"One of the best ways to study what is unique about American public discourse is via cross-national comparative research."
Iowa native Rodney Benson says that "growing up in Iowa everyone meets a presidential candidate at some point. It's part of the air you breathe." In fact, while a reporter for his college paper, Benson even interviewed and wrote about George McGovern, Gary Hart, and others.
These experiences led to his becoming a political speechwriter in Washington, D.C., an occupation that got him thinking about public discourse. "I became intrigued with the question of what can be said or not said in the public sphere, especially what can be expressed through the media." He remembers thinking, "What sets these limits? Is it the commercial nature of the press? The particular history of public discourse in our nation? The political system in place?'"
He decided to take this question about public discourse to graduate school. "What I found is that one of the best ways to study what is unique about American public discourse, and why it takes the form it does, is via some sort of cross-national comparative research. Some of the most significant aspects of our situation – our own taken-for-granted social reality – only become visible in the reflection of a foreign mirror.”
As a case study, Benson explored the public debate surrounding the immigration issue in United States and France from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. "I interviewed journalists, activists and academics who were involved in trying to frame the debate about immigration, and closely analyzed more than a thousand media texts and images." All of this took place while he was pursuing his doctorate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received grants to support this research in Paris and Los Angeles.
After receiving his PhD in 2000, Benson relocated to France, where he taught sociology and international communications at The American University of Paris. Benson also continued his close association (begun during his dissertation research years) with the Center for European Sociology, founded by Pierre Bourdieu, one of the most important sociologists of the 20th century. "Bourdieu invited me to join his research group in Paris, which was at that point turning its attention to the study of media."
This was an especially exciting time for Benson. "I became part of a large group of researchers using and extending Bourdieu's field theory to examine how media shape public discourse. Working with Bourdieu I found a theoretical framework that I've been engaging with ever since."
Benson continued to develop a field theory approach to media research with a book he co-edited (with French political scientist Erik Neveu) entitled Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005).
Benson has published articles and book chapters on diversity politics and journalism, comparative media research methods, recent “Americanizing” tendencies at France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, and alternative newsweeklies in the United States.
“What unites these projects,” Benson says, “is my interest in revisiting many of the guiding assumptions of media research. Is the world becoming culturally homogenized, as many globalization theorists suggest? At least in the realm of journalism, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Or, to take another example – is commercialization at the root of all media evils? Well, it depends on what kind of commercialization you mean. Some of the European press systems many American critics admire are in fact highly concentrated in their ownership. And while advertising certainly can compromise the public mission of journalism, many of the most civically engaged and intellectually serious alternative newsweeklies, such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian or the LA Weekly, are entirely funded by advertising. Conversely, European state intervention in the press sector – beyond what we’re used to in the US – doesn’t always having a censoring effect. In fact, state subsidies often enable the airing of a greater diversity of viewpoints.”
“In short, what goes into creating a vibrant public sphere is complex. It’s a fascinating intellectual puzzle, and putting it together can also be helpful for media activists and public policymakers seeking to improve the quality of our news media.”
Benson currently has another book in the works, American Media in the French Mirror: Power and the Public Sphere Ideal. A recent Steinhardt School Research Challenge Fund grant is supporting the research needed to complete this book.
When the book is completed, Benson will turn his attention to a study of the globalization of public relations. "Over the past 20 years, many U.S. based public relations firms have moved into Europe, and the PR industry as a whole has expanded there significantly. Scholars tend to assume PR is a sort of universal practice, which if true should lead to some sort of convergence in the form and content of public discourse between the U.S. and Europe. But it seems just as likely that PR has had to adapt to each national media environment in which it is operating, and thus, that the overall effect of this American-led invasion has been quite minimal.” Benson has begun to research these questions by spending time interviewing and observing British and French PR practitioners at work.
Benson has been impressed by NYU’s undergraduates. "They are serious and engaged," he offers. "When you give them room to explore their interests – and then try to link it up to larger issues involving media - they respond."
Benson also notes that while his students are savvy about how current media is made, many of them are surprised by the continued differences a among media systems around the globe. "For instance, in European television commercials are not allowed during newscasts, so there's a whole different rhythm to the news there. This is an example of differences in media that my students really want to investigate further." Many of the department’s doctoral students have also worked as research assistants on his various projects.
Benson says he came to NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication because he wanted to "be a part of a well-respected and growing department, to be in a first class research university, to be in New York." He anticipates the department's continued growth because "we're already a diverse, international, globally-oriented faculty. Also, the department is a really good working atmosphere. We all have a mutual respect for the diversity of approaches that the media – and each other – offer."