HOW THE NEWS MEDIA HAVE SHAPED AMERICAN HISTORY
Instructor: Jeffrey A. Perlman, lecturer
Textbooks: Sloan, The Media in America: A History (2014), Ninth Edition
Streitmatter, Mightier Than The Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History (2012), Third Edition
Contact Info: 562-985-5361 (no messages); e-mail is
Office Hours: 2:30 pm to 3:30 pm Monday and Wednesday, or by appointment
Class Time: 3:30 pm to 4:45 pm Monday and Wednesday
(Adapted From Dr. Christopher Burnett’s syllabus from Fall, 2014)
We’ll learn the importance of mass communication to America’s past and future. Also, we’ll tackle the purpose and nature of history and gain a deeper appreciation of the rigorous thinking and work practices required in research in mass communication. The field of media history changes because society changes, and over the years people of all races, ethnicities, physical disabilities, sexuality, and sexual orientation have played a role in shaping media content. We’ll touch on technology’s impact. But we will focus on how media content changes as result of the background and experiences of participants.
Also, we’ll focus on the 20th century, a time of rapid technological and social change. Those changes had an impact that reverberates today, well into the second decade of the 21st century. This is a seminar, with a mix of lectures and discussion. You are a vital participant! The overall theme of the class, as indicated by the title, is to examine how the news media have shaped American history and how the media can perpetuate “myths” about certain issues. You’ll examine how you react to these changes, and how they continue to shape our lives.
1) Readings from the textbook and class materials. Several quizzes (generally, but not always, on Wednesdays) will be given on the material in the readings and class materials passed out in class or, more commonly, posted on Beachboard. Quizzes will consist of a mix of multiple choice and fill in the blank questions. They cannot be made up. 50 points on five quizzes.
2) Midterm Examination, to be given on October 16. This exam will cover all material, including texts, presentations, and videos/CDs presented in the class in the first two months. It will consist of multiple-choice, fill in the blank, and short answer questions. 20 points.
3) Successful performance on a final exam, to be given Wednesday, Dec. 16 from 2:45 pm-4:45 pm. This exam will be cumulative. I will discuss prospective test questions at our final regular class session.
4) Writing Assignments. There are three. The first is a critique of a particularly fascinating period of American media history – the yellow journalism era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the second assignment, you will write a profile on the contribution to journalism by an ethnic, religious, sexual or racial minority. In the third assignment, you will explore a “myth” of American media history that displays the role the news media play in elevating issues to prominence. All three assignments are detailed below. 80 points.
5) The “Daily” Afternoon Report. A lot of you probably are fans of Comedy Central’s the Daily Show, in which comedian Jon Stewart pillories the foibles of America’s politicians and American popular culture. He’s now moved on, but he’s still a cultural icon. Once in the semester you and two classmates will look at the morning’s newspapers and report on the news of the day in an unconventional way. Feel free to use video from YouTube or a major media website to illustrate the story to the class. By the end of the week in which you’ve presented your report, you and your classmate will jointly submit via e-mail a written report that summarizes your oral presentation. I will assign dates for each team’s report. I’ll also name the members of your team. 20 points.
6) Attendance. Coming to class is necessary and mandatory. Since most instruction will come from class lecture and discussion, absences will be counted in determining your grade. I will circulate a sign-in sheet on most class days. If you are not signed in for the class, you are not there – period. I am sympathetic to other university and personal obligations that might make it necessary for you to miss class. However, you have to make the decision whether those obligations are more important than being in class. I am not very good at making decisions on what reasonable reasons to miss class are. For one person, it might be a family trip or tending to the needs of a grandparent, parent or child. For another, it might be a work obligation. For yet another, it might be participation in a university-sponsored event. Any student who accumulates 10 absences or more will receive an automatic “F” for the course. 10 points.
“Daily” Afternoon Report
Once during the semester, you and two other classmates will team up to prepare and present a report drawn from the contents of the morning’s newspapers. These newspapers—the New York Times, USAToday, and Los Angeles Times—are freely available to you through subscription or online.
The “Afternoon Report” assignment requires each three-person team to make an in-class presentation and submit a written report based on that presentation. This assignment seeks to encourage a measure of collaborative work in our seminar, and offers a periodic opportunity to assess and even deconstruct news content—and to direct attention to what could be media-driven myths in their embryonic phase.
