socializing force. That trust in scholarship has been at the core of Schudson’s life since he was a star student growing up in suburban Milwaukee.
This is a tale of faith. In an age of civic cynicism. Michael Schudson remains a believer in democracy. In a time when nostalgia is a growth industry, Michael Schudson recommends a hard look at history. In a culture that enjoys blaming mass media as the cause, effect, problem, and solution, Michael Schudson values solitary reflection. He favors periodicals over newspapers, and books over periodicals, and independent thinking over any of them. In a country that cherishes pragmatic prescription. Michael Schudson takes action through tenacious diagnosis.
Schudson’s beliefs grow out of his unwavering faith in individuals and the equality of rights and power exercised in a democracy. Even while seeing himself as “a frustrated rabbi,” he knows he is very much the solitary individual, definitely not the rabbi who stands up and leads the flock. No matter how much he may disagree, Schudson is unintimidating and subtle, given to questions over statements, evolution over revolution, historical analysis over universal truth. Think of him as the number-two man behind the powerful leader, a wise sage who eschews power and remedy in favor of influence and inquiry. “He works toward questions,” says Hillel Schwartz, an Encinitas-bascd cultural historian who used to teach at UCSD. “He follows the rabbinical model. How many different ways can you interpret what’s going on? How does that fit into the community?”
Both of those questions are being addressed by the query Schudson has posed to a lecture hall of 110 graduates gathered for lis Communication 171A course (“American News Media”): ‘Would democracy be better off without local television news?” Schudson has recorded a random night of the local CBS affiliate's newscast (he himself rarely watches television). The evening’s stories roll forward on the video monitors:
•Murder of a local professor
•Child pornography ring arrested
•Security guard who accidentally shot herself •Drawing of a little boy
The tape finishes. He’ll never be confused with Clarence Darrow, but Schudson knows his evidence has spoken eloquently. He describes the news as heavily focused on “events... lots of visuals, but so much of it is a reporter standing in front of a building." The students concur. They find the presentation of such isolated stories a rather sad commentary on the state of democracy and the meaning of news. “There’s a decline of trust out there,” says one, “and these stories show it.”
Schudson turns his attention to television talk shows. “They’re not made by journalists,” he says. “They don’t have a desire to publicly inform. Instead, there’s a sense of fun, of entertainment, less mediated by the ethics of journalism.”
Yet just when it’s time to damn Oprah and Ricki and Montel and Sally Jessy to communications hell, Schudson praises the democratic, populist flavor of such programming. The point is made slowly. It lacks the dramatic pause and volume increase often associated with those professors who ring the bells of persuasion like a railroad train (and in the process, build a cult of students/viewers). Rabbi Schudson is more of an airplane pilot, gradually shifting his heading as he makes his way across the skies of consciousness. On the surface, it’s hard to tell if he has an overtly persuasive bone in his body. As the lecture wears on, it becomes clear he very much has a point of view he wants to communicate.
Through tapes, books, anecdotes, and, most of all, questions, he’ll darn near get there.
“These talk shows also make room for a more public voice, a value of personal experience that’s in sync with an attack on big institutions,” he says. Then he cites the case of Zoe Baird. Considered by the establishment media to be a shoo-in for selection as President Clinton’s attorney general, Baird encountered a crisis when it was revealed that she had not deducted taxes on wages paid to her illegal immigrant nannies. Beltway media insiders discounted this issue. Schudson points out how a wave of public indignation crowded the waves of television and radio shows. “The people were speaking, and soon their comments turned the tide of public opinion against Zoe Baird," he says. “ ‘Why,’ people were asking, ‘should she get away with this?’ ”
Schudson loves using events and ideas as foils. Two days later, he’ll open his class with a discussion of scholar Robert Putnam’s article “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” Some 30 minutes into the lecture, after articulating Putnam’s theory, Schudson will say, “I think his data is a little screwed up,” adding that “in a whisper, I think he’s wrong.” The basis for this is an article Schudson wrote about Putnam for The American Prospect, titled “What If Civic Life Didn’t Die?” Marshaling his own set of statistics and beliefs, Schudson dismantles Putnam’s argument. In the area of media, for example, Schudson isn’t willing to make television a criminal. “[Television! may be less a substitute for civic engagement,” he writes, “than a new and perhaps insidious form of it.”
