W. Joseph Campbell is a full professor at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He joined the faculty there 25 years ago this month, after completing his PhD in mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At American, Campbell has written seven solo-authored books, including Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (Praeger, 2001) and, most recently, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections (University of California, 2020). His work also has appeared in numerous print and online outlets, including the Baltimore Sun, CNN, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Washington Post. He has appeared several times on C-SPAN to share his research, doing so of late on the cable network’s “Lectures in History” series. Before entering the academy, Campbell was a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Hartford Courant and for the Associated Press in Switzerland, Poland, and West Africa.
When and how did you first become involved in AJHA?
I attended my first AJHA conference in October 1996, while I was working on my PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill. Peggy Blanchard was a UNC professor who encouraged her graduate students to consider submitting seminar papers for prospective presentation at AJHA. And so I did.
I wrote a paper about yellow journalism and the press of West Africa, which was accepted for presentation at the conference that year in London, Ontario. I remember it was a well-planned gathering — a great venue with wonderful meals. The local host, the late David Spencer, did it up right. It was a memorable introduction to AJHA.
You'll be receiving the Eberhard award for your paper on “proto-pack journalism” during the Civil War at the upcoming AJHA convention. What inspired this research? How does it fit into your overall research agenda?
The paper is drawn from an emergent research interest that considers the immediate aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg from differing perspectives, including confused, erroneous, and even bizarre newspaper reporting. One reason this emergent topic is so intriguing is that it differs markedly from my recent book projects, which were about media-driven myths, the lasting importance of the year 1995, and polling failure in U.S. presidential elections.
Until now, I haven’t done much research into aspects of the American Civil War, although during my childhood, I used to visit the Gettysburg battlefield fairly often, on trips to see cousins who lived nearby.
I’m honored to be a recipient — now a two-time recipient — of the Eberhard award. Its namesake, Wally Eberhard, was an AJHA stalwart, a wonderful guy with a twinkle in his eye. He had this enviable knack for offering criticism without making it seem deeply critical or harsh. I miss Wally.
You also are the recipient of a 2022 McKerns Grant. What can you tell us about the research you plan to do with those funds?
I am delighted to be a recipient of a McKerns grant and expect it to help provide dimension and momentum to my aftermath-of-Gettysburg research project that’s in its early stages. I expect to use the funds principally to travel to archival holdings at Columbia University, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Library of Congress.
I received a McKerns grant in 2007, the year it was introduced, and the funds helped me complete research on my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (University of California Press, 2010, 2017).
How has your long career as a professional journalist informed your historical research?
I left the newsroom in 1995 to enter an accelerated PhD program in mass communication at Chapel Hill, which I loved. I never looked back.
Even so, some 20 years as a newspaper and wire service reporter implanted a strong measure of skepticism, especially about politicians of whatever stripe. And that skepticism has certainly informed my historical research, especially into media-driven myths. The exaggerated content of New York’s yellow press fomented armed conflict with Spain in 1898? Walter Cronkite swung public opinion with a single, on-air pronouncement in 1968 about the war in Vietnam? Woodward and Bernstein’s newspaper reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency? I mean, really? Is that how it all happened?
Being suspicious about such well-known, media-centric narratives can be traced to having been a working journalist in the U.S. and abroad.
What are some of your interests and hobbies outside of academia?
I’ve worked portions of five summers out-of-doors with grounds crews in the arboretum that is the main campus of American University.
Closer to home, I like to split firewood and stack it for seasoning. I know that seems uncommonly woodsy for someone living in a close-in suburb of Washington. But there you have it.
The close-in suburb is a self-governing municipality in Maryland, and I sometimes take an outspoken role in local politics. My Dad was active in small-town politics in Pennsylvania when I was growing up, so I inherited that interest. I’m not going to run for local office, though.
I used to do a lot of blogging, mostly to support my books. I don’t have the time to post very often these days. Still, my Media Myth Alert blog is almost 13 years old.