For the 16th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Wm. David Sloan, the prolific author of almost 50 books on the news media and editor of The Media in America, the leading textbook of mass communication history.
Sloan is Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama.
This episode is sponsored by the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.
Nick Hirshon: [00:00:07] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine 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.
[00:00:25] This episode is sponsored by the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. Since 1903, we’ve instilled in our students a deep understanding of the critical role that journalism plays in the world. Whether they choose a traditional journalism path or strategic communications career, our students enter the media world as curious, hardworking, and ethical professionals.
[00:00:52] If there was a Hall of Fame for media historians, a bronze plaque would undoubtedly be reserved for William David Sloan, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama. He is the founder of the premiere membership organization for media history scholars, the American Journalism Historians Association, which holds an annual convention and regional conferences that have promoted journalism history research for nearly four decades. He has published almost 50 books, most notably serving as editor of The Media in America, the leading textbook of mass communication history. And in 1998, he received the Sidney Kobre Award for lifetime achievement in journalism history, the highest honor in the field. In this episode, we speak with Dr. Sloan about his distinguished career as one of the pioneers of journalism history research.
Dr. Wm. David Sloan, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
David Sloan: [00:01:51] Well, thank you for having me.
Nick Hirshon: [00:01:53] So, this is an interview that I’ve been looking forward to doing for a while because you’re such a lion in our industry and your accomplishments are truly too many to list. So, we’re gonna be going over everything you’ve done, certainly in research, but I want to start with talking about your role as a teacher of media history and how you first became interested in academic life. So, to prepare for this interview, I was reading an interview in which you described growing up the fourth of six children in West Texas. And both of your parents were from farming families — your father Guy was a carpenter, your mother Fay was a homemaker — and they only had a few years of education and yet you decided at a pretty early age, it seemed, as a college freshman, that you wanted to become a professor. Can you talk about what inspired you to enter academic life?
David Sloan: [00:02:37] Well, first of all, thank you for the kind words. Sometimes it’s hard to remember precise details from so many years ago, but I remember — as far as my interest in going into teaching goes — I remember during my first semester of freshman year, I was sitting in an English class and I was thinking, as the teacher was standing up and really getting us involved in discussion, how exciting it would be to be a professor because at the time I thought professors just dealt with ideas and so forth. And I was unaware that you have to grade papers but just a very stimulating environment. And I’ll have to say I probably have always been more interested maybe in ideas than the day-to-day, nitty-gritty stuff. When I was a freshman, I was intending to major in English, and I was particularly interested in literature, and so when I was thinking about what it would be like to be a professor, I was probably thinking more of English or liberal arts and not a practical area like journalism. But when I decided to major in journalism, I still had the long-term idea that I would be — my career would be as a professor and not as a working journalist. But I got interested in teaching just because it seemed like the life or world of ideas would just be exciting.
Nick Hirshon: [00:04:37] And since then, so many media history scholars who you’ve taught have cited you as a major influence in their careers. In 2010, you received the American Journalism Historians Association’s national award for teaching excellence, and your students have written more than 10 books and 50 book chapters, this seems to be a number that’s ever-growing, so I may be a little bit outdated there, but clearly you’re resonating with them. On a previous episode of The Journalism History Podcast, I spoke to Mike Sweeney, one of your friends, another major figure in media history, and I asked him this question that I now pose to you. What do you think makes a good teacher of media history?
David Sloan: [00:05:15] Thank you again for the kind words. This is off the top of my head. I’ll have to say I never developed during my career an extensive philosophy of teaching, where I can sit down and write a book about it. It seems to me to be a good teacher, though, first of all, you have to be interested in your students. And I would say that’s true no matter what area you’re teaching in. And the next, you have to know your topic pretty well. When I was teaching undergraduate journalism courses, I never thought that you had to have had a career of, say, 20 years in the profession before you could teach journalism courses. But I thought you needed to have had some experience in journalism, just as one aspect of really understanding the subject you’re talking about. The same thing I think applies to teaching history. I think to be a good teacher you have to be a serious historian.