The cost of Schudson’s evenhanded, inclusive intellect is a sense that his scholarship is little more than a zero-sum game. Scholar A thinks X. Scholar B refutes X. Point. Counterpoint. And so what? “His intellectual style is not given to grand pronouncements,” says Rosen. “That doesn’t mean he’s a mushy-minded middle-of-the-road centrist. It just means he’s going to take a long look rather than just buy an obvious point of view.” “I want to take issue with liberal conventions about politics and media," says Schudson. “Because I’m a liberal, I want most of all to examine the assumptions and beliefs held by people like myself.”
It’s not the kind of style that entrenches a scholar in a community as anything more than a subtle catalyst. Fifty Episcopalian ministers want something more definitive when they gather at University City’s Church of the Good Samaritan to watch Schudson participate in a panel on the media and society. A rector, munching on a bagel and mingling with his colleagues before the panel begins, asks, “When did we (in religion] stop engaging culture? The media is very powerful. What’s it mean when churches start using video in their services?”
Joining Schudson on the panel is a reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune, a manager from public TV station KPBS, a director from a local network affiliate, and fellow UCSD sociologist Richard Madsen. The TV manager laments the lack of funding and government support. The network exec cites the economic pressures of producing socially redeemable programming in an era of overnight ratings, cable TV, and remote-control units. The newspaper guy concedes how much his industry is shrinking. “People hate us,” he says. “It’s never been this bad before," adding how the paper is taking positive steps forward with its new, community-oriented “Solutions” section. A bishop wants to know, “How did it evolve that news is bad news?” Were he prone to rapid-fire responses, Schudson might well tell the bishop that tabloid sensationalism has always been a cornerstone of the press. But he’s not that type at all, and the bishop’s question hangs in the air.
It’s all so dreary to hear them playing their roles so true to form. Madsen and Schudson have been listening carefully and, in the manner of counterpunching scholars, make their points near the end. The two professors aren’t much concerned with tactical solutions that lend themselves to five-point programs. But they do provide a thoughtful context that’s been missing from the morning’s air of predictability. After Madsen discusses the connection between media and American cultural values, Schudson speaks.
Mirroring the reflective atmosphere of the church, Schudson’s fingers are interlocked as he reminds us that television’s “shrink-! ing sound bite” actually means the journalist has more of an opportunity to bring additional voices and thoughts to a piece. Schudson also reminds the crowd that newspaper quality was a concern as far back as the days when Thomas Jefferson thought papers should be organized into four sections: Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Lies.
“Is journalism better or worse than 25 years ago?” Schudson asks. Then he summons up a headline from the day’s New York Times: “Dole Attacks Clinton’s Policy, Although He Supports Part of It.” According to Schudson, “You would never have seen as seemingly evenhanded a headline 25 years ago.”
But it’s not clear that the crowd wants to know what Thomas Jefferson thought or cares to ponder a historical analysis of how newspaper headline writing has evolved since 1971. This group wants answers. It’s the American tradition. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out more than 160 years ago in Democracy in America, “In their political associations, the Americans, of all conditions, kinds, and ages, daily acquire a general taste for association and grow accustomed to the use of it. There they meet together and they are mutually stimulated to all sorts of undertakings.... The freedom of association in political matters is favorable to the prosperity, and even to the tranquility, of the community.”
Schudson, as familiar with Tocqueville as Tony Gwynn is with hitting, well knows about the American propensity for collective problem solving. He remains doggedly faithful to his own individual commitment, even if that means existing on the apparent periphery of history’s playing field. It is the scholar’s plight to be valued for framing questions, but only for so long as it takes a group to identify one worth an apparently easy solution and a program of group action — activities where the scholar rarely participates. A guy like Schudson may be a whiz at the diagnosis phase, but can’t we please hurry up and write a prescription about this media thing? Well, no, you can’t, says Schudson. “What seems to me wrong-headed,” he writes me in an E-mail message, “is an overromanticization of the media’s role in democracy, as if speaking the truth in the newspapers or on TV is all you need to do to repair the problems of society.”
The life of the mind is not a sprint. Tenure allows scholars to retreat from mainstream society and to use that distance as a means of accessing a culture. It also permits the time to strip conventional wisdom down to its cells. This depth of probing is what accounts for the difficulty one faces when reading a book by a professor. Ironically, given Schudson’s faith in democracy, the academic world he operates in often writes for small audiences, spinning out arcane sentences and all-too-complicated arguments. All those assessments about assumptions and methodology often come offlike a chess game where hours are spent lining up the pieces and defining their roles. The intention, many professors say, is not to reach the masses with facile generalizations but to discover the truth in a way that may gradually impact consciousness. Meanwhile, the world of commerce and community takes place in work groups, committees, and task forces. Journalists like Fallows and Dionne write books that end up on network talk shows. But in most cases, scholarship as practiced by people like Schudson is a solitary journey, a lonely, long-distance marathon.
