Working with Oral Sources in media history: A personal view

Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California (USC)

15 July 2019


The IAMHIST Blog to date has considered issues around study in specific archives and particular kinds of media evidence.  This post concerns a different kind of evidence which I’ve found to be simultaneously the most rewarding even as it is also the most fragile and fallible: oral sources.  This post is not offered as a how-to manual but rather as a frank other-view of my experience, allowing me to reflect on my own practice and share some of the things I’ve learned since first including the method in my research work in 1985.  I do not restrict myself to oral sources.  My research in media history has used oral sources together with written archives and the usual audio visual materials of our field as part of a multifaceted approach.

For me, as I expect for most people, oral sources were my first source.  As a child I was drawn to history through long conversations about the past with my parents and grandparents which often revealed a fascinating divergence from the received wisdom of mainstream media.  At secondary school I did a short media history project on the social history of cinema going in the locality where I grew up, mixing material from documents with interviews.  As an undergraduate in International History at University of Leeds it seemed logical to use a similar approach for my bachelor’s dissertation, which examined the career of Lord Halifax as the Churchill government’s wartime ambassador to Washington DC.  My undergraduate supervisor – diplomatic historian David Dilks – was a particular enthusiast for the value and ‘fun’ of engaging directly with survivors of Whitehall.  I started by comparing Who’s Who and the old diplomatic list and mailing the remaining diplomats from the embassy, forty years on from their service.  To my surprise found a number of people still alive and both willing and able to speak about their services.  The experience was wholly positive.  I found the cross generational dynamic between a much older person and a young scholar to be a natural once which was conducive not only to a frank recollection and helpful direction but also to further study.  My interviewees always recommended further people or further written sources to help.  Memorable witnesses at this stage included the great philosopher (and wartime opinion analyst) Sir Isaiah Berlin and the retired head of the British Foreign Office, Lord Inchyra.  That experience established oral sources as part of my standard way of operating.  It was central to my PhD thesis, first book, and all subsequent projects.  Over the years I’ve done interviews with a rich galaxy of sources including diplomats, filmmakers, journalists, politicians, soldiers and spies, in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa and points between to build up a picture of what would now be called public diplomacy in action.

Even when the center of gravity of a project is archival I have learned that it is worth pursuing contact with survivors of the period or events.  The different kinds of sources support each other.  The archives direct me to interesting people and some of my most helpful written sources were obtained as a result of interviews.  Every now and again an interviewee pulled out a dusty old suitcase and produced their late husband’s diary or a sheaf of photographs; regularly an interviewee alluded to a newspaper story, film or other source they considered influential and worth examining.  The process of repeating my ideas about the story in question and running them multiple survivors becomes an almost imperceptible process of honing and polishing, with each idea becoming like a pebble rubbed smooth through circulation in wave upon wave, hour upon hour of conversation.

I found that it is important not to prejudge who will be useful and who will not.  One of my most important witnesses for my PhD work was Janet Murrow, widow of the legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow who was introduced to me by the veteran BBC broadcaster Leonard Miall.  Some historians would have considered her perspective on media coverage of the London Blitz to be a low priority but not only did she offer a unique view of journalists’ living conditions during the Blitz, and the day to day stresses of that time, she proved to be a person of undiminished authority within the network of surviving Murrow-era journalists who was happy to allow me to use her name in writing to some half dozen of her husband’s colleagues including such legends in their own right as Walter Cronkite, who all proved happy to help too.  I owe her much.

In the process of integrating oral sources into my work I have certainly had to learn the limits of oral testimony. It was of greatest value not as a substitute for written or audio visual sources but as a supplement to it.  It provided an added dimension: adding color to a picture or perhaps flesh to a skeleton.  When researching a workplace like the British Information Services office in New York or the National Film Board of Canada it certainly helped to have insight into the relationships within that environment.  Who was hated; who was loved; what morale was (or recalled as being) at a particular moment or during the creation of a particular media text.   It was always especially fascinating to learn of the humdrum realities behind a choice in a propaganda documentary that I’d assumed to be aesthetic or artistic.  Sometimes the United States Information Agency (USIA) shot a documentary film in black and white because they didn’t have a budget for color.

I discovered sometimes the oral source up-turned the meaning of a document or audio-visual text.  I was fascinated, for example, by a story I’d seen in the March of Time newsreel about an apparently anti-war organization launched in 1936 by Princeton University students called ‘Veterans of Future Wars’.  When based on campus as a visiting fellow in 1989 I managed to track down a founder member, but his account of the organization was not what I expected.  I had understood that the group members were motivated by pacifism, ironically demanding war bonuses while they were still alive to enjoy them.  His account – in contrast — emphasized the way in which the group was not so much protesting the next war from a position of its future victims as much as mocking the survivors of the former war (who had in 1935 demanded early payment of the promised war bonus scheduled for 1945) as representatives of a privileged elite who were stuck with the bill.  The student’s salute was an ‘itchy palm’ outstretched in the direction of DC appealing for taxpayer money.  Even more cynically the prompt for creating the movement was not simply a prank or satire but to create a story on campus so that the stringer for the New York Times could earn a few extra bucks after a slow semester.  The same newsreel clip – and student politics in the ‘ivy league’ — suddenly looked very different.

