Sweeney explores important role of journalists

podcastlogoFor the third episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with former Journalism History editor Michael S. Sweeney about his research on a newspaper reporter who came to symbolize the rights of journalists to unionize without fear of retaliation in 1934. Sweeney is a recent recipient of the American Journalism Historians Association’s National Award for Excellence in Teaching. He is pictured in the feature photo above (third from the right) with current and former students at AJHA in Salt Lake City, Utah, October 2018.

This episode is sponsored by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.


Nick Hirshon: [00:00:09] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He was a newspaper reporter who came to symbolize the right of journalists to unionize without fear of retaliation. His coerced resignation at the San Francisco Call Bulletin in 1934 sparked such upheaval in the news industry that one attorney predicted ‘the beginning of the end of the freedom of the press.’ In this episode, we examine the case of journalist Dean Jennings with historian Mike Sweeney of Ohio University. Later in the show, we’ll also talk with Mike about his previous role as the editor of Journalism History and his recent acceptance of the American Journalism Historians Association’s National Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Nick Hirshon: [00:01:15] Dr. Sweeney, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.

Mike Sweeney: [00:01:17] Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Nick Hirshon: [00:01:19] So, you have published 22 books and monographs, including several about your primary interest, wartime reporting and censorship. So, I’d like for you to start out by telling our audience how you became interested in that subject.

Mike Sweeney: [00:01:32] My goodness. When I was a boy, I read mostly nonfiction and I found that I liked reading about the lives of prominent journalists and in particular, war correspondents. One of the first I read about was Ernie Pyle. And so I was happy to be able to do some original research about pilots and some other war correspondents when I was working on my Ph.D. at Ohio University. Well, it’s been a long interest of mine and now I get to do it like a real historian.

Nick Hirshon: [00:02:03] So, what is it about that subject that’s held your interest for so many years?

Mike Sweeney: [00:02:08] My goodness. Well, first of all, I’ve always wanted to be involved in journalism somehow. When I was growing up, I delivered the Washington Star in College Park Maryland. And this was during the Watergate era and also a time of great political and social upheaval in the United States. And I realized what a crucial and central role that journalism played in our understanding as a country. What it is that we have to decide on, what it is that we have to realize is the conversation that takes place. So, I’ve always been interested in journalism. Then the war correspondents part I think stems from first of all, the realization that writing and reading about war are perhaps the most important things that we might get from journalism, when the country goes to war and it expends so many lives and so much money.

[00:03:21] It’s such a momentous step, that the people need to know what we’re fighting for, what is going on in the war. Are the troops well-equipped? Is this the right war? Is it being fought well? And so, these troops are fighting in our name. We should have the right to say whether we agree with what they’re doing and whether we approve of the way they’re conducting the war. So, war correspondents are in the thick of that, so they’re covering a very important topic. But on top of that, I always admired them for something that I never had and could not see myself ever having, that’s the courage to go put their lives on the line to report something they believe in so passionately. So, war correspondents are all in and I suppose to some people there is a romantic element in that, never knowing when you’re going to get the bullet with your name on it. But I think that war correspondents do it because they believe in something bigger than themselves and to me that’s a noble thing.

Nick Hirshon: [00:04:29] A lot of your research tends to focus on World War II. Can you tell us what impact World War II in particular had on journalism?

Mike Sweeney: [00:04:37] Well, how much time have we got? My dissertation was about how the news was censored in the United States during World War II and I also have looked at how the news about the war was reported around the world. So, it was the most and best covered war of American wars and also the issue of censorship was such that when the war began with the attack at Pearl Harbor and then the Germans and Japanese and the Italians lining up against us.

[00:05:17] We weren’t sure in this country whether we would win. Most of the news out of the war very early was bad. There were some in the military, in high offices of the U.S. government, who wanted to control the press, to censor the press, because in war time information is a weapon and they were afraid that if the press was allowed to report and publish and broadcast without some kind of prior restraint, they might give the enemy valuable information, an enemy that didn’t need any extra help prosecuting that war, at least in its early years.

[00:05:53] So, I would argue that not only was the war generally well reported overseas but the censorship was intelligence. And the key takeaway is that we exited that war with the press every bit as free as it had been when we entered it. And if you look at the experiences of Germany and Russia and Italy, and to some extent even France and the U.K., that’s not nearly true.