One way professors handle this inherent loneliness is to breathe fire into their understated intellectual communities; that is, to stand at the head of the flock and lead the masses in some form of community. Social sciences are the primary breeding ground for this. Think of hotheaded C. Wright Mills, driving up to Columbia on his motorcycle and delivering a lecture on the power elite. Or exiled, chain-smoking Hannah Arendt, bearing the weight of German history as she explains the origins of totalitarianism and the obvious implications for contemporary life. Even if their ideas end up misunderstood and annexed for pernicious causes, these are the professors who generate large, vocal followings. UCSD’s all-star in this department was the German refugee Herbert Marcuse, the author of Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man who is often ranked in the first tier of major thinkers of the ’50s and ’60s.
Schudson enjoys pointing out that Marcuse, mentor of’60s revolutionary Angela Davis, intellectual folk hero of the counterculture, proud disciple of Marx and Freud, loved driving around ultrabourgeois La Jolla in a big white Cadillac.
“Bullshit! BuJlshit!” says a Marcuse friend. “He had a Volvo. He had a Volvo.” Exactly the same austere vehicle as Schudson.
More interesting than the actual truth is the value such an image plays in Schudson’s sensibility. The picture of Marcuse in a Cadillac is the kind of contradiction Schudson finds disagreeable (“loathes” might be too strong a word). Schudson’s Volvo, which he purchased with some of the $270,000 he was awarded as part of his MacArthur Foundation “genius” award (lest you think Schudson a spendthrift, the foundation willingly encourages recipients to spend the money any way they like), lacks any such pretense. On the passenger seat lies a cassette of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends tape. There’s an M&M’s wrapper on the floor, and in the back sits a baseball mitt and a paperback version of Citizen Hearst. It’s hardly the vehicle that will propel the next revolution. “Michael Schudson will never be a religion,” says Rosen.
Schudson instead will settle for gently nudging public consciousness and relentlessly reassessing assumptions. “As a journalist and a history teacher, I appreciate the way Schudson builds a context for bridging past and future,” says De Wolk. “It’s an enlightened, humane approach that actually reaches people and has an understanding of the true culture of mass media. No question, he writes like an academic, but he’s far more accessible than just about anyone else writing in this field.”
Consider, for example, Schudson’s approach to the way Internet advocates envision a world freed from the alleged tyranny of mass media. “Imagine a world,” Schudson begins his book. The Power of News, “one easily conceivable today, where governments, businesses, lobbyists, candidates, churches, and social movements deliver information directly to citizens on home computers. Journalism is momentarily abolished. Citizens tap into any information source they want on computer networks. They also send their own information and their own commentary, they are as easily disseminators as recipients of news.... Each of us our own journalist.
“What would happen? At first, I expect, citizens would tend to rely on the most legitimate public officials for news, trusting especially what the White House sent their way. The President, as the single most symbolically potent and legitimate source of authority, would gain greater power to set the national agenda than he has even today. Beyond a few obvious and highly legitimate sources like the President and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, people would tend to rely on local sources whose credibility on the information superhighway would be vouched for by their accessibility in person. Congregants would turn to their ministers, young athletes to their coaches, husbands and wives to each other. Other sources would be too difficult to evaluate. Congress, for instance, would be more cacophonous than ever. Lines of authority that today give congressional leaders more of a place in the public eye than congressional neophytes would erode.
“At that point, even social critics who now long for more public dialogues, more democratic discourse, more voices in the public sphere would have had enough. People would want ways to sort through the endless information available. What is most important? What is most relevant? What is most interesting? People would want help interpreting and explaining events.... Journalism — of some sort — would be reinvented. A professional press corps would reappear.... It is hard to picture the contemporary world, even in the face of a technology that makes each of us equal senders and receivers of information, without a specialized institution of journalism.”
