General UCSD NewsGeneral UCSD News
January 31, 2000

Media Contact: Dolores Davies, (858) 534-5994


Herbert I. Schiller, professor emeritus of communication at the University of California, San Diego, who documented key shortcomings in the new information economy years before anyone called it that, died Jan. 29 in La Jolla, CA, after a long illness. He was 80 years old.

Schiller warned of two major trends in his prolific writings and speeches: the private takeover of public space and public institutions at home, and U.S. corporate domination of cultural life abroad, especially in the developing nations. His eight books and hundreds of articles in both scholarly and popular journals made him a key figure both in communication research and in the public debate over the role of the media in modern society.

The founding member of UCSD's Department of Communication, Schiller was an immensely popular teacher who always played to packed classrooms and was known for combining his biting criticisms of the media with dry humor and an openness to students' own ideas.

Schiller was a frequent and much sought after contributor to leading journals of opinion, including The Nation and Le Monde Diplomatique.

"Herb Schiller was a valuable national resource," said Neil Postman, author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and a professor of media ecology at New York University, where Schiller often taught in recent years. "It is not too much to say that he gave shape and texture to the modern study of communication and culture in America."

An economist by training, Schiller turned to the study of the media in the 1960s, publishing "Mass Communications and American Empire" in 1969 and "The Mind Managers" in 1973. The mass media, he argued, were closely tied to the centers of political and economic power. Because of these ties, they often fell short in their most crucial roles of providing a democratic forum and acting as the watchdog of powerful interests. This critique, which represented a dramatic break with the conventional wisdom in communication research at the time, permanently changed the agenda of communication scholarship by reintroducing issues of political and economic power, which had drawn little attention in the 1950s and‘60s. With a very few other scholars, Schiller’s early work founded what came to be known as the critical political economy school of communication research.

Appearing at a time of political activism both at home and around the world, Schiller's work also had wide impact beyond the scholarly community, inspiring media critics and activists of many kinds. It was widely translated, and had perhaps its greatest impact in developing countries, where the subservience of media to ruling elites and the dominance of world media markets by U.S. companies became significant political issues.

"Herbert Schiller was a media intellectual on a global scale," as Kaarle Nordenstreng, a Finnish scholar and president of the International Association for Mass Communication Research put it. "His ideas traveled well in the divided world of the East, West and South." In the 1970s, when sharp debates arose in UNESCO and other forums over cultural imperialism, Schiller's work was important in defining the position of the critics of Western media industries.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Schiller turned his attention to the rise of the "information society," publishing, among other works, "Who Knows: Information in the

Age of the Fortune 500" and "Culture Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression." In these works, he argued that the new information technologies extended the power relations he criticized in his earlier work, allowing corporate power to penetrate new parts of the world and new areas of life, including education.

Schiller continued writing to the end of his life, recently completing "Living in the Number One Country: Reflections from a Critic of American Empire," which will be published by Seven Stories Press this year. The book is in part an account of the development of his own political ideas.

Schiller was born in 1919 in New York City, the son of Benjamin Schiller and the former Gertrude Perner. He grew up in the Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan, and attended DeWitt Clinton High School and City College of New York.

His own life, he liked to say, paralleled in many ways that of the United States in the 20th century. His father, a jeweler, was thrown out of work early in the Great Depression, and only regained steady employment when the war economy revved up a decade later. Schiller himself was able to finish a Ph.D. at New York University because of the GI Bill, and became a professor at the University of Illinois soon after the build-up of higher education after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite. As an occupation officer in Berlin after World War II, Schiller saw the recreation of much of the prewar economy in West Germany as a business-dominated social order.

Schiller came to UCSD in 1970 to establish the Communication Program. Throughout the 1970s, Communication at UCSD was a fragile entity, popular among students but marginal within the academic structure of the university. On a number of occasions it was close to elimination. In 1982, it finally became a regular department of the university, and two years later it established a Ph.D. program, which came to be among the best known worldwide.

"When I arrived here in 1978," recalls Communication Department colleague, Professor Michael Cole, "Herb was the heart, soul, and rallying point for students interested in critical studies of the media. The conversion of Communication from a small program to a large, world-class department, is in no small measure a monument to Herb's energy and determination."

Schiller is survived by his wife Anita of La Jolla; two sons, Dan, of Del Mar, CA and Zach of Cleveland, OH; and two grandchildren.