Professor Bender took his JOUR 189H Freedom of Expression students to Washington D.C.
Pictured are Professor John Bender and his JOUR 189H Freedom of Expression students who took a trip to Washington D.C. and got to visit the U.S. Capitol. Teaching this class, which he did every year from 2015 on, was one of his highlights of his time at UNL.

After almost completely switching his career path in college, John Bender, associate dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications, will walk out of Andersen Hall for the final time in August 2022.

“I’m not a native of Nebraska,” Bender said. “I hadn’t spent much time here before I came to take this job, but I’ve really grown to love the state, this university and this college.”

After 32 years of teaching mass media law, news reporting and writing and media history at Nebraska, Bender decided it was time to put away the briefcase and retire. 

Bender described his entire career in three words, “lots of fun.”

Bender is from Kansas City, Mo. where he graduated in 1966 from Southwest High School, which no longer exists. The school was shut down in 2016 due to a population shift.  

During his childhood, Bender was active in his church. He was an acolyte, and one of his favorite things to do was help out with the services. 

“When I first started college, I was actually kind of interested in going into the Episcopal ministry,” Bender said. “But, things change.” 

Bender didn’t always know he wanted to teach.

“By the time I graduated from college, I was more interested in academics,” Bender said. “Initially, I really didn’t have any interest in teaching and had no thoughts of going to graduate school or anything of that nature.”

Bender said a stint in the army during the Vietnam War may have influenced him the most. He was in the first group of people in the draft lottery in November of 1969. The likelihood of being drafted depended on the number assigned to people’s birthdate.

 “Mine was 148, I think,” Bender said. “At that time, they were projecting that the draft would go up to about 190-195, which is why I would be drafted.”

His mother persuaded him to meet with a man who was in an Army Reserve unit in Kansas City, so he could take him down to the reserve center and put his name on the list. By that point, it was just a matter of what letter got to him first.

“I joined the reserves in June of 1970,” Bender said. “It was a few weeks after I got home from college. Having basic training hanging over my head made it difficult to find a job other than working at a pizza parlor, and so I went off to basic training, spent four months– two months of basic and two months of advanced training.”

After that, Bender thought maybe going back to school wouldn’t be so bad. He took some classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he initially decided to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and enroll in the University of Kansas. 

“After a little more than half a semester, I realized I was spending more time reading newspapers or news magazines than I was reading Aristotle or Plato or anything like that,” Bender said. 

So, Bender decided maybe journalism would be a better fit and switched to the journalism school at KU.

Bender received his master’s and worked for a few years in Pittsburg, Kansas, located in the far southeast corner of Kansas, close to the Missouri border. He started as a reporter covering local politics, county government and schools. He later worked his way up to managing editor. 

In 1990, Bender interviewed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

2018 head shot 198x300 - Bender to retire after 32 years
John Bender, associate dean of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“What attracted me was that it was a professionally oriented program, much like KU and much like Missouri,” Bender said. “I was finishing up my Ph.D. at Mizzou when the opening here came up.”

Bender applied to some other schools as well and had a couple of other offers. He had one that was then Northeast Louisiana State, Louisiana State University at Monroe and then another offer from Towson State in Maryland.

“They were pretty good offers, but the opportunity to teach here was the one I thought was the best and actually I didn’t think I would get an offer when I came here,” Bender laughed. “I was one of three Mizzou Ph.D. candidates who came that same day, and I thought of the three, I was the one that was least likely to get an offer, but I guess the interview went well and before I left that day, I was offered the job.”

He said his favorite part about teaching at the journalism school over the years has been the experience and relationships he has built with the students. 

“I have come to find that the students are my fountain of youth,” Bender said. “Working with students has forced me to remain fresh in ways, and I’ve really enjoyed that.”

Bender has taught nearly 8,000 students since coming to Nebraska.

“We have wonderful students here,” Bender said. “The student body is tremendously hard-working, they are very respectful. In 32 years, I never had a disciplinary problem in any class. Never.”

Bender said he has taught several students who stood out over the years. Zach Wendling, current junior journalism and political science major, stood out to Bender as one of the most professional journalism students he has witnessed at the college. Even as a freshman, Bender thought Wendling had a  professional attitude about him and has seen that grow over the years. 

“Dr. Bender has been one of the most knowledgeable and professional professors I have had the privilege of working with at UNL,” Wendling said. “His expertise with the law and his ability to explain complex subjects to students is unmatched, and whether it’s in the morning or afternoon, he knew how to captivate attention and keep you engaged. Dr. Bender pushed me to understand our media industry and ignited a fire to learn as much as I could whenever possible. His impact on UNL is unparalleled, and he will be greatly missed.”

Wendling took the University Honors freshmen seminar with Bender and also Mass Media Law during his junior year. 