So here is Schudson, simultaneously showing how the Internet liberates and shackles its citizens with information overload, in the process leading us back to journalism. Zero-sum? “That’s the nature of scholarship,” says Laura Nathan, a sociologist at Mills College. “You take one idea and gradually build on it. Knowledge is a series of incremental steps, the slow accretion of knowledge.” The bigger issue, Schudson asks, is “Why do people feel a need for journalism? Why do people long to hear the news — not just gossip, not just information about people and places they know, not just a record of mysteries and marvels worldwide, not just practical bits of advice and useful notices, but a composite, shared, ordered, and edited product? What is the place of journalism in modem culture? What is it about news that makes it so much an element of modern public consciousness?” He doesn’t admit to knowing the answers, but he is convinced there is some connection in all this to American society and democracy.
Pursuing the study of American culture, mass communication, consciousness, community, and democracy at a campus like UCSD requires significant faith, for the signs of any such society are scarcely visible. The impulse when wandering across the school is to wonder who dropped the neutron bomb: Where did everybody go? UCSD resembles a quiet, sprawling software company. Between the parking lots, the unpopulated spaces separating buildings, and the creation of clustered colleges within the university, UCSD is decentralized with a vengeance. “This is a place that’s very hostile to the idea of community,” says Herb Schiller, a professor emeritus of communication.
It’s no accident. UCSD was built in the mid-’60s, an era when regents of the University of California were reeling from the headaches caused at the overly centralized Berkeley campus. UCSD was modeled on the British university configuration of separate colleges. Students can take classes in any department, but their lives tend to be headquartered in small colleges that serve as accessible venues for advising and administration. The intent is to both decentralize the impersonal university and provide students with a far more intimate setting for education.
But politics overrode architecture and bureaucracy in the late ’60s and early 70s. Marcuse and his star pupil, Angela Davis, ignited a spirit of consciousness and activism that Schiller recalls “put the campus at the forefront of topics like social theory, philosophy, and communications.”
In 1970, an active group of students and faculty led the charge to create a new college at UCSD that would address questions related to race, culture, and society. The student body voted to name it Lumumba-Zapata College in honor of two revolutionaries. No way, said the UCSD administration, which instead gave it the name Third College, figuring that this was, after all, the school’s third college and that those ethnic-studies types would equate it with the then-popular term “Third World.”
By the ’90s, Third College was renamed Thurgood Marshall College, in honor of the first black Supreme Court justice. Thurgood Marshall had risen to prominence as the legal counsel for the NAACP, most notably in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed “separate but equal" facilities for blacks.
Marshall College is the base of operations for Michael Schudson, and perhaps his moderate (albeit admittedly liberal) presence is a reflection of UCSD’s political shift from flaming, collective activism to polite, solitary study. “Michael tends to regard advertising as mere ritual without significance,” says Schiller. “I see it as a critical point in the socialization of the American consciousness, a utilization of an information system for persuasion and control."
Schudson politely refuses to see media as so powerful. Typically, he makes his point (via E-mail) through a question: “I asked my class recently how much better our society would be if the news media did EVERYTHING we want them to: make their reporting more accurate, more detailed, more analytic, more entertaining, more in-depth, more user-friendly, etc. (assuming for the moment you could in fact do ALL of this at once). Would society he better off? And I think my own answer is: a little bit. Society would be a little bit better off.”
The whole world of media activism and its potentially catalytic impact does not get Schudson’s blood racing. Talk to any number of media scholars — Schiller, Noam Chomsky, Todd Gitlin — and the impulse is to storm the barricades, to pound one’s fist on the tables of what the Nation recently called “The National Entertainment State." Talking to Schudson reminds me of the time I watched a group of student activists ask the great muckraking journalist I.F. Stone what they should do to make America a better place. Stone’s advice: read the Federalist papers, that 18th-century symposium on democracy conducted by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Stone’s scholarly counsel is right up Schudson's solitary alley. “I have learned that you need to be social in this profession,’’ Schudson tells a group of first-year graduate students. “You’ve got to give ‘good paper,’ schmooze with colleagues, get your name out there. But that’s not how I’d originally read the directions on the box top.” Even Schudson’s favorite activity away from scholarship combines solitude and a trace of social involvement. Every Monday, at 2:00 p.m. sharp, Schudson plays tennis, a sport often likened to chess. Schudson’s weeldy game is not a boisterous doubles match, with all four players bantering in between grunts. His appetite is for singles with political science professor Steve Erie. Schudson’s tennis style is diligent, with nicely trained, straightforward strokes that reflect training at a young age and a long-term commitment to the game. As befits someone who likes to refute conventional wisdom, he is a counterpuncher, quite adept at reacting to a target and turning the tables. Hit hard to him, offer up an argument, and he’ll rip his own forehand. Leave him alone, and he becomes somewhat shy, a reluctant aggressor. “The way I frustrate Michael on the court,” says Erie, “is to just play pitty-pat, to not hit anything hard, and keep him from making things happen.”
