Five Answers from Robert Babe

Media, Structures, and Power: The Robert Babe Collection (University of Toronto Press, 432 pgs, $37.95) is a collection of the scholarly writing of Canada’s leading communication and media studies scholar, Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor Robert E. Babe. Edited by fellow FIMS professor Edward Comor, the volume spans almost four decades of scholarship and reflects the breadth of Babe’s work, from media and economics to communications history and political economy.

I remember reading how the Rolling Stones hated putting out ‘greatest hits’ albums because they signaled the end of your career. For a guy like yourself who still has plenty to say, what does putting this collection out mean to you?

Looking back over my scholarly career, I can see several milestones. To give just one early example: Had my thesis advisor not nominated my dissertation as the best one for the year in Michigan State University’s Economics Department, thereby qualifying it for publication as a book by the University Press, I likely would never have had an academic career.

That was a huge milestone.

I look at the current, edited volume — Media, Structures and Power — too, as a milestone, not a capstone. While it is true that I am closer to the end of my career than the beginning, the current volume not only summarizes or condenses what went before, but it may well open up a future of unforeseen possibilities.

Looking back on such a wide-ranging collection of your work, are there any surprises? Pleasant or otherwise? Anything you wish you could go back and tweak just a bit? Anything you look and say to yourself, “Not bad work, Robert.”

Everything in the book was ‘tweaked.’

First, we wanted to make sure, to the best of our abilities, that every chapter was as clear and as typo-free as possible.

Second, we were working under a rather severe word count set by the publisher. Some of the articles were truly pared to the bone, so to speak.

Third, one of University of Toronto Press’ reviewers remarked, regarding an early draft, that there was “too much repetition.” While we disagreed, feeling that repeated concepts always appeared in different contexts, giving rise to new nuances and deeper understandings, the editorial process demanded that we remove any and all “repetitions.”

Fourth, in one instance, I literally changed my mind; this change was duly noted in a footnote (including the reasoning behind the change); I thought this was much better than simply repeating a position I had moved away from.

Fifth, in at least one case, I updated a chapter (an appendix, actually) showing how events subsequent to my initial article had completely born out my initial position.

Regarding things left out: Virtually the whole first decade and a half of my scholarship is absent from this book.  That is because I was then concentrating on regulation, public policy, legislation, industry structures, etc., with a view to assisting public policy. University of Toronto Press, however, envisaged the current book not as a Babe commemorative volume but rather as a book of contemporary interest, informing current issues, sparking discussion and debate.

So the early material, even though it grounded my career, seemed unsuitable for republication.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have published several pieces since the content of Media, Structures and Power was set that I think would have fitted in quite nicely.

Is this like what hearing a recording of their own voice is to some people? Do you hate revisiting your old work? Or is it such a part of you that you enjoy it?

I basically tried to treat all the work clinically — in a detached way — and appraise it for what it is. On several occasions I was surprised by what I read, and thought, “Gee, I could not do that now,” simply because I had moved into other spaces, no longer retaining the intense focus on the areas that the previous pieces required.

You talk a bit in the introduction about hoping this collection sparks debate. What portions of this book, a particular passage or even full article, do you wish you could highlight in bold and put in the hands of every current media personality and executive?

Well, I have certainly never written anything for “media personalities.” My earlier work on the broadcasting and telecommunications systems were certainly of interest to media executives, although that work was addressed primarily to policy-makers and the informed public.

But I have left all that now.

Over the past two decades, my work has focused on scholarship and is addressed to those influenced by scholarship (including students); in particular, I have provided critiques of mainstream economics, cultural studies, poststructuralism and media studies, and done so in the contexts of environmentalism, political economy, and social justice. Academics tend to get locked in their positions; my intended audience, rather, comprises open and inquiring minds.

 So, what remains unsaid for you?

My current work includes a book project, Meet Harold Innis. Innis was arguably Canada’s greatest intellectual, but he remains virtually unacknowledged abroad. I think many of the internationally more famous figures, past and present, would have learned much from a dose of Innis.

Please, though, don’t presume that these will be my final words. Meet Harold Innis, too, will be a milestone, not a capstone.