[00:06:33] You have to know your subject. You have to know the details of history well enough that if a student decides to ask you a question about some aspect of history, you’re going to have a pretty good idea just like, say, if you were teaching undergraduate editing, newspaper editing. If a student asked you something about, let’s say, how newspapers are designed, you would have a pretty good idea for an answer. The same thing is true in history. I would say with my own students, I always took teaching history seriously, and I wanted the students to do well at the graduate level or even at the beginning, in the beginning Master’s course in journalism history. I thought that students should come out of the course knowing how to do historical research and having a pretty good grasp of not mainly the names and dates and so forth that make up the raw material of history, but they needed to have an appreciation of what historical study is. And so I would say I was fortunate to have had a lot of very good students who went on to be serious about being good historians themselves.
Nick Hirshon: [00:08:16] And I want to go on and talk more about media history itself and what interests you about it. But before we move on from this, I want to just talk about your youth in Texas, because I read — as a sports fan, this is very interesting to me — this one tangent that you once caught a pass from the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, the late Don Meredith, who later became an original member of the Monday Night Football commentary team. So, I don’t know if you’ve been asked to tell that story before, but I think that for our listeners, that would be an interesting one to hear.
David Sloan: [00:08:47] Well, thank you. I’ve wanted a lot of times to be asked about it, but I think you’re the first person who’s ever just brought it up as a possibility, although I’ve always laid out the hints, hoping someone would take the bait and ask me. OK. Let me go into a little more detail on this than you might have been hoping for. OK. But, I grew up, although I was born in West Texas, my family moved to East Texas to outside a small town of Mount Vernon the summer before I was going into the fourth grade. And Don Meredith was from that little town, the town probably had maybe fifteen hundred population at the time. My oldest brother actually had attended high school there one year and he was the same age as Don Meredith, so they were in classes together. But during the spring of Meredith’s college year, he had been all-American as a quarterback at SMU in Dallas and that spring as I recall, preceding the NFL Draft, he had come down to Mt. Vernon waiting for the draft, which must have been nearby, or near in time, and a seventh-grade friend of mine and I, I was in the seventh grade, we were out at the local high school football field one day, must have been a Saturday. And just throwing a football to one another and the editor of the weekly newspaper knew that Meredith was in town, so he was going to do a story about him.
[00:10:56] And brought him out to the high school football field for some reason, and was going to make a photograph of him, and before he made the photograph, he said, ‘Hey Don, why don’t you throw the ball to one of these kids here?’ Well, Meredith threw it to me and surprisingly I caught it. OK, so that’s my big story about Don Meredith.
Nick Hirshon: [00:11:21] I’m glad that we got that exclusive for the Journalism History Podcast.
David Sloan: [00:11:24] I’ll add one other thing about Meredith, that just knowing that there are millions of listeners out there wanting to know this. When I was in high school, I don’t remember what grade, but Meredith by then was playing for the Cowboys, and he spoke at our sports banquet one year, one spring, and I still remember he used the word insatiable, which I had not heard. And his idea was essentially that if you really want to achieve something, you have to have this insatiable desire to achieve it. And anyway, that word has stuck with me. A lot of people think that Don Meredith was just kind of a comedian, but he was actually a very smart individual and had been high school valedictorian, a very broad individual and very personable.
Nick Hirshon: [00:12:27] So, now when we read some of your work and we see the word insatiable, we’ll know where that was inspired, huh?
David Sloan: [00:12:31] That’s right. In fact, I’ll try to work it in on the next thing I write.
Nick Hirshon: [00:12:37] That’s great. So, you talked about this a little bit when you were saying how you became a teacher of media history, but how did you become so interested in media history and what has sustained that interest over the years?