Nick Hirshon: [00:06:25] And we’re going to talk a little bit about a subject that came from before World War II. We’re recording this podcast at a 2018 American Journalism Historians conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, where you’ve just presented your paper, Francis Biddle and the Jennings Case in 1934-35: A Freedom of the Press Complaint That Sucked in Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, and Heywood Broun. Can you tell us about your research on that Jennings case, starting out with who Jennings was?

Mike Sweeney: [00:06:52] Sure. First of all, I’m not the only author of this paper, the coauthor is Patrick Washburn, another professor at Ohio University. We came to this paper because he had an interest in Francis Biddle, who was the Attorney General of the United States during World War II, and I had an interest in Heywood Broun, who had been a war reporter in World War I, covering the Allied Expeditionary Forces. So, we came together on this through Pat Washburn’s research, he had discovered something about this Jennings case, which involved Francis Biddle, and he had never been able to give it full attention. And so, now he’s retired, I’m headed toward semi-retirement pretty quick. We wanted to make sure that this story got told. So, Dean Jennings, we discovered, was the reporter/rewrite man at the San Francisco Call bulletin and he was one of the organizers of the Newspaper Guild at his newspaper and was an officer in northern California, trying to unionize ordinary reporters. And this is at a particular point in time, the first couple years of FDR’s administration as president, when he is involved in trying to pull the United States out of the Depression and he would try anything to see if it would work.

[00:08:13] One of his ideas was to have laborers and management get together in various industries around the country and come to agreement through negotiation, what’s a fair wage in return for a fair amount of labor. And this was the National Recovery Act, the Blue Eagle. A lot of industries did this for a while, eventually it went away. But the question is, would these industrial agreements work with the newspaper and I suppose eventually the radio industries because they are specially protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, in fact, the only business mentioned in the Constitution is the press.

[00:09:03] So, Jennings organizes for the Guild and he plans to take his vacation in the summer of 1934 to drive to a big Guild convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. And when his bosses find out that that is his plan, they intentionally rearrange his vacation days so he can’t go, because they don’t want him or anyone else organizing a Guild at his paper. He is working for a William Randolph Hearst paper. Hearst has this reputation for being anti-union, anti-labor. He doesn’t want anyone compromising his ability to run his paper the way he sees fit. So, what they tell Dean Jennings is, ‘the only way you’ll get to go to that conference in St. Paul and meet with your Guild buddies is if you quit.’

[00:09:59] So, this is a coerced resignation. That is a small act with essentially the firing of one nobody reporter, no one knows this person, at one paper on the West Coast, but as he makes a complaint that he’s been fired illegally because of union activity, it’s like ripples in a pond. It keeps expanding and drawing in bigger and bigger and bigger powers, including the president and Francis Biddle and William Randolph Hearst and Heywood Broun, who, as a columnist for a newspaper in New York City, was the organizer of the Newspaper Guild. So, it starts small, but in a very short amount of time it gets huge and it is one of the major stories of 1934, but it’s been forgotten. No one knows it today. Well, that’s one of the things I like about being a historian, is finding something significant that’s been lost to time and restoring it to history.

Nick Hirshon: [00:11:04] Do you think there’s anything about that story on Dean Jennings that can inform our understanding of issues that face journalists today?

Mike Sweeney: [00:11:12] Well, the ruling in the case originally by Francis Biddle was that the National Labor Relations Board, which he headed, would have jurisdiction in these local complaints where the laborers and the management got together and made decisions. And if the complaint was that somebody was fired for union activity, this national office, part of the Department of Labor, would have jurisdiction. Now, he said there’s no law forbidding it and it makes sense to treat journalists just like all other reporters. There’s nothing special about a union, whether it’s in journalism or if you’re stevedores or you’re electricians or what. But this decision totally caught the federal government and the White House by surprise. And so, eventually his decision is going to be overturned.

[00:12:19] And Franklin D. Roosevelt issues this memo of special understanding that says, you know, the National Labor Relations Board can have jurisdiction and make these decisions in other industries, but not in journalism. So, why is that important today? I think what we’re seeing here in 1934 is the idea that journalists are in some way special. They’re different from other laborers and there’s going to be a difference of opinion about the degree to which that is true, I think, between the ordinary reporters and the people who own and publish and edit the newspapers, between labor, if you will, and management.

