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From Psychological Warfare to Social Justice

Shifts in Foundation Support for Communication Research

Jefferson Pooley

In its first few decades, US communication research was shaped by a pair of institutional patrons: the federal government and the big foundations. Beginning with the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s, on through to the Ford Foundation’s 1950s social science spending spree, the philanthropic agenda was, to a large extent, the field’s agenda. And the foundations during this period frequently aligned themselves with the federal government—the other giant patron of communication research. One result was that the study of communication was organized, to a remarkable degree, around the question of effective propaganda design. With World War II and the Cold War as backdrops, the communication researcher became, in effect, a social scientific specialist in “psychological warfare.”

It is not enough, of course, to leave it there; plenty of other factors, including good-faith enthusiasm for new kinds of quantitative social science, helped give the emerging field its distinctive shape. Still, the thumbnail I’ve sketched will do for now, since my aim in this chapter is to highlight a contrast. If early communication research was indeed in the persuasion business, then one enabling factor was foundation largesse from Ford and others; the foundations underwrote the field’s fixation on changing men’s minds, very often in support of military ends. That was then.

Things have changed rather dramatically over the last decade. Ford has selfconsciously directed substantial funds to the media democracy movement— over $20 million from 1999 to 2008.1 Some of that money has supported communication scholarship, with the idea that media scholars, activists, and policy advocates might mutually inform the movement’s goals. With this recent support in mind—and with a glance back at the 1930s and 1950s—we might say that the field’s foundation patrons have shifted from psychological warfare to social justice.

The claim needs some parsing, of course. But for the moment I want to linger on a strange fact: the Ford Foundation that worked closely with the CIA in the 1950s is the same Ford Foundation that has made dozens of media- democracy grants over the last decade, many of them involving communication scholars. The turnabout is striking on its own terms but comes off as especially startling to those of us reared on a particular story—let’s call it the beholden foundation—about Ford, Rockefeller, and the others. According to this story, the twentieth-century American foundation has served the interests of big capital by smoothing over the market’s rough edges and by managing dissent. Foundations like Carnegie, the account states, supply a veneer of philanthropic legitimacy to policies and initiatives that ultimately benefit the captains of industry whose fortunes they inherited. Ford and the rest, according to the story, have also aided—even spearheaded—s ensitive government initiatives, especially in the Cold War years. Social science, all along, has been a favorite tool of the beholden foundation, according to the many scholars who have contributed to the story.

Philanthropy as the robber barons’ soft gloves: the claim is made in a large, cross-disciplinary literature. Foundations (to quote book and chapter titles) are agents of “cultural imperialism” and “collaboration”; they supply an “extension of ideology” and “the mask of pluralism.”2 Many of these are well-supported and convincing accounts; there really are a number of documented cases, especially during the early Cold War, when Ford and the others acted to contain dissent and help out the national security state. The history of midcentury communication research that I sketched earlier draws substantially on this work.3

It’s the strength of the foundation-critique literature that makes the recent Ford work on media democracy so startling. The twentieth-century pattern has not held. In the last decade, Ford has battled, through its funded proxies, the big media companies. And the foundation enlisted communication scholars to aid the effort. One lesson is that another world is possible for foundations too.

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