Tennis was only one of the many wholesome activities of Schudson’s youth. He describes his childhood as “very Ozzie and Harriet," albeit in a Jewish family. Growing up in the affluent Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, Schudson came of age in a time of a boomiing economy, ample families, and strong public schools. Michael was the middle child of three boys.
His father, Howard, owned a business associated with a Milwaukee activity nearly as popular as beer drinking: a bowling-apparel manufacturing company called Crown Prince. Think of those nifty shirts worn at the alleys by Laverne and Shirley, or the cases Richie Cunningham and his buddies tucked their balls into during Happy Days.
Schudson’s grandfather founded the first reform temple in Milwaukee. Growing up in a heavily Jewish suburb, Schudson didn’t realize until he went away to Swarthmore that Milwaukee was perceived as a Polish or German town.
Neither business nor religion was at the center of family life. Arts, ideas, sports, and learning were emphasized. The Schudson house had two pianos. Michael played piano, clarinet, tennis, basketball, and baseball. He also showed an aptitude for drawing and recalls how a local merchant once offered his parents $5 for one of Michael’s works. The offer was refused. Twenty-five years before finishing his dissertation, Michael Schudson had no intention of entering the world of commerce.
Schudson admits that for all his time spent on music and sports, “I wasn’t that great at either. My older brother was a much more talented musician and athlete, and maybe because of that I backed away from those areas. I didn’t particularly like competing. I liked being out there, but the winning and losing wasn’t really for me.”
Instead, he says, “I was the student. I was shy and studious.” By third grade, Schudson was constantly reading biographies of what he thinks of as saintlike, tragic figures who changed the world, from Babe Ruth to Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, and Abe Lincoln. As Schudson sits in his UCSD office, describing his growing passion for reading and writing, the events of elementary school seem much closer than 40 years. The young Michael is here, in the room, breathing and talking with excitement and detail of book reports, trips to libraries, and journeys to his grandparents in Chicago — where a trip to the Abe Lincoln Bookshop became a mandatory destination. Later that afternoon, he hands me a paper he’s recently written titled “The Informed Citizen in Historical Context.” A key element in it is an analysis of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and our misperceptions surrounding this purportedly golden era of civic activism. “Here’s where it gets really boring,” he says. “When I was 12 I knew I wanted to be a professor.”
And yet for all his protestations of solitude and shyness, it’s clear that Schudson has also been able to find ways to fit in. He was elected class president, edited the high school paper, played his share of sports, and had many friends.
His undergraduate years were spent at Swarthmore, a small, friendly liberal arts school that through its association with Quakers had a long political tradition. When Schudson entered in the fall of 1965, the school was ablaze with SDS leaders, Vietnam protestors, and an extremely active presence in the Civil Rights movement. “In no way did I show any leadership,” says Schudson. “My conscience was troubled, and I wanted to change the world, but I wanted to be a professor. I liked the idea of figuring out the world and maybe from there it could change. I also liked the way Swarthmore believed in its Quakemess. Moments of silence appealed to me.”
All this while America in those years — 1965 through ’69 — was getting increasingly louder. Schudson knew this, appreciated it, liked studying it. He’d been among the first Swarthmore students to enroll in the newly declared major of sociology, relishing the way the discipline gave him license to critique virtually anything. But he also found great personal power in the option of not flexing his muscles, in standing off to the corners, restrained from raising signs and waving fingers. A setting where silence was equated with eloquence was quite agreeable. The combination of a collapsed lung and curvature of the spine earned him a 4-F military ranking, a physical set of events that made him fed both rdieved and guilty about not having to pursue a more strident way out of the Vietnam War.
Never in this time did he subscribe to a newspaper.
Entering graduate school at Harvard, he studied with Daniel Bell and David Riesman, two legendary sociologists who’d earned their honors in unconventional methods. Bell, author of a series of notable articles in Fortune magazine and the book The End of Ideology, had been awarded a doctorate without going through the traditional grad school rigors. Riesman, author of the seminal ’50s critique of America, The Lonely Crowd, was originally trained as an attorney.