David Sloan: [00:12:51] I have to say, when I began my PhD work, I didn’t have any intent to specialize in history. I was teaching at the University of Arkansas at the time, and I actually was very interested in law. And so I was thinking in my PhD that I would specialize in law. And I was also teaching history at Arkansas, but almost really by default because when I was hired, the professor whose position I filled was also teaching history and so it fell on me to teach history. But oh, early on in my PhD program at Arkansas, we hired a professor who had been teaching for a number of years. The chair asked him, besides the basic courses, what would he prefer to teach and he said, ‘Well, I like law and history.’ And so the chair of the department gave me my preference. But he thought we should let the other person at least teach one of those two courses. And I don’t remember exactly why, but I said, ‘Well, I think I will take history.’ And so once I decided on that, I shifted my focus in my PhD program. And you know I hate to say it, I wish I could, like a lot of people say is, I was planning to teach history from the time I was five years old, but I’ll have to confess, the focus on history didn’t come until I was working on my PhD and that was at the University of Texas.
Nick Hirshon: [00:14:55] As I was reading over your biography, I saw you served in the Army during the Vietnam War, I believe at Fort Bragg. Has your military service influenced how you go about media history in any way? Is there maybe a disciplined approach that you have to – that’s maybe why you’re such a prolific author because you know how to get things done in a regimented way like a military man would?
David Sloan: [00:15:18] Well, I appreciate that. But I know the Army didn’t have any impact at all – I started to say on my teaching. It had a practical value, because when I was in the Army I was drafted. And so I was just a private – well, a private, but E1 through E4 for the entire time that I was in. But my military occupational specialty was information and so I had some study of propaganda which I would say when I got ready to teach I could list that as a professional preparation.
[00:16:09] But the real effect that the Army had on me was that when I got out of the Army I was entitled to the G.I. Bill, which made it much more easy financially for me to go to graduate school, and I didn’t enjoy being in the Army. But looking back, I’ve always thought there were real benefits that I got from being in it, but no, being in the Army didn’t have any, as far as I know, it had no effect on my outlook on history.
Nick Hirshon: [00:16:53] All right. And you’re probably best known as the editor of The Media in America, the most widely used media history textbook in the United States, which covers the origins of mass comm from the first printing in America in the 17th century through the colonial press to the contemporary media. Can you explain what inspired you to embark on that project?
David Sloan: [00:17:14] Yes, I’ll be glad to. When I first started teaching media history, I was using the Frank Luther Mott book which had been first published in 1941, then went through some editions. And then he died in 1964 and there were still copies of the book that the publisher had and so they were still available when I started teaching. And then I think eventually the publisher just ran out of copies and so it fell by the wayside because of that. But I remember after the Mott book wasn’t available, I started putting together just an anthology of writings from newspapers throughout American history and used that collection as a textbook for my students.
[00:18:32] And I thought at one time that eventually I would do a book, an anthology of journalism, and I never got around to that until years and years later, but I was dissatisfied with the availability of textbooks – or, I should say, the available textbooks at the time. I thought the problem with textbooks — even Mott’s, which is very thorough — it’s hard for one individual to know enough about media history to be able to write an authoritative account covering three centuries or so. And so I was dissatisfied with what was available and I thought a better textbook could be done than anything that was available at the time, but I knew if I tried to write an entire history myself, the book would have the same problem that other textbooks have, and that is, I just wouldn’t know enough about the entire history to be able to provide an authoritative account, or even a factually accurate account.
[00:20:14] And so I wanted to do a book that was appropriate for undergraduate students, that had a level of expertise behind it that you couldn’t find in other books. And so my approach was to find a published authority to write each chapter and I don’t remember how many chapters were in the first edition of the book, but probably around 20 or so. And I got to thinking, as I was editing that first edition, that if I had — and each author, I would add here, had probably focused on the subject of his or her chapter during the person’s doctoral program and some had written books, and I figured if I had tried to attain that level of expertise that the authors have, I would probably have to spend at least three or four years per chapter just to become knowledgeable enough. And when you do some multiplication, we realize that would be 75 to 80 years of study that you would need to do to be able to develop the knowledge and expertise.
