Fall, 2016 (Issue 26.1–2)

Mister Barnhurst and Conventional Wisdom*

John Nerone
Institute of Communications Research, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL, USA

Journalism studies lost one of its most acute, erudite, and wise observers when Kevin Barnhurst died on 2 June 2016, just after advance copies of his book had been sent out. I was one of Kevin’s several coauthors, and witnessed his intellectual odyssey from a skills-oriented assistant editor of design and typography to a critical scholar of the media, a journey dwarfed by his personal growth from a Mormon writer to a queer activist. His background gave him a distinctly marginal perspective and nurtured contrarian positions.

Barnhurst was drawn to counterintuitive arguments, and habitually rebelled against convention. James Carey was our dean when we worked together at the University of Illinois, and, although they had a warm personal relationship, Kevin found Jim’s emphasis on community disturbing. He complained that communitarians pay too little attention to those traditionally excluded, and pointed to his personal experience as a gay man.

He also rebelled against conventional wisdom in journalism, especially the pieties of j-school profs. His scholarship usually took its spark from a collision with a truism. Our book The Form of News started from a conversation about whether USA Today had revolutionized front page design. His work on “long journalism” was an extended rebuttal to journalists’ complaints that MBAs were eviscerating their product. The book reviewed below goes further in unpacking and demolishing the ensemble of assumptions that buttress the field of modern journalism. It implies throughout that professional journalism of the modernist variety is the cause of and not the cure for public alienation. At the same time, it casts doubt on the modernist notion of the public sphere. It is fitting that this book has been published during the 2016 presidential contest.

As a contrarian, Barnhurst endured his share of criticism, overt and otherwise. Like all the best people, he irked his superiors and nurtured his juniors. Although he had a successful career that included prestigious appointments, distinguished fellowships, and broad travel, he never settled into the comfortable seniority that he deserved. Perhaps his posthumous career will underscore the breadth of his accomplishment.

*Reprinted from Journal of Communication, Volume 66, Issue 5 (October 2016) . Copyright 2016 by the International Communication Association. Used with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.