Cleve Wilhoit · 2015
G. Cleveland Wilhoit, a nationally recognized journalism researcher and professor at Indiana University for 36 years, was recently described by one of his close colleagues and friends as having “gained a reputation for absolute devotion to his students while challenging at the same time their thinking about journalism’s purpose and ethics.
“There is no doubt that Cleve Wilhoit has been one of the most caring, rigorous and effective teachers of journalism in the history of Indiana University’s School of Journalism,” said David Weaver, who was Wilhoit’s decades-long colleague and collaborator at IU. “He has made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many journalism students, and he richly deserves to be honored as one of the members of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.”
Weaver, a 2012 inductee into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame himself, should know. Wilhoit was Weaver’s mentor at Indiana University and the two collaborated on three highly successful and influential books, The American Journalist (1986), The American Journalist in the 1990s and The American Journalist in the 21stCentury. Each volume won the national Sigma Delta Chi Research About Journalism award.
Weaver and Wilhoit first met in 1967 when Weaver was beginning his senior year as an undergraduate student in journalism at IU. Wilhoit had just arrived as the first graduate of the University of North Carolina’s Ph.D. program in mass communication research.
“He was teaching a class called Public Opinion, and it seemed like a good chance to learn something about a subject that most journalists talked about but didn’t understand very well,” Weaver recalled.
In completing the class and its investigative components, “I and others discovered a whole new world of social science research that changed our ideas about journalism and public opinion,” Weaver said, “and that eventually led to graduate school and academic careers for some of us.”
Wilhoit was among the first doctorally trained scholar-teachers hired in the IU Department of Journalism in the College of Arts and Sciences on the Bloomington campus.
In recalling Wilhoit’s first decade at the school, former IU journalism dean Trevor Brown noted that Wilhoit helped to dispel the perception of the day that the IU Department of Journalism existed at that time only as a “trade school,” and its faculty cared little about serious academic research.
“Even as journalism’s status rose by becoming a school within the College in 1974, the bias against journalism as a trade persisted,” Brown said. “Led by Cleve as a gifted and passionate teacher of courses about the history, theory, practice and effects – and particularly about the responsibility and ethics of the press – the journalism curriculum at Indiana University was regarded nationally as a model in balancing instruction in skills with instruction in understanding the press….”
At that time, Brown noted, the college leadership at IU disdained to an extent the scholarship and publication of the journalism faculty. “To some extent, the profession was complicit in this disdain,” Brown said, “dismissing scholarship on journalism as irrelevant and esoteric, of interest only to pointy heads.
“Yet what distinguished Cleve’s research was precisely its professional usefulness. In 1980, he co-authored Newsroom Guide to the Polls & Surveys, published by the American Newspaper Publishers Association,” Brown said. “It was recognized immediately as an invaluable resource in newsrooms around the country.”
And, the three books that Wilhoit co-authored with Weaver tracking the evolution of the American journalist have provided insightful information for nearly 30 years now.
“Each is a standard reference in and out of the profession on the state and status of journalism and journalists in the United States,” Brown said. “Scholars in other countries, many of them doctoral proteges of Wilhoit and Weaver, have adapted the comprehensive survey and analysis for the study of journalists abroad.”
But while Wilhoit has been recognized nationally and internationally for his works of research, students also remember his dedication to teaching. In his 36 years on the IU journalism faculty, Wilhoit taught students across the curriculum – from freshmen in the introductory course to graduating seniors in the media ethics and responsibilities class. He taught generations of masters and doctoral students. He directed 14 Ph.D. dissertations and many more M.A. theses.
“He was exacting and even loving about the process,” reminisced former student Bonnie J. Brownlee, who rose to the position of senior associate dean in the IU School of Journalism. “He wanted – he demanded – the best any of his students could produce.
“Cleve was about critical thinking, as we might call it today. He assigned readings and assignments that got his students to analyze and understand the role of journalism in society, the effects messages have on audiences, the ways in which the business of journalism works, the gnawing ethical decisions media professionals are required to make. Cleve was also way ahead of his time in recognizing the role educators should play in promoting women and encouraging them to compete in areas they might not immediately see as options.”
Paul C. Tash, a former student of Wilhoit’s and himself a member of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, agrees with Brownlee’s assessment of Wilhoit’s importance in the classroom.
“As a professor, Cleve brought very high standards to his classes, but he supported his students with a generous and encouraging style,” Tash said. “He gave us respect long before we had earned it, so we aspired to be worthy of it. At some point, I came to see myself as his peer, but that was years after my professor granted me such lofty status.”
Wilhoit’s preeminence as a teacher was not merely recognized by his students in journalism. He became known as one of the best undergraduate teachers on the IU campus. He won a number of awards relating to teaching, including Sigma Delta Chi’s Brown Derby, a campus-wide teaching honor in 1986; the Student Alumni Association’s Student Choice Award for Outstanding Faculty in 1991 and 1998; and the School of Journalism’s Gretchen Kemp Teaching Fellowship in 1997. In 1998, Wilhoit was named by alumni who had been leaders in IU student government as one of 10 professors who had a “lasting impact.”
Wilhoit retired from IU in 2003 and continues to live in Bloomington.
By Terry English, attorney