[00:21:58] So, anyway that was my approach. I wanted to have a book that was appropriate for undergraduate students and that would be factually accurate. And yes, show a level of appreciation or understanding of the subject so that the chapters wouldn’t be just collections of names and dates but would actually provide some meaningful explanation.
Nick Hirshon: [00:22:34] And over the years you’ve put out many editions of the book, you’re now on the 10th edition that was published in 2017. You’re sensitive to the fact that media history is ever changing and evolving and you need to keep up with the times. So, I’m curious, in the last few years alone we’ve seen a lot of discussion about the media controversies, especially in the coverage of the 2016 presidential election and the presidency of Donald Trump. So, do you think that you’re gonna have to put out another edition pretty soon, or are you always thinking about what’s happening on the media landscape and how that will inform a new edition?
David Sloan: [00:23:07] Well, the schedule of publication for the book has always been every three years and with each edition, certainly tried to finetune the chapters and then the chapters that cover recent history were up to the present. They’ve always been revised slightly to reflect what has happened in the previous three years.
[00:23:35] Probably the chapter that has been most challenging is the last one, which deals with the news media and the present chapter starts in the year 2000 and then every three years it’s had to be updated. One of the difficult things when you’re dealing with history is that if you’re trying to explain recent history, and in terms of this textbook, the last three years, it’s hard to be able to determine what would be truly historically significant. It’s possible that you get caught up in the issues of the day or the controversies of the day and have a distorted perspective on them.
[00:24:37] And so what typically I have done related to the chapter is that when something seems important that happens, I will usually go online and try to find some number of, really, news reports and occasionally some analysis of a particular episode that has occurred and just collect material like that for three years and then to give some suggestions to the chapter author. Jim McPherson, who is retired from Whitworth University out in Washington, has been the author of that chapter, but I would I usually would tell him, ‘Jim, as we get ready for this, to put this chapter together for the next edition of the book, here’s some ideas.’ And he also would keep up with what was going on and then try to write a clear account and try to not get too caught up in the controversies also as much as possible to keep individual bias out of the chapter. That’s another thing that is difficult with recent history because we’re involved in it. We probably can have stronger views about recent things than we would about something that happened a hundred years ago. And so a real challenge has been to try to give a balanced account, and one that’s fair to all sides. And as the new editions have come out, each edition Jim has gone back and tried to see if the accounts of events or episodes from several years ago the new historical perspective we considered, maybe this wasn’t quite as important as we thought. And so that chapter has been continually changing.
[00:27:11] Nick, I’ll mention to you, on just trying to determine what’s historically important. I will say that back in the year 2000, and this was really when I was writing the chapter, I think I may have written the chapter for the first edition of the book after 2000. But I remember during the presidential election, election night, and the election predictions that night were starting to change in Florida, and there was, I think, CBS or maybe the networks called it early for Gore in Florida and then changed, I thought, my goodness this could be important in the history of the overall broad history of American journalism.
[00:28:19] So, I actually got out a notebook and started making notes at 11:09 p.m. Eastern. But it was almost like keeping a diary. But occasionally you can see things like that that happen and you can sense, I’d say pretty accurately, that this is going to be important. On the other hand, you might think something is important because it is today. And then after a few years, in retrospect, you recognize, well, that was just one of scores and scores and scores of things that happened during that time period and that thing’s not that important anymore.
Nick Hirshon: [00:29:06] Well, again, as you’re watching these last few years develop and the criticisms of the way the news media covered the 2016 election — did they give too much time to, eventually, President Trump? And even now as they’re covering the president, do they focus so much more on his charisma maybe than on the substance of his policies? You’re the editor of this well-regarded, the definitive media history textbook. What do you make of what’s happening to the media today?
David Sloan: [00:29:38] Nick, I’ll try to answer this as diplomatically as I can. As I’ve gotten more and more interested in history, I’ve tried to kind of stay out of what might be controversial today. I make a point, for example, of not talking with anyone outside my family about my political views. I don’t want anyone to know what they are. And part of the reason for that is that I think when we talk about anything, that tends to solidify our view on it. And I don’t like to see historians talking about politics today or posting on Facebook or something like that, because I think we need to try to stay as balanced as we can in the way we view things.
