The Great Man (or Woman) theory of media

Now, at least, CNN is looking at a few unorthodox names to inject a little life into primetime.

This entire piece is worth a read for a glimpse of CNN’s stubborn refusal to “take sides.” For more on that by the way, see this gem: In other words, we’ve heard that story before. But the snippet I pulled out is a story I haven’t seen discussed as much.

When I read that line, I was transported back to my European History class in sophomore year of high school. I assume because the class was AP (advanced placement) there was a bit more on the curriculum than just the facts of historical events. Thus our first unit was on Historiography which is the study of how history is recorded and how it’s interpreted in different cultures, time periods, political climates, etc.

One of the first things we talked about was the Great Man theory of history vs. Determinism. The Great Man theory basically states that in a given historical situation, key events occur because of a major figure i.e. Adolf Hitler for example. This theory would say that even if Germany and the rest of the world was exactly the same, but if Hitler had never been born, perhaps we would not have had a war, a Holocaust, etc. Another leader could have come to power, but there was something unique and distinctive about Hitler and another man would not have caused events to happen as they did.

The Determinist theory says that the individuals are not important, but rather many other factors are and a historical event would have happened whether or not a certain person was involved. So this theory would say that no, no, it didn’t have to be Hitler specifically. Another man would have done the same things and history would have turned out exactly the same way.

As you can see neither of these theories, in exclusion, is satisfying. Most of the time the truth lies somewhere in the middle and most people would acknowledge that. But if that’s true, then why do media organizations of various mediums seemingly subscribe ONLY to the Great Man (or Woman) theory of media?

If your cable network is in trouble, you obviously need to hire some superstar, big name talent. Ditto for local networks. If your newspaper isn’t selling, maybe you need some famous, high-price columnists or hotshot editors. Why is this always the solution? Or, if it’s not always the solution, why is it the one that seems to garner the most attention from media reporters? All I ever read from my local beat reporters on the media scene is who got hired, fired, etc. Even if the people are not in all cases big-name hotshots, why is there so much focus on the individuals? Why is there not more discussion of the Determinism side of the equation? More coverage of the content of news orgs, their editorial direction, their technical innovations (or lack thereof), their audiences, their new initiatives, etc. Are these things not equally important?

If someone has a good answer for me, I’d love to see it in the comments.


  1. Anonymous December 18, 2010

    Hello, Anna. It’s infinitely more easy to explain both tiny and grand shifts in history by ascribing them to Great Men and (as we parenthetically add) Women. Determinism, directions, innovations, initiatives – all of these are incredibly important, intangible and unmeasurable. Thus, they are harder to comprehend, especially when we are standing in the middle of them as we are now during this extraordinary era of change. That’s my best guess, at any rate!
    Thanks for the good post.

  2. Anna Tarkov December 18, 2010

    Thanks for the comment, but I was looking more for an explanation of why media is so superstar focused in terms of hiring and what gets talked about by those on the outside. Obviously this is more the case in TV and cable news than print, but print is far from immune. Why is there so much focus on the individuals involved? Is it because people are easier to talk about for, say, media reporters than processes and the like?

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