My interviews have tended to follow a fairly lose format.  A lot of work is done in the letter requesting the interview.  This letter (or in recent years email) should succinctly communicate the nature of the project, one’s home institution and clearly reference either the person who suggested contacting them or the mechanism by which you obtained their name.  It is a little creepy for a recipient to be guessing how you came to contact them or what your purpose might be.

My next stage is then to prepare by reading or viewing as much as I can about the interviewee so I am familiar at a minimum with any memoir they might have written, with their artistic output or with major interviews about the subject.  This helps me to ensure that I am informed and am steering the interviewee to fresh territory rather than just dropping a coin in the slot to hear a much rehearsed story told one more time.  It can be a nerve-racking process.  I have a recurring nightmare in which I realize I forgot that Sir Winston Churchill was still alive and am due to meet him without having prepared properly.  I wake in a cold sweat from that one!  If something comes up which you don’t understand or recognize, perhaps a technical term or a name, it is fine to stop or double back to that point to clarify.  It can help the interviewee to match their account to your understanding of the event or the place or process in which they were involved.  I am a great believer in the power of a follow up request for detail to help the interviewee unlock further levels of recollection.  I once asked the deputy director of USIA what he was eating for breakfast when a journalist friend leaked news to him of the up-coming Bay of Pigs invasion.  I wish I’d asked the African-American public diplomat John Twitty exact which spirituals he’d sung in Nigeria when an audience demanded a musical prelude to his planned lecture on the Apollo space program.

I have found that it is helpful to agree at the outset how long the interview will be, so I don’t feel compelled to hurry towards a soundbite to justify the train fare.  I also think it helps to establish whether or not you hope to quote the person, which is to say, are they ‘on the record,’ ‘on background’ or on ‘deep background’.   If ‘on the record’ everything can be quoted, if ‘on background’ the substance can be quoted but not attributed and on ‘deep background’ neither quoted or attributed but it can be acted on in looking for further sources.  A good off the record tip can guide future research and sometimes be proven by archive material without any mention of the help that go the scholar to that point.

My first step is always to explain exactly what my project is as succinctly as possible.  If someone has agreed to be interviewed they generally want to help you and explaining the nature of your interest will promote efficient communication and avoid a practiced or generic response.  I find it helpful to have a skeleton script of what I want to know, sometimes asking about broad issues like turning points, sometimes specific people, places or events.  Like many interviewers I sometimes find that it helps to ask about something commonplace, like a work place or location rather than jumping in with a big historical conundrum or controversy.

Some of my interlocutors have been more comfortable talking over food.  A number have smoked throughout our conversation.  Trust me – if the likes of Pik Botha asks you if you mind if they smoke, the answer is ‘feel free…’ Drinks have most often come at the end and are doubtless a seal on the feeling of ‘being on the same page’ with the events in question.

My style as an interviewer is to create a space for testimony rather than badger my interlocutors.  I would ask ‘help me understand how…’ rather than ‘how can you justify…’  An interviewer dealing with controversial matters like crime or prejudice will have to come to their own position on allowing their own judgement to be known.  For my part I have looked for areas of shared experience or outlook to build rapport with a subject early on and held back issues likely to be divisive or controversial till later in the interview lest they prematurely end things.  I have found it useful to guide witnesses away from stories that they have told a hundred times before.  Interviewing Alger Hiss, convicted of perjury for denying that he spied for the Soviet Union, I got very interesting material by asking him his opinion on cases OTHER than his own.  I began that conversation by saying quite honestly I was convinced of his innocence, but by the end of our talk he had told me enough to convince me that that if he hadn’t actually spied for Moscow he certainly believed that that would be the morally justifiable course to take.  I have found it rare that interviewees ask me point blank what I think of an incident or personality to which they were connected and have never felt it wise or necessary to lie.  That said, I have sometimes chosen my words carefully.   When an old anti-Communist witch-hunter asked me point blank what I thought about Senator Joseph McCarthy I thought it wise to answer tactfully that anti-Communism was too important an issue to be trusted to a person like that.

