Born in Budapest, Hungary, on August 8, 1919, George Gerbner took an early interest in folklore and excelled as a poet. He enrolled at the University of Budapest in 1938 after winning first prize in Hungarian literature in a national competition of high school students. In 1939, however, he fled to Paris to avoid conscription into the Hungarian army, then under a right-wing government allied with Nazi Germany. Unable to obtain a visa to enter the United States, where his half-brother Laslo Benedek was a Hollywood filmmaker, Gerbner traveled first to Mexico, then Cuba. A sympathetic consulate officer finally permitted him to sail from Havana to New Orleans, where he was received by his half-brother’s friends (and where he met author Sinclair Lewis, who was also staying at their home).
From New Orleans, Gerbner hitchhiked to California and enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, though soon transferred to Berkeley to study journalism. Upon graduating he worked as a reporter and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. A loosening of enlistment regulations in 1942 permitted Gerbner to join the U.S. Army (he was officially recognized as an “enemy alien” due to Hungary’s declaration of war on the U.S.). Trained as a paratrooper in Fort Benning, Georgia, he transferred to the Office of Strategic Command and eventually arrived in Italy, where he joined the organization’s Secret Intelligence group. In January 1945 he parachuted with two others into occupied territory along the Austrian-Slovenian border and operated behind enemy lines with resistance forces until the end of the war in Europe. After Germany’s defeat Gerbner was sent to Austria to investigate a mass encampment of Hungarian soldiers, among which was Hungary’s pro-Nazi prime minister Dome Sztojay, whom Gerbner helped arrest and return to Budapest to be tried and executed as a war criminal.
While stationed in Budapest, Gerbner met Ilona Kutas, an actress, whom he married in 1946.
Gerbner returned to Los Angeles and volunteered as a newspaper editor for the Independent Progressive Party while searching for employment. Gerbner’s leftist activism during the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade attracted the interest of the California House Un-American Committee, before which he was called to testify. Shortly after, he was hired to teach journalism at John Muir College (now Pasadena City College). To gain teaching credentials, he began graduate coursework in the University of Southern California’s School of Education. He stayed to complete a master’s degree in June 1951 with a thesis titled “Television and Education”, and a Ph.D. in the school’s audiovisual department under James D. Flinn in June 1955 with a dissertation titled “Toward a General Theory of Communication.”
Recalling his decision to study communication at a time when the field hardly existed, Gerbner explained in an 1992 interview with John Lent, “I came to the conclusion that communication is really where the action is—the political action, the social action, the cultural action.” In 1956 Gerbner joined the faculty of the Institute of Communication Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he had been recruited by Dallas Smythe, who met Gerbner as a visiting professor in USC’s Department of Cinema. Gerbner remained at Illinois for the next eight years.
In 1964 Gerbner left Illinois for the University of Pennsylvania, where he was hired to serve as dean of the Annenberg School of Communication, only five years after it was founded at Penn. Gerbner proceeded to build a world-class research and teaching faculty and under his tenure it became a national leader in communication research and established the wan fledgling discipline of communication into a serious and scholarly addition to the academy. The School published the leading publication in the field, the Journal of Communication, which he served as editor and executive editor, created the first world encyclopedia of communications, and established The Washington Program, a communications project that brought communication researchers and practitioners together in the policy-making capitol of Washington, DC.
Dr. Gerbner founded and headed the Cultural Indicators Project, his most famous and influential contribution to the field, to track changes in television programming and study how television influences American’s view of society. The project’s database gathered over 3,000 television programs and 35,000 characters.
Dr. Gerbner received many honors and was a member of several advisory committees and research commissions in communications. In 1979, he was named an ICA Fellow by the International Communication Association. In 1986 he was named chair of the Subcommission on Communications and Society of the Commission on the Social Sciences of the American Societies (ACLS).
Former President Sheldon Hackney and former Provost Michael Aiken honored Dr. Gerbner by establishing an annual lecture series in 1988, known as the George Gerbner Lecture in Communications. Dr. Gerbner retired from the deanship in 1989 after 25 years as Dean of the Annenberg School, the University's longest serving dean. He continued to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in analysis of mass media, conduct research, and in 1991 founded a media advocacy group, the Cultural Environmental Movement (CEM), until retiring from Penn in 1994.
In 1997, Dr. Gerbner joined Temple University as the Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunications where he continued to teach, research, and advocate through CEM.