CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558
STANFORD -- William L. Rivers, a researcher and prolific writer on the media, died Sunday, May 26, in Jacksonville, Fla. He was 71.
Rivers, a professor emeritus at Stanford who began his journalism career in high school, wrote 29 books, including textbooks for journalism students and critiques of the mass media and its role in society.
Among his books are The Mass Media, a 1964 textbook on reporting, writing and editing that was the first of several widely used journalism textbooks he wrote, and The Opinionmakers, a 1965 study that was one of the first analyses of the modern relationship between the media and the government. The latter won the 1966 Sigma Delta Chi award for research excellence.
Rivers was "extremely creative" as a teacher and researcher, according to another prominent media critic, Ben Bagdikian, now a professor emeritus of the University of California-Berkeley. In a Spring 1983 profile of Rivers in the California journalism review, feed/back, Bagdikian said that Rivers "always understood the fundamental things, and he had good values and high standards of journalism. Many of his students are now prominent in media, and his volume of work is highly respected."
Acquaintances say the second half of Rivers' life was shaped partly by serious illness that made him both more stoic and appreciative of humor. He began to teach courses on humor and, in his manuscript, "Humor Me, Death," he wrote that humor, in many forms, had allowed him to survive "four round-trip journeys to death."
Rivers died at the home of his sister, Margaret Sharp. Despite repeated strokes and illnesses, he was still writing until a month before his death, one of his daughters said.
Rivers' research on the mass media included analysis in the late 1960s of the media's role in race riots and of eroding public confidence in the news media in the 1970s. He strongly advocated a national news council with some non-journalist members to help restore confidence. His 1982 book, The Other Government: Power and the Washington Media, focused on the inside workings of the Washington news media, attempting to make the case that its practitioners had assumed the role and power of a second government.
A popular teacher to several generations of Stanford undergraduates, Rivers was rated highly in student evaluations for giving each writing assignment a detailed, written critique, a level of commitment that students said was both unusual and invaluable to their development as writers. He retired from teaching in 1988, but returned to teach and retired again in 1994.
Rivers also was well known on campus for his sharp poker playing, his competitive volleyball play, his wildly cluttered desk and for the intensity with which he lived and worked.
He sometimes wrote several books in a year and maintained his role as a magazine reporter and reviewer and as an elections analyst after making teaching his primary career. He wrote fiction in his spare time.
Communication Professor Henry Breitrose once told the Stanford Daily student newspaper that "Bill Rivers is out of his mind in the nicest sort of way. All of us who teach here try to work as hard as every student in a class, but Bill is the only one I know that works as hard as all the students put together."
Lyle Nelson, Rivers' department chair, told of the time, following one of Rivers' illnesses that he insisted that Rivers' class be limited to 30 people. Rivers turned in 57 class cards to the department.
"What's going on, Bill?" Nelson recalled asking.
"Well, I stuck to your limit except for hardship cases," Rivers replied. "Amazing how many hardship cases there are." The actual enrollment, Nelson said, turned out to be 82.
Rivers was born March 17, 1925, in Gainesville, Fla. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific from 1943 to 1946 and then took a job as an announcer and news writer for a Baton Rouge, La., radio station. He became a reporter and editorial writer for several Louisiana newspapers, the Florida correspondent for the Kiplinger Letters, and in 1960, the Washington correspondent for a magazine called The Reporter. He also served as an election analyst for network news and wire services and wrote numerous stories for national magazines. Along the way, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Louisiana State University and a doctorate in political science from American University.
He taught writing and journalism at Louisiana State, the University of Miami and the University of Texas before joining the faculty of the Stanford Department of Communication in 1962. He was named to an endowed chair 10 years later and received the Walter J. Gores university award for excellent teaching in 1975. In a 1972 survey of journalism school administrators by Syracuse University, Rivers was ranked the second most outstanding newspaper researcher and among the top 10 newspaper teachers in the nation. In 1982, he was one of the first eight alumni to be inducted into LSU's Alumni Hall of Distinction.
Rivers is survived by his mother, Minnie Rivers, and sister, Margaret Sharp, of Jacksonville; brother, Luke, of Gainesville; daughters Marianne Rivers of Santa Cruz, Ca., and Gail Schnitzler of Wilton, Conn.; and by four grandchildren. His wife, Sarah, died in 1983.
Arrangements are pending for a memorial service to be held on campus some time this summer.
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