Understanding Print Media in 1960s America with Kristin Matthews

Kristin Matthews gave the prize-winning installment of the 2015 Raymond E. and Ida Lee Beckham Lecture in Communications. She explained the role of print media in the New Left movement of 1960s America.

 picture_86PROVO, Utah (October 29, 2015)—The written word can be a powerful influence in affecting societal change. Print media reaches out to the public to spread ideas, and this just as true for 1960s America as for any other point in history.

Dr. Kristin Matthews, an associate professor of English, gave the prize-winning lecture in the Raymond E. and Ida Lee Beckham Lecture in Communications series. She shared her research in a presentation titled “New Media for an Old Message: Print Culture, Democracy, and the New Left Politics in 1960s America.” Matthews’s research focused on the writings of the radical student movement – particularly the writings of Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.).

Many scholars state that speech played a large role in energizing the New Left movement; however, no scholars have considered reading’s role in the movement. This, according to Matthews, is a severe oversight, because print media explains the motivation, medium and message of the student revolution.

Matthews said, “Limiting radical politics to the spoken word has indirectly located power in the hands of the recognizably vocal few and thereby has constructed a hierarchical structure or political participation with spokesmen at the top – a structure akin to those that the New Left was striving to dismantle as it worked for civil and human rights.”

S.D.S. was known for its emphasis on literature; it circulated radical print materials that sought to educate and push society toward a participatory democracy. S.D.S. believed that a lack of information prevented outside factions of society – including university students, the unemployed and the uninformed – from participating in the democratic process, so the group distributed its literature to elicit action.

Matthews explained that while participatory democracy was S.D.S.’s end goal, its first use of print media was to recruit people to its cause.

“Organizers believed that as people learned the ‘facts,’ their consciousness would be raised and they would join the movement,” said Matthews.

Notably, however, S.D.S. never explained exactly how print could bolster this change in people; the group simply assumed it would. The group printed materials on a range of issues using the printing technology it had in its national offices, regional offices, campus branches and individuals’ possession. These machines – a mimeograph, multilith and Xerox machines – allowed the group, unlike others, to print and distribute large amounts of literature; thus, their industriousness gave them a powerful role in the information war.

There were also a few issues that arose with this print culture. Matthews explained that it is difficult to measure reader response to S.D.S.’s materials because of the medium, assorted subject matter, scattered distribution and variant target audience. Furthermore, she explained that while the S.D.S. wrote for “the people,” there was a clear distinction between writer and audience in the literature; the oppressed people were written of instead of to, which went against the group’s aim of decentralized, inclusive politics.

Nonetheless, Matthews notes that S.D.S. did ultimately lead to a more participatory democracy. The students that participated in the New Left movement sought to put information into the hands of the people and to encourage conversation from different points of view. As a result, grassroot and civic participation increased. Even today, the movement is being revived by a new S.D.S. group founded in 2006.

“The members of these groups chose to participate in their specific organization because it spoke to their particular lived condition and needs,” said Matthews. “Thus, on a micro-level, they were independently determining the social structure of their life . . . and they did so through adapting the radical print culture they engaged with as part of the movement.”

The annual lecture series is sponsored by the School of Communications and features three lectures from BYU professors on a topic related to mass communication and society. Professors Jeff Hardy and Ryan Elder also presented their research this fall.

—Kayla Goodson (B.A. Communications and French studies ’17)

Kayla covers the English Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a dual degree in French studies and Journalism with a minor in international strategy and diplomacy.
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