It was Riesman, writing in the early ’50s, who coined the term “inside dopestcr” to describe our nation’s fascination with being “in the know,” a concept at the core of Schudson’s career-long research into news and culture.
Upon finishing his dissertation (a study of the principle of objectivity in journalism and law), Schudson strolled the Charles River to ponder the significance of his accomplishment. This is the same river Faulkner writes about in Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury — the waters tortured Quentin Compson fatally dives into. As Schudson sat on a bench, an older woman dressed in gypsy-like clothing came up to him and asked if he wanted his fortune read. At first he declined but then decided that there couldn’t be a better moment to find out what the future held. After taking Schudson’s five bucks, the woman glanced perfunctorily at Schudson’s palm and dispensed familiar blarney: travel, disappointment in love, a dark woman, love, children.
“As she went off with her $5,” Schudson E-mails me, “I thought, what a sucker! Even with a Ph.D. I can throw $5 away like that! She told me exactly the same fortune she told every young male she encountered!
“But then," writes Schudson, “(maybe this is what a Ph.D. is for) I had a second thought: that she told me exactly the right fortune, that she told me that Ph.D. or no, my life was in essence just about the same as everybody else’s. And that especially on the day I was so full of myself, I should remember that.”
If Michael Schudson can glean a hopeful message from a street hustler, it’s no wonder he dismisses the manipulative, pernicious qualities of mass media.
When he wasn’t having his palm read, Schudson sent out dozens of letters seeking employment.
No one responded.
It was then that Daniel Bell simply told Schudson that the only places he could go were the University of Chicago and Columbia University. A phone call was made by Bell — and Schudson learned the value of networking. Schudson was soon on his way to the Windy City. like so many places Schudson has come to, the University of Chicago had a fabled history as a powder keg of radical, contrarian ideas. By the time Schudson got there, though, he felt the sociology department was so ensnared in arcane methodology that its social relevance had been lost. A class he taught on “Self, Culture, and Society” proved extremely popular with students — and only alienated him further from his colleagues.
“That’s when I started to realize I was much more of a communication professor than what Chicago thought sociology was about,” says Schudson.
Quite smoothly, Schudson came to San Diego in 1980.
There is a thread in Schudson's life running through Milwaukee, Swarthmore, Harvard, Chicago, and now. La Jolla. All of the academic settings have once been the site of heated intellectual battles. Schudson’s role has been to peacefully exist in each postwar world (a good fit considering he was born in 1946), standing apart, keeping his solitary faith, and yet fitting into this community of solitary scholars. “My job is to help people lead an examined life,” he says. “Washington and Jefferson would not haw wanted to see America be defined by taking everything to the streets. America was a nation founded by intellectuals.”
Founded, but not necessarily nurtured. Leave Schudson’s book-lined office, drive away from the UCSD campus in his Volvo, and you rapidly enter the world of commerce so common to all of America: shopping centers, supermarkets, restaurants, clothing stores, gas stations. It piques Schudson’s mind, but it does not disgust him. “Curiously,” he writes in the new afterword to The Uneasy Persuasion, “both the critics of advertising and its spokesmen share the peculiar premise that material goods must be force-fed. But is consuming so unpleasant?”
The answer, if you checked out Schudson’s house in Carmel Valley, would be no. Let the life of the mind be normalized. Spare Schudson the cigarettes, alcohol, and self-abuse of tortured radical chic. Sitting in the Schudson living room, eating homemade brownies after dining at Rubio’s with Michael and his eight-year-old daughter Jenna, his wife Sue is explaining how Michael was forced to attend a vital department meeting two days after their 1982 wedding. She jokes that she’ll never forgive him for this and then calls Michael “the biggest kid of all.” Sue also points out that whether he’s changing an infant’s diapers, petting a cat, or cooking, Michael virtually always has a book in his hand. All three of his kids declare that they’ve never lost a wrestling match with their dad. Schudson shrugs off those defeats and then notes that the postwedding meeting was a big deal, for this was the day the UCSD communication group was officially granted departmental status.
The children’s rooms are what you’d expect — filled with toys, scattered clothes, bed-sheets in bright, primary colors. But there are a few marks of professorial distinction. Below Jenna’s book Noisy Nora is a page from a Schudson piece on cultural studies that decries this nascent discipline’s “lack of ballast.” Dominating the hallway is ten-year-old Daniel’s self-proclaimed museum dedicated to World War II. Daniel takes me on an in-depth tour of pictures, maps, and a paper he recently wrote saying why the U.S. should not have dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.
