Telling Nebraska’s War Hero Stories: Brought to You by Tenure

An interview with Barney McCoy, UNL Broadcast Journalism professor. This post is part of our series, Brought to You by Tenure.

In previous posts, we highlighted important contributions faculty members in chemistry and civil and environmental engineering are making in Nebraska and around the world. Scientists and engineers are not the only ones having a profound impact; other UNL faculty members are making meaningful contributions to the lives of folks across the state.

Barney McCoy, a UNL Broadcast Journalism professor, is one of those faculty members. After working 27 years as a professional journalist, McCoy has spent the past 18 years teaching the next generation of journalists. He also produces documentary films that bring to life the historic contributions of Nebraskans in World Wars I, II and the Vietnam War. McCoy said his documentaries entertain, inform and help shape our collective understanding of the world – and his passion for bringing history alive is possible because of tenure. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for length and focus.

Niehaus: So tell me a bit about yourself. How long have you been at UNL, and what brought you here?

McCoy: I came to UNL 18 years ago after working full-time in broadcast journalism for 27 years. A big draw in coming here was the chance to focus on some bigger, longer-term projects and engage in more teaching, which I love. As a reporter, you are devoted to covering the news daily, so coming to UNL gave me the opportunity to do scholarly work that would have been impossible while working as a professional journalist.

Niehaus: Can you tell me a bit about those bigger, long-term projects you wanted to be able to engage in as a professor?

McCoy: Currently I’m wrapping up a 5-year project producing a one-hour documentary called “Running Towards the Fire – A War Correspondent’s Story.” It will broadcast statewide in May on Nebraska Public Media television. The documentary examines the significant role war correspondents played in World War II. It has been interesting to bring that important part of our nation’s history back into focus again, and more specifically, to illustrate with old films, photos, recordings and letters the vital role war correspondents played covering World War II in Europe.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, was a huge proponent for war correspondents. He believed it was important to give them access, to allow them to be embedded with our troops at every opportunity. Eisenhower felt it was good for the soldiers, who knew that they were not being ignored and forgotten as they were sacrificing for their country. Eisenhower also understood it was an important way to let the folks back home in America know what was happening in the war and why it was important for America to be fighting the war against Nazism.

The main character in the documentary is Robert Reuben who was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He was the first war correspondent to land in France and went through U.S. Army Airborne Jump School so he could parachute into Normandy five hours before the Allies D-Day invasion in 1944. Sadly, Reuben died from cancer in 1964, but I was fortunate to discover his unpublished 393-page memoir that details his firsthand experiences as a correspondent covering the war.

I produced a documentary in 2018 that looked at another important Nebraskan and historical figure, General John J. Pershing – who also has a connection to the University of Nebraska. We examined his role as a commander in World War I and how he and U.S. troops helped the Allies win that war.

Niehaus: Why do you think these are such important stories to tell?

McCoy: There is so much value in bringing history back, being able to preserve it. We say this a lot as professors, but it is true that history does tend to repeat itself. There are so many important lessons to learn by studying history. Documentaries like this are a wonderful way for us to be able to look and learn from what has happened in the past so we can be more successful in the decisions we make in our own lives. We can also avoid some of the terrible mistakes that have been made throughout history.

When we broadcast “Running Towards the Fire – A War Correspondent’s Story,” and make it available for on-demand streaming on PBS, I will have the opportunity to screen it at other venues across Nebraska and the U.S.  The documentary’s premiere screening will be held May 1st at UNL’s Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. We expect to have 200 people watching the film at the Ross with a director’s Q&A audience discussion afterwards. I really relish that. I love to hear the audience’s thoughts and questions after they watch my documentaries.

Projects like this help us to continue to teach history to Nebraskans and other Americans that many never knew existed before, which is exciting. It leaves me as a professor with a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction that I’m doing the right thing by preserving and contributing something important to our state.

Niehaus: How has tenured played a role in your ability to do these projects?

McCoy: It is just the sheer amount of time it takes to work on these projects. I have made several trips to the History Nebraska Archives, The Library of Congress, The National Archives and Records Administration, The Jesuit Archives in St. Louis, and Presidio in San Francisco. We did interviews with historians across the country. I reviewed thousands of photographs, films and documents, spending thousands of hours rendering them for use in our documentaries. It just takes a tremendous amount of time to research, interview, digest, and let all that information sink in. In this process we find historic materials that have never been revealed before. That really brings history alive again.

I have made a couple of critical discoveries in archival materials that had never been examined before. Those discoveries really bring the puzzle pieces together. I’ll give you an example. In Robert Reuben’s memoirs, he described how he got the idea to go through airborne training so that he could parachute into Normandy. It happened while Reuben was reporting on a U.S. Army Airborne parachute demonstration at a British airfield months before D-Day. Thousands of airborne soldiers were parachuting down in the demonstration for General Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In my archival research, I found film of that demonstration day. As I watched the 80-year-old film, there was Robert Reuben, walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Churchill.  

So here you have this guy – war correspondent Robert Reuben – on film and it brings him to life. He is no longer abstract; there’s Reuben in the flesh and blood. Using that scene in my documentary gives us a better understanding of how human emotion and behavior are ongoing. The audience can see a more relatable and important part of our history. Had I not had the time to dig in and look for this material – to go down those rabbit holes of history and focus on these areas – it would be impossible for me to do film projects like this.

I have a good friend, Chris Donahue. He’s an Academy Award-winning documentary producer. When I first started working on documentaries, I asked Donahue’s advice. “I can’t tell you how many people start a project because they think they have a really good idea,” said Donahue. “But when they discover how difficult it is to get funding, the materials and learn how much time it takes to produce a documentary, they abandon their dream projects. My advice? Just finish the damned thing,” said Donahue. So, I live by Donahue’s words. You really do have to grind it out and finish “the damned thing.” 

Niehaus: How is working as a tenured professor different from working as a journalist?

McCoy: If I were working as a professional journalist, as I did for decades, the day-to-day demand of covering the news would make projects like this impossible. Being a tenured professor allows me to do deep research dives, to maintain a critical focus, and to work with a dedicated creative support team that long-term documentary projects must have to succeed. Tenure gives you a long-term mindset.

I should say my accountability as a professor is as high or higher as it was when I was a full-time journalist. Faculty regularly document productivity and deliver tangible excellence.  To earn tenure and years later be promoted to full professor requires multi-level evaluations. I meet annually with our dean and associate dean. They review my student evaluations that rate my teaching effectiveness every semester. The dean and associate dean examine my community, state, and professional service activities. We review and discuss my research and creative activities too. If I fall short of expectations in any of these areas, I know my UNL days could be over unless I take corrective action and show noticeable improvement. We strive to be excellent teachers in who help our students succeed in the classroom. We perform quality research and creative activity. We participate in service activities that benefit our professions, our state, community, and beyond.

Most of my career was spent working as a professional journalist. For the past 18 years, I have been privileged to work at UNL. I find the consistency and collegiality is better here. For our students, for Nebraska, and faculty like me, that continues to be a good thing.