[00:13:08] Yes, we have freedom of the press, but who is freedom of the press for? Ultimately, it is for, in the 1930s, as well as today, the people who own the channels of communication, as opposed to those who create content for those channels of communication. You can have freedom of the press if you own one. So, this is beginning to blur today because of social media, digital media, creating a situation where you can be your own publisher and your own reporter and your own editor. And we see various outlets like that. But the idea remains that journalism is not just like any other industry. There is something special about journalism that the federal government and state governments and local governments must respect and keep their hands off of.

Nick Hirshon: [00:14:09] So, why do you think this story was sort of lost to time if it was one of the major stories of the year in 1934 and you’re saying it’s so relevant today?

Mike Sweeney: [00:14:18] I think it got lost because it went the publishers’ way and the publishers have the right to say what they want to say about it, you know they have this adage that the winners are the ones who write history, right. If this had gone the guild’s way, imagine for a moment a counterfactual reconstruction of history where the National Labor Relations Board could stick its hand down until local newspapers and say, ‘no, you can’t fire that person,’ or ‘no, you must hire this person.’ That would be a totally different story. So, there’s that.

[00:14:52] The other thing is the reason I think that it has been lost is that it was decided so quickly. Francis Biddle did not take it up until he entered office, which would be November 1934, and he was a no nonsense kind of guy. He made his decision as head of the National Labor Relations Board very quickly on that Jennings case, said we have jurisdiction. He was asked to reconsider it by Donald Richbourg, an adviser to FDR. He did. He came to the same conclusion within ten days and shortly after he reaffirmed his own decision, the newspaper publishers of the United States, twelve hundred of them, 1,200 newspaper publishers, said this is a terrible attack on the free press.

[00:15:42] We’re going to immediately meet and have a conference and we’re going to protest this and take this up with Franklin Roosevelt. When Roosevelt saw that, he realized he’s only been in office a year and a half, he did not want to pick a fight with the publishers of American newspapers when he’s trying to sell them on his New Deal programs. So, you’ve got history being written by the winners and you have this literally two month chunk of time where it’s a big issue and then it goes away. That’s why I think we’ve lost it.

Nick Hirshon: [00:16:16] And you’ve talked now about writing history and the importance of being that historian, finding the facts. You also have recently served as the longtime editor of Journalism History. So, what do you think is the definition of journalism history? There seems to be some discussion about how broad or narrow that should be defined. During your time as editor, how did you define journalism history?

Mike Sweeney: [00:16:39] I defined it quite broadly. I said it’s not just journalism, it’s mass communication. So, I would include in journalism history, history of advertising, public relations, television, radio, newspapers, public opinion campaigns. Even though it’s published in the United States and its primary audience is American scholars, I also welcome scholarship from other countries. So, we accepted and published articles about some aspect of mass communication in the Soviet Union, Argentina, France, China, Jamaica, et cetera et cetera, Israel, some other countries.

[00:17:23] My feeling is, if it has to do with mass communication and it is significant in some way, in other words it answers the so what question, here’s why this is important and you should know it, and it expands what we know, I would accept it as appropriate for consideration in Journalism History, in other words I’d send it up through you. The one big question that we’ve come across is when does journalism begin and then when is it no longer history but still an ongoing, open for debate matter? So, I think you can consider something history if it’s been settled, if it’s been decided, if the issues at hand are no longer evolving as we look at them. Now, what is that period of time? I would argue it’s something like five to 10 years ago, but it could be flexible. I accepted an article about the public relations strategies of Kofi Annan after he’d been out of office six or seven years. This, of course, is the secretary general of the United Nations. I thought it was a great piece.

[00:18:40] I also have accepted some journalism pieces going back hundreds of years. And I really wanted to publish one that would have perhaps redefined the origin of the newspaper, not in Europe five hundred years ago, but in China a thousand years ago. I thought it had really good possibilities but it ended up getting published by another journal.