“Do you think we should have dropped it in the ocean to demonstrate its power and force Japan to surrender?” I ask.
“I’ve heard that argument,” says Daniel, “and I’m not sure if that would have worked either.” Then he explains how long it would have taken to successfully invade Japan, detailing how many troops the Allies would have lost. By the age of three, says Sue, Daniel wanted to know the full story of the Holocaust. And four-year-old Zachary, I’m told, is already reading at a level twice his age.
At this point I pondered the solitary life of the professor and its impact on a family’s physical and emotional makeup. Growing up. I’d been exposed to more books and ideas than most of my peers. Still, as I watched my father sell jewelry all over Southern California, I’d also absorbed the message most of us learn; intellect remains subordinated to commerce. Daniel Schudson, I was delighted (and jealous) to see, had been weaned on his father’s faith in inquiry and the intrinsic value of scholarship. The way Michael Schudson dealt with the loneliness of this career was to retain his faith in the small, personal matters of daily life, to surround himself with a loving family, healthy activities, and the degree of balance that could support clear-headed thinking and hours of digging through newspapers, books, and research studies.
That spirit of equality and inner tranquility extends to the calm confines of the UCSD Faculty Club. Schudson is attending an afternoon reception honoring several professors for their excellence in teaching. The 100 faculty members in attendance look kind and distinguished, pleasantly sheltered from the bruising tensions of corporate life. With their natty little beards, bolos, bow ties, and genteel manners, they resemble a series of aged character actors. 'I'here’s one who looks like Richard Attenborough, the scientist from Jurassic Park 'I'here’s John Gielgud eating a chicken satay, and Will Geer and Raymond Massey staring over a plate of mushrooms. Schudson chats pleasantly with all of them.
As polite and well mannered as Schudson is with his colleagues, he also reminds me of the sober reality that UCSD — perceived as a large, impersonal research university—has only recently created a series of teaching awards.
One of the award winners is philosophy professor Gerald Doppelt, who worked with Schudson and another professor to create a yearlong course titled “Diversity, Justice, and Creativity.” As he accepts his award, Doppelt gives a speech in an impassioned manner that’s quite the opposite of Schud-son’s low-key manner. Doppelt speaks about his days at Columbia studying with intellectual hall-of-famers C Wright Mills, I jonel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun. He talks fervently about the way he sees “no difference between teaching and research.. .a school must engage students in these ideas, to act and contribute to a society.”
It’s the kind of trumpet-blaring lecture you’ll never see Michael Schudson give. Even if Schudson shares Doppelt’s sentiments about the value of ideas, even if he enjoys teaching and interacting with students, even if, Internet or not, he believes that communities require personal contact, Michael Schud-son’s city on the hill will remain headquartered in the 12- by 12-foot square of his office.
He will continue to be friendly toward his colleagues. He’ll sit on dissertation committees, review papers, coedit anthofogies, write his own books (the next one is to be a history of American political communication). But again, Schud-son’s energies are not harnessed in the physical way a business works to build automobiles or operate a bank. Rather, Michael Schudson’s labors are part of a free-floating, global state of * mental consciousness, where scholars and thinkers exchange letters, chew over ideas, and issue new arguments.
Yet the way he participates in this community is through a lonely, solitary endeavor. Measuring one’s impact is elusive. Schudson hopes to leave a mark but is sharply realistic. He knows that most undergraduate communication majors have their eyes more focused on getting that first job than on understanding the relationship between democracy and media. He’s seen too often how the best-intent ioned scholars can lose sight of the big picture and get bogged down in jargon. He understands how hard it is for many people to read books written by professors.
“The best I’ve done as a contributor is to make observations that clarify questions,” he says. “I want to invite students into the world of ideas and critical thinking — in my case, popular culture, media, citizenship. Is that worth it? Is that worth the nice salary the taxpayers of California pay me? When students call and say they’ve read something that changed the way they saw the world, then yes. I won’t lie and say this happens constantly. But I do believe that a teacher is a very powerful force to reach people, to help them think — even to punish and reward. When things are working well, ideas are clarified for people on topics they’re interested in. You very rarely see the difference this stuff makes. Some of this you have to take on faith.”
Joel Drucker is tennis editor for City Sports and has written for such publications as Women’s Sports & Fitness, World Tennis, and Tennis Week.