Death of a gentle giant
Almost a quarter of a century ago, I had a lively and some would say rather heated exchange-in-writing with Jay Blumler, that giant of communication studies, who has died on the 30th of January this year at the respectable age of 96. The European Journal of Communication had published my article Who’s Afraid of Infotainment? (1998), in which I argued that the use by TV news media of entertainment formats and the popularization of political communication was not necessarily downgrading political information as dramatically as some academics at the time claimed. To illustrate this so called ‘information scare’ I quoted extensively (if not only) from Blumler’s exemplary works. With his evocative style, he probably was the most outspoken and certainly the most repetitive in his critical assessment of a ‘commercial deluge’ where ‘slogans, images and racy soundbites take precedence over substance, information and dialogue’, inundating Europe, while ‘hardening our civic communication arteries’ and producing a ‘crisis of public communication’. I enjoyed his metaphors but thoroughly disagreed with his pessimism, and thought I had strong theoretical and empirical arguments to downplay his assumed ‘crisis of communication for citizenship’.
I had not realised that Jay, whom I had met a few times before, would be triggered to take up my arguments and begin a debate, which was subsequently published in later EJC issues. His Response to Kees Brants was as eloquent as it was critical, very critical. More than discussing the data I presented and challenging the logic of my argumentation, he blamed me for being unhelpful and belittling his concerns and complacent about the dangers to public broadcasting. I wasn’t taking stock of the overwhelming evidence of ‘communication trivialization’ that was increasingly challenging the role, function and quality of communication and, hence, was threatening democracy. En passant, he threw me in with those ‘popular culturalists’ for whom reading a detective novel is in itself an element of citizenship. In my Rejoinder I left my original ironic undertone and, in turn, blamed him for too unilinear and too final an argumentation, too much based on cross-cultural generalizations from one single country, the UK.
I had mixed feelings about our exchange: proud to discuss with such a pillar of our academic field at such a forum, but disappointed that he more or less ignored the empirical substantiation of my arguments, and taken aback by the tone of his critique (and that of my Rejoinder, for that matter). A former international master student recently reminded me how many years ago I had used the texts in class, where he asked whether the Response wasn’t ‘a horrible experience’: being ‘put on the spot like that by such a titan and heavyweight in the field?’ But later, he added, it had made him understand that that is how academia works. How it essentially is about this sort of scholarly exchange and debate and how this moves science forward. I wasn’t sure about that, but didn’t tell him that, nor how much I had been taken aback.
Days after publication of my Rejoinder, Jay wrote me how much he had enjoyed the discussion, which he felt was friendly and empathic. It got us somewhere, he thought. And, by the way, he was not so much afraid of infotainment but worried of the consequences (which I sensed was the same). He ended the machine-typed letter by proposing that we do a comparative research testing of both our claims and write a paper, arguing it out with empirically substantiated arguments to find out who was right. This is how from then on I came to know Jay and to enjoy his company: friendly, open and critical, inviting and challenging. Sometimes harsh, may be, but not hard. The paper never materialized, but we became good friends and collaborators in many another research. I came to appreciate him as a gentle giant and as the homo universalis that he was.
Born in the USA but with his academic career and his heart mostly in the UK, in his work he married politics in and by media (political communication) with politics of and for media (communication policy). Politics was in his arteries, so to speak. In 1964 he introduced his new found land to the role and importance of media in modern election campaigns, collaborating with his then young and new colleague Denis McQuail, to publish Television in Politics. Its Uses and Influences (1968). With his fellow American Michael Gurevitch he wrote many a seminal article, most notably when in 2001 they described and labelled the start of the 21st century as The Third Age of Political Communication (2001). (More recently he lectured about a fourth age but wasn’t convinced of its value and dropped the idea).
His interest in media policy was inspired by his care and fear for democracy, and what he saw as the necessity of media and the state to safeguard and enhance it. After researching in 1986 with Tom Nossiter The Range and Quality of Broadcasting Services, he went on to advise different Royal Commissions on the media. In 1992 he realised that with Television and the Public, Vulnerable Values were at Stake. More and more his take on media’s role in and for society became a normative one. Which did not prohibit him from setting up and editing what I see as the first truly comparative study of mass communication: media’s role in the first European elections, Communicating to Voters.
But next to a strong researcher, an original theoretician and an eloquent author (who at occasion would also burst into song with his beautiful baritone voice), Jay has always been a breath taking and entertaining orator. I now realise that he probably was the quintessential infotainer. His lectures were a joy and a learning experience to listen to and until very recently at conferences, seminars and workshops he would be the first to ask that penetrating question you wished you had thought of yourself (always beginning with a compliment and then followed by a sharp, to the point and sometimes mischievous comment).
I also remember how he saved a small, specialist seminar in Hamburg, sponsored by the Bertelsmann Foundation. It was, if my memory does not fail me, about what we can learn from different media systems. But the presentations and discussions were chaotic, exceptionalistic, inward looking, not analytical, and neither focused nor comparative. In short: the meeting was a balls-up and a shame. Jay kept quiet, his role was to summarise our discussion or, as most of us hoped for, bring some order in the chaos we had produced. And he did, in his usual eloquent way. In fifteen minutes, he introduced the systemacy and depth that had lacked so painfully in our contributions. He brought in the comparative dimension, the similarity and differences in democratic, moral, and tricky issues that were overriding the European picture, and presented it as if that was what we had said. I remember how we looked at each other in a mixture of surprise and pride. Was this us? Had we been that analytical and clever? Bertelsmann’s top brass present were as happy as we were, bathing in Jay’s glory and proud of what we supposedly had said but really was Jay’s.
On the sad occasion of his death, these are now fading memories. One of the last times I met Jay was at another sad occasion, in 2017, at Denis McQuail’s funeral. After the church service and during sandwiches on the lawn (and his proverbial song), Jay reminded me that during the war, as Denis had done later, he had worked as a Russian interpreter - Denis for the British, Jay for the US Army. I said I thought old soldiers never died, but Jay only smiled. Now I realise even gentle giants do.
(emeritus professor of political communication at the universities of Amsterdam and Leiden)