[00:19:05] I feel like I don’t want to put too many blinders or too many roadblocks around what is a good piece of scholarship. I want to expand what we know. I don’t want to be arbitrary in any way saying, ‘oh, that’s not appropriate for “journalism history.” I had a really broad palette when I was editor.

Nick Hirshon: [00:19:30] So, as someone who was that gatekeeper deciding what did or didn’t get published, obviously with the help of peer reviewers, what tips could you give for people who were trying to publish journalism history?

Mike Sweeney: [00:19:43] My goodness. First of all, have something that is significant. Now, that is a subjective interpretation. It is something that you argue once you have collected your information. So, that first part, collecting information, has to do with primary sources. I rejected out of hand several manuscripts that were essentially rewrites or syntheses of secondary sources, existing books and articles for example. I don’t call that historical research. I call it a book review. Some of them I read are great essays but they’re not right for this journal.

[00:20:26] So, find something that is either an untapped archive, and if you do like one of our presenters today did with an archive of Dorothy Day, Catholic editor, great, finding those new documents, great, or find something that already has been written about, but find some new or significant way to look at it.

[00:20:53] So, today at the conference, we had a couple of very interesting papers that I heard about yellow journalism, how yellow journalism is a favorite topic of undergraduate and graduate students. It’s so sexy and exciting, all the crazy things these publishers did back in the Spanish American War.

[00:21:16] But, there are new techniques of looking at yellow journalism and so today we heard some quantitative and qualitative and very highly analytical pieces. So, just because the subject has been done before doesn’t mean you can’t continue to do it if you find some new research tool to examine it.

[00:21:39] So, I think in addition to all that, the significance, the primary sources, or the new way of looking at things, the big issue is, are you passionate about it. If you really are passionate about a subject as I am about wartime censorship and wartime journalism, you can’t wait to get up in the morning and start digging through your archive or looking for the missing documents that would help you explain something. Nick, I know you’re a huge fan of New York sports, especially the Jets and the Mets and the Islanders and so on.

[00:22:19] I know you get a huge kick out of finding something that you can write about, then connect it to the Mets that hasn’t been written before. Motivation, it’s the key to I think engaging with something over a long period of time, which is what you’re going to have to do if you’re thinking about being a researcher who has history as your research agenda.

Nick Hirshon: [00:22:46] Well, and I obviously was one of your students at Ohio University and I learned from you the importance of passion in research, it’s something that I still do today. So, I want to then transition into earlier today. You were honored with the AJHA National Award for Excellence in Teaching and you’ve mentored many graduate students who have gone on to become notable media historians who were here today. I’m grateful to include myself in that group. Since 2015, 15 student papers produced in your classes at Ohio University have been presented at national academic conferences. So, obviously every media historian is usually also a media history professor or journalism professor, some sort of teacher. What do you think makes a good teacher of journalism history?

Mike Sweeney: [00:23:30] Oh my goodness. Well, I know what works for me. I think the bottom line is to know your subject and know who you are and play to your strengths as a teacher. So, what works for me may not work for you or my mentor Pat Washburn.

[00:23:52] Washburn was much more of a lecturer or a discussion leader, and I think of myself more as a teacher that says to his students, ‘let’s explore this and figure out what it is together,’ in other words, I like to admit right up front, I don’t have all the answers. I’ve got a bunch of them but not all of them. So, know your subject and be yourself. That’s 1, 2, for being a good teacher. And then the third thing is to just care passionately about your students.

[00:24:31] Why are you going into teaching if it’s not to help young people get a better grasp of what it is that your subject matter is, what you’re teaching, so that they can go on to whatever it is they want to do, whether it’s writing books of history or being professors, whatever. So, if you have gotten into this to connect with students, then you need to put students first in your lives. What does that mean? It means that you have lots of office hours. It means that you welcome them to call you at home at reasonable hours. It means that when they come to you with issues or problems, you give them your full attention. You listen to them because listening closely when someone says, ‘I have an issue, I have a problem, can you give me some feedback?’ and giving them your time, that’s a gift of love, that is a gift of respect, and students recognize that. So, I feel like, what’s the line from the Beatles, “and in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take.”

Nick Hirshon: [00:25:43] So, that seems like a pretty good point to start wrapping up on.

[00:25:48] Thank you for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off the words of Edward R. Murrow, good night and good luck.

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