“I remember early in his mass media law course when we were learning about legal precedent regarding draft card burning during the Vietnam War,” Wendling said. “He made the lesson relevant by showing us his draft card and explaining the sentiment about the time and making it personal. Part of the lesson included talking about people screaming, ‘Fuck the draft!’ And to hear a professor say that — from the view of protestors and not his own — really keeps you engaged. That moment still gives me chills because Dr. Bender’s passion for journalism and the media is evident at all times.”

Bender’s favorite class that he has taught during his time at Nebraska has been mass media law. 

“The issues, the cases, it’s all so fascinating,” Bender said. “It’s so important for students to know. I kind of got interested in it because when I was managing editor, our newspaper had three or four libel suits from previous editors.”

Bender has left his mark at the college. He has earned several honors and awards, served on committees, was promoted to full professor in the spring of 2009 and then later promoted to associate dean and professor of journalism in 2020. 

Bender is also the lead author of “Writing & Reporting for the Media,” one of the best-selling college textbooks on news reporting and writing. The 12th edition of the book was published by Oxford University Press in the fall of 2018. He is also the author of “Law for Media Professionals,” an electronic textbook for undergraduate media law students, which was published in 2018 by Great River Learning.

“It’s been a great accomplishment to keep this going and keep it something that continues to be respected and popular among journalism teachers across the country,” Bender said.

He also has written papers on libel law, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gannett v. DePasquale decisions in 1979 and state laws on access to public records. He is currently working on a book about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on media access to criminal proceedings, which he wishes to continue even after he retires.

His teaching and research areas include news reporting and writing, mass media law, media history and controls of information. Also, for nearly 16 years, he was executive director of the Nebraska High School Press Association. He is currently the secretary of the Nebraska state convention of the Association of American University Professors.

In 2007, Bender received the College Distinguished Teaching Award. In 2011, he received the James A. Lake Academic Freedom Award for his work in promoting academic freedom in high school journalism programs, his teaching and his involvement in faculty governance at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

In 1994, Bender assisted high school journalism teachers in proposing the Student Freedom of Expression bill that was introduced in the Nebraska Legislature. He helped draft the bill, solicited support from other organizations and testified in support of the bill at a hearing before the Education Committee. 

The bill was not passed out of the committee and has been introduced numerous times since then. Still has not passed. A similar measure was reintroduced in the 1995 session of the Legislature. Bender organized the presentation of testimony on behalf of the bill at a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

He also received phone calls from journalists and citizens around Nebraska who have questions about the state’s public meetings and public records laws or about media law issues in general.

Bender has served on several committees at the University. He served on the Search Committee for Journalism Dean and Faculty, Academic Planning Committee, Academic Rights and Responsibilities Committee, Faculty/Academic Senate, Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska, University Curriculum Committee, Student Publications Board, University Convocations Committee and was the CoJMC representative for the University Marshals Corps.

In the last three decades that Bender has been a member of the CoJMC family, the journalism industry has changed greatly. He has seen the way that news has switched from a physical paper with ink that landed on your doorstep every morning to fully online and social media platforms.

“The thing that bothers me is what is out there on the web, it is kind of mixed with all of this junk, and it’s easy to ignore it and overlook it, whereas something that lands on your doorstep in the morning in a physical form and you pick up and you hold,” Bender said. 

“It’s a lot harder to ignore that and I think we’re already at a point where people are lacking the information they need to make good decisions about how we should be governing, and that’s the central premise of a democracy – the people are well enough informed to make decisions for self-government. If they don’t have the information, then this is all going to collapse. We are not going to be a democracy; we are not going to have freedom.”

Bender has seen several newspapers consolidate and switch to a smaller staff or even go out of business, however, he has also seen the industry grow and develop into several different avenues and opportunities. 

“When you think about law, or you think about medicine, you don’t go to doctors who do everything or surgeons, you have specialties,” Bender said. “It’s because they’re specialized and that’s why you go to them. If you think about journalism as a career, you really need to have some sense that ‘OK maybe your first job you can do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but as you grow in your professions and your business, you grow and specialize.”

The whole journalism industry is flattening out. There are fewer people working at news organizations and they are having to do more and more different things. A lot of news organizations have abandoned copy editors and a copy desk, and it shows. That diminishes the credibility of what you put out, Bender said. 

“In some ways, it is a little disturbing,” Bender said. “I blame not the college or the faculty, but more the pressure they’re getting from employers or from news organizations to get people who can get everything, and it’s hard to be a real professional if you’re doing everything.”

Alongside finishing his textbook, Bender is thinking about starting a blog and traveling with his wife after he retires.

“I don’t have any firm plans,” Bender said. “My wife and I have talked about traveling and going to Ireland and Italy. We’ve been to other places, England, Scotland, France, Netherlands, but we thought Ireland and Italy would be fun. We won’t do that right away, maybe next spring or fall.”

Amidst his travel plans, Bender also plans to stay in Lincoln after his retirement. 

Bender was an inspiration to the faculty and admired by the students. His dedication and passion for the college have helped it grow tremendously over the last 32 years, and his colleagues said he will be greatly missed.