Sometimes, at Media Impact Funders, we find that we are slightly ahead of our time. Looking back on our programs for the Media Impact Forum in 2018, we are struck by how much of what we heard then resonates clearly in this peculiar moment we find ourselves in.

In programming over two days, we explored how best to communicate science and equally important, how to understand the science of communications. And we were fortunate to convene at the American Philosophical Society (APS), which was founded by Benjamin Franklin more than 275 years ago, and which served as a crucial institution of scientific inquiry helping to inform our budding republic.

We began our proceedings there with remarks by Brent Glass, director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, who showed us how central scientific inquiry was to the nation’s founders. Speaking about the APS, Glass noted, “The liberal terms of the Society’s charter and the location of Philosophical Hall next to the seat of government clearly illustrate how closely the new nation linked learning and freedom.” Indeed, several of our sessions were timed to close at the top of the hour, and the bell atop Independence Hall next door sounded as if to signal our presenters to wrap it up already.

But more than the physical manifestation, science and learning and the diffusion of knowledge for an informed public were foundations of our democratic republic, according to Glass. “Jefferson said that liberty was “the great parent of science and of virtue; and that a nation will be great in both, always in proportion as it is free.”

Now that we find ourselves in a daily battle over the facts relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and a culture war rages between advocates of science-based policy and the disinformation that flows from political forces that seek to undermine policies based on sound science, the lessons of our founding are that much more relevant.

As much as we revere certain aspects of our nation’s founding, we also recognize that our nation was born with deep inequity. Likewise, major scientific institutions like the National Geographic Society are also grappling with the deep racism that plagued their early days. Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the National Geographic, in dialogue with Renaissance Journalism director Jon Funabiki, described how her institution was addressing its own troubling past depicting race, focusing on a special edition of National Geographic magazine devoted entirely to the subject of race – the publication’s most popular issue ever.

In her presentation, Making a New Reality: Ensuring Equality in Emerging Media, Kamal Sinclair offered an overview of her research on the urgent obligation to ensure that emerging media forms are as diverse as they can be. For funders and media makers, we must make every effort to insist that current efforts counteract the historic imbalance.

Throughout the two days together, we felt the heavy influence of Ben Franklin, with a full day of presentations in Benjamin Franklin Hall. We even heard a talk by Ethan Zuckerman, irrepressible media scholar and Ben Franklin doppelganger, as he offered a fascinating talk evoking not only the ideas of Franklin but also delivering them in full colonial garb just for the fun of it. While we are currently witnessing an unprecedented political attack on the U. S. Postal Service, it’s useful to go back to Zuckerman’s talk, in which he points out that the post office was from its founding, even before the beginning of the republic, designed to be a fundamental source of knowledge and information for an informed public and a building block of our democratic political system.

Media scholar Ethan Zuckerman argues that like our forefathers intended with the Postal Service and free press, we need public spheres to be carefully designed and governed to enable citizens and communities to more effectively connect, communicate and engage civically. (Photo by Albert Yee)

So central was the post office as our core information delivery system, Zuckerman says, “In the early 1800s, the US government was a postal service with a tiny military and a small bureaucracy attached.”

The balance of programming at our Forum covered a wide range of topics. Among them, we heard a dynamic pair of presentations, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, by our friends at the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications, on research that shows how best to craft stories that will inform and engage audiences.

We were also fortunate to witness beautiful and inspiring performances by composer and musician Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Eepy Bird’s Fritz Grobe, along with intriguing presentations by social media pioneer Eli Pariser, journalist Indira Lakshmanan and many others. As you can see from the links, many of the presentations are captured on video and available to view on our website and on YouTube.

If you have found a lull in your binge-watching, after the series finale of Homeland and the new season of Ozark on Netflix, consider adding some of these presentations to your video playlist.

We hope you will find many of these presentations illuminating. And let us know what you think.

In the meantime, here on Washington Square, as the city sounds of modern Philadelphia have subsided practically to colonial-era levels, we can hear the hour sounding from atop Independence Hall, a good reminder of how much we have survived over the nation’s history and a hope for better days.

About the Author
Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle

Executive Director

Before joining Media Impact Funders in 2011 as executive director, Vince was program director for Nonprofit Sector Support at the Surdna Foundation, a family foundation based in New York City. Prior to joining Surdna, Stehle worked for 10 years as a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where he covered a broad range of issues about the nonprofit sector. Stehle has served as chairperson of Philanthropy New York and on the governing boards of VolunteerMatch, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and the Center for Effective Philanthropy.