[00:30:59] And if someone had a partisan bias, and the person talks about it, I think that again solidifies that bias. And so to me, I just try to stay away from talking about anything contemporary unless I would say something like I did a while ago when it seems like it might be historically important. Now that said, rather than my saying, ‘Well, I think this or that,’ or how the press is covering Trump, or the way Trump treats the press and so forth. If I tried to approach the subject historically, I would say it’s hard to know how important the press-Trump relationship will be historically, because we tend to think, Well, this is really important, and it is for today. But who knows, a hundred years ago will anyone care? There have been bad relations between journalists and presidents at various times in history. But they certainly don’t seem — those times, those controversies don’t seem as important today, I’m sure, as they did at the time they were happening. So you can see I’m trying here not to take a view.
Nick Hirshon: [00:32:43] No, and I understand, and there is a fine line there and for those of us who started as journalists, we were trained not to take those kinds of points of views, not to publicize our opinions, to remain neutral and objective. I can certainly appreciate where you’re coming from there. You don’t want to muddy the waters and muddy people’s opinions of your work.
David Sloan: [00:33:04] I will say I think a bald way is certainly the journalist or the concept of journalism today does not put as much emphasis on what we called objectivity, which is what I was taught when I was an undergraduate. And this is a trend that we’ve seen for decades. And, you know, this might be a trend that 50 years from now, historians might say, ‘Well, you had the 20th century, which is considered the century of objectivity, and the 21st century.’ We saw a different approach coming to the fore, which is a little, well, more subjective than journalism was so in the ’60s and ’50s and so forth. So, and it could be that the relationship between Trump and journalists may be reflective of that, but some of these things, you just don’t know. You can guess that maybe this will be important. And I guess I would say I hope that I understand it, but maybe I don’t.
Nick Hirshon: [00:34:37] Well, I think you give a very important point there about perspective that we live in times and we always think that this is the critical moment, the juncture in our history from whence everything else comes. And sometimes that’s why you need to have that gap of a few decades to really know how this is going to play out.
David Sloan: [00:34:53] I agree with you.
Nick Hirshon: [00:34:55] So, just to move on to another question that I was thinking about as we start to end our conversation. A lot of media historians talk, maybe nostalgically, about that one project that they’ve always longed to do, like the girl who got away, an idea you never had the time to flesh out years ago, you couldn’t find the sources for, but it’s always remained in the back of your mind: ‘Some day, some day I’ll get this done.’ So, for someone as prestigious as you’ve become, is there anything that William David Sloan has left on the drawing board? Any media history project that you long to sometimes do or maybe you think that some other scholar, you’ll pass on the baton to them for on a certain project that you haven’t been able to do yet?
David Sloan: [00:35:36] Well, I appreciate you mentioning that again. I will have to say that early in my career, once I decided to focus on history, once I had my PhD and I could spend time working on projects, I would say my main interest in history probably would be kind of intellectual. I was interested in ideas, at least in my own research, and what I’d wanted to study, more interested in ideas than I was in picking out a particular episode to write about. When I was working on my PhD, I took some courses in American history and the first course I had really focused on how different historians had interpreted American history. And the particular course I was taking was covering the first 30 years of the 19th century, and I don’t know if that was the reason that I really got interested in just how historians explain history. And so in some ways I would say that has been — if there’s kind of a common thread, I guess you would say, to most of my interest or the work that I’ve done, it would be more a study of the study of history. And many of the books that I’ve done really have been kind of a pedagogical in effect, that I’ve been interested in trying to help students understand how we study history. And so I think I’ve kind of maybe come close to exhausting the subjects that I might have wanted to study about explaining the approaches to history. If I just had a different interest in studying history, I think probably you could take virtually any really important period in journalism history and every one of them I would have found interesting to study.