When I began interviewing in 1985 an early witness asked me not to bring a recording device and so I for some years I only took notes in long-hand, pausing and drawing attention to my writing from time to time to confirm a thought or statement.  I’ve found that the best interviews develop as a kind of co-creation where the interviewer is checking back that they have understood correctly, sometimes agreeing at that moment what a final quote or sound bite might be.   I would type up an account of the interview at the end of each day, which extra impressions about manner or environment or exact words used were fresh in my mind.   From 1995 or so I would bring a tape recorder to all interviews with senior figures.  Now I bring a digital recorder to everything.  I never use only a recorder just in case the device fails.  I have never attempted to film an interview as I think this adds another level of concern or self-consciousness for the interviewee.  I have found that sometimes in mid-interview a subject might ask me to turn off the recorder for a particularly sensitive part of the interview or conversely ask me to stop taking notes.  I am happy to oblige.  Strangely perhaps, I have never been asked to cease both.

I have found that using the same skeleton structure of questions with multiple witnesses can bring interesting results, allowing directly comparative answers that can clearly point up the ways in which individual perspective is subjective and memory is partial.  I’ve found asking witnesses to identify a turning point in a historical process to be an especially fertile avenue.  It can be fascinating to note the informal methods used to fix a date in a stream of recollections: ‘that would be around the time that X happened’ or ‘soon after Y happened.’  In fact, the use of a particular event in fixing the date has served as an excellent indicator of the salience of the event, which is of its own value.

Thinking about media history specifically I’ve found it helpful to speak to technicians ‘in the trenches’ as well as star ‘auteurs’.  Documentary film makers and radio journalists have proven especially helpful in part because they haven’t had the same exposure to scholars as fiction film makers or TV journalists.  Interviews with fiction film makers have been some of the most jaded and least revealing.  They have been asked it all before.  It is, however, an amazing experience to ask a question of an artist which is wholly new and unexpected to them and which triggers a moment of self-revelation or a new insight on their part.    Sometimes showing a filmmaker one of the documents you’ve found can be a revelation to them.  The great American government filmmaker Bruce Herschensohn was stunned when I showed him a letter Jackie Kennedy had written in the days following her husband’s murder in which she mentioned that she and the President’s father had viewed Herschensohn’s films in order to feel close to JFK once more.  It seemed all the more appropriate that Herschensohn had been commissioned by USIA to create the president’s official obituary film.

My dealings with sources are not always limited to an hour.  The experience of sharing an interest in a historical moment or experience can be powerful and some witnesses have initiated multiple visits and many conversations and become genuine friends.  To be honest, I have sometimes been criticized for becoming too friendly with my sources.  The criticism has some merit.  One can easily take on the prejudice or institutional perspective of ones sources, written or oral, even without realizing it.  When working on the history of Voice of America radio I was introduced to a succession of veterans of the service who styled themselves the ROMEOs (an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out).  I found an easy rapport with them and knew my interest in their careers provided a welcome external validation.   In this process I missed the extent to which the network was essentially masculine and skewed my account of VOA away from a female experience.  This was a significant omission given that the Voice was cited in a massive anti-discrimination class action law suit called the Hartman case.  My ultimate take-away from this is that a researcher must consider how exhilarating the process of being passed from one interviewee to another can skew perspective, and maybe seek additional witnesses as a corrective.  Yet the most carefully constructed interview program can be skewed.  Ultimately we will always need others to identify our biases for us and the corrective may not come from a supervisor or a peer reviewer but from a critic of the published text.  Ouch.  Despite the danger of human contact skewing the work, I feel that can happen with any set of sources.  As with the stock market it pays to have a diverse portfolio!  I have found my emphasis on oral work has helped me to remain aware of the subjective nature of my research and the way in which scholars are, like the oral sources, mortal prisoners of a flow of time.  Knowing that my sources will not last forever has at some points given my work an urgency that an exclusively archive-based project would not have had.  Needless to say the eventual loss of witnesses is a sad reality of the work – some deaths have been considerable blows — but one feels a sense of pride when one was part of their leaving something more of their story behind.

If you are going to bring oral sources into your work it is important to check your institution’s ground rules.  Some regard oral sources as a form of ‘human subject’ work and require formal preparations and legal disclaimers for participants.  Others have no formal requirements.  It is important to ensure you are in compliance.  Some publishers – including one of my own, Palgrave – will only allow an oral source to be quoted if they have a waiver signed by that source.  This can cause problems if the source has died since the interview, which is not uncommon when one is interviewing people because of their historical value who necessarily are much nearer their end than their beginning.  In one case I was able to get round the problem only by using the quote in a blog post and then citing the blog as my source rather than the interview.

One final rule I have is always to make a point of writing to thank my interlocutors.  It helps for them to know that their time has been appreciated and I would hate to think that my neglect closed them off as a source for future historians.


Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is president of IAMHIST.  His archive-based study of Meader’s First Family  and the White House reaction appeared as ‘No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy Administration and Presidential Impersonation on the radio’ The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 3, August 1997, pp. 383-400


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