[00:38:24] But I decided early on that because there were so many ideas that one should do for books I decided to try to do a lot of books and try to get them done quickly, rather than do a few books and spend years and years and years on each one. So, my approach with many of the books was to serve as an editor and lay out the subject and recruit authors for chapters. But if I hadn’t taken that approach, I always had an interest in the penny press. I was interested in the antebellum periods, the Civil War press. I was interested in the period right after the Civil War. I was interested in the age of Pulitzer, Hearst, and new journalism. I was interested in muckraking. And then I was interested kind of in the tabloid newspapers of the early 20th century, so if I had decided not to do a lot of books but I just wanted to take, say, six or seven years on each project, probably those subjects would’ve all interested me.
[00:39:52] But I still would have no interest at all in picking out some obscure individual and writing a biography of the person or in some small localized episode in trying to write a book about it. I probably would have taken on kind of the, I guess you would say, kind of the national topics. But there just there’s so much in history that can be interesting that virtually anything would be enjoyable to research. Now, I will say I’ve been retired now for seven years from teaching and during that time I don’t think I’ve taken on any new project. Mainly I’ve been doing revisions of books. The thing that has been taking a lot of time for me since last spring is a new edition of the book that Jim Startt and I wrote, Historical Research Methods, and so I find working on it interesting. But it’s not a book where I have to go back and start from scratch. And besides the history books that I’ve worked on since I retired, actually, are the media history books. The thing that actually I’ve spent quite a bit of time on a lot in the last probably two or three years is the history of theology. And so I wish I were twenty-five today and I would probably say, ‘Well, here are some major subjects in religion history or church history or theology that I would be interested in spending my time on.’ But I’ll have to say right now I don’t have any plans to start a new book in media history
Nick Hirshon: [00:42:23] After so many years as an author of media history and obviously someone who is ensconced himself in history, have you ever thought about your legacy and what the book would be about your life, how you’d want it written or what sources people would use?
David Sloan: [00:42:36] Well, I’ve never thought about a book about myself. Obviously as you get older you think about, well, ‘How are people going to remember me?’ And if it really gets down, I think more about how my children and grandchildren will remember me than how professors or teachers or historians may remember me.
[00:43:03] And you know I have no idea. What I would hope I have done overall is to kind of make the field of media history better, that I hope I’ve had some effect on people’s appreciation of history. I would hope maybe the standards that they might apply in their own work and what our expectations might be. And you know, Nick, you never know what are the influences on a field. But I can say, we started the American Journalism Historians Association, the AJHA, back in 1982 and before that I would say — like when I was working on my PhD — I don’t imagine most people in our field would even have known what you were talking about if you had mentioned the word present-mindedness. Although there had been some very good historians, there weren’t a lot of ’em at one time but today, well, you know, that there are a lot of people out there who are very good historians and they understand how you research history and what the expectations are and so forth.
[00:44:41] And I’d say the AJHA has had a major impact, and then I would hope that The Media in America may have helped students to understand media history a little bit better. And I would hope that probably the methods book that Jim Startt and I did, I hope that’s helped some. But I’ve enjoyed my life and I can’t really think of things professionally that I would do differently. And I’m one of those people who consider myself very fortunate because I knew what I wanted to be for a career, and that was to be a professor and I got to do it.
[00:45:32] So, I started teaching when I was 26 and I had a career of 38 years in teaching. And it’s just hard to imagine a job that could be more enjoyable than teaching, getting to do what you want essentially.
Nick Hirshon: [00:45:54] Well, you’ve clearly made such an impact on so many people, you are a legend in our industry, a pioneer in mass media history. So, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and best wishes on your next project. We hope to read more from you.
David Sloan: [00:46:08] Thank you, Nick. I appreciate your kind words. I appreciate you taking the time to interview me.
Nick Hirshon: [00:46:13] Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History Podcast. And additional thanks to our sponsor, the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, ‘Good night, and good luck.’