We’ll begin selecting “afternoon report” teams during our second class on Aug. 26. In all, 13 “afternoon reports” will be delivered during the semester (provided the class enrollment remains at 39). They will be scheduled throughout the semester on dates listed in the syllabus.
Here’s what you’ll want to do in completing this assignment:
• Get together with your teammates before class on the day you’re to present the “Afternoon Report” and pick up copies of the New York Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. You’re welcome to retrieve copies of the newspapers in the basement of the library.
• You and your teammates should review each newspaper, looking for:
a. The day’s best-written story: That is, which single story, in your collective view, was most appealing or engaging in its writing—a story so good that everyone in class should not fail to read it? What specific aspects of the article made it so appealing? Be prepared to explain and justify your choice.
b. The day’s myth candidate: Which single article seems to possess the potential of becoming a full-blown media-driven myth, and why? In other words, which story longer than a few paragraphs fails the “sniff test,” in that it doesn’t seem altogether sound or plausible? This could be a story that seems thinly sourced or superficially researched. It could be one based on the dubious data. Please note that identifying the myth candidate will require you to read fairly closely each of the newspapers that morning.
c. The daily wildcard: The day before you are to deliver your report, I will ask you and your teammates to look for another kind of article to include in your presentation and written report. This “wildcard” may be the day’s most gossipy story, the day’s most underplayed story, the day’s best sports story, the day’s most misleading graphic illustration. The “wildcard” will vary by week, in attempt to be sure the daily reports remain lively, diverse, and even entertaining.
• Jointly prepare a verbal report to be presented during the opening portion of that afternoon’s class. The verbal report should not exceed 15–20 minutes, during which you and your teammates will each take the floor. Your presentation will be the starting point for a somewhat broader discussion of the content of that morning’s newspapers. Everyone in class will be expected to contribute to those discussions.
• After class, jointly write a paper of three to four pages that:
a. summarizes the content of your verbal report;
b. recounts, briefly, how you and your teammate worked together in reaching your decisions;
c. revisits the myth candidate identified in the verbal report and explores why that topic or story appears to have the potential to become a full-blown media-driven myth;
d. discusses, briefly, how you felt the class received your verbal report, and
e. includes an online link to the myth-candidate story.
The paper is due to me as email attachment no later than 5 p.m. on the Friday following your in-class presentation.
The “Myths” Paper
This assignment will allow you to research in some detail interesting aspects of a media-related myth that displays the role the news media has played in elevating issues to prominence. Your research paper should run six to eight full pages and will be due at the start of class on December 7.
Please review the list below of several prospective research topics. You are welcome to propose a pertinent idea (on a topic, say, that you’ve been interested in researching; this could be the occasion to pursue that interest). We’ll want to agree on that topic before you may proceed, of course. In any event, I will ask you in class on Sept. 30 to rank and briefly describe your three top research preferences. Assignments of research topics will be based on those preferences.
Whatever topic you research, it’s essential that we meet to discuss the project’s scope and other parameters, including resource materials. In any event, please do not research a topic that you have previously investigated (in another class, for example).
Here are descriptions of several prospective research topics; this by no means is an exhaustive list:
□ The American divorce rate: Some reports and research say the divorce rate is nowhere near 50 percent, as is often mentioned in the news media. So what is the country’s divorce rate, if not 50 percent? How did this misunderstanding take hold? Who has promoted the notion that half of all marriages in the United States fail? If this is a media myth, then what does it tell us?
□ “Crack babies” today: How has the loathsome term “crack baby” morphed since the 1980s? How does it appear these days in contemporary popular culture? (As we’ll see, it’s the name of a vodka-based cocktail favored by Prince Henry of England.) Has “crack baby” shed some of its stigma and notoriety? If so, what does that tell us?
□ Poverty and terrorism: What explains the misleading linkage of poverty and terrorism? You’re welcome to revisit this topic, with an eye toward explaining in detail how the misunderstanding took hold. Why is the poverty-terrorism linkage so often invoked? Is there any evidence supporting the link? In taking on this topic, you might consider reading Krueger’s book, What Makes a Terrorist, in its entirety.
□ Road rage: We hear a lot about this form of bad behavior on the highways, but is there really such a syndrome? A detailed report 12 years ago in USAToday suggested “road rage” is a myth, stating: “Contrary to popular notions about mounting mayhem on the highways, aggressive driving is neither a new nor a worsening problem.” Revisit the USAToday reporting on this topic and try to interview one of the authors, Scott Bowles and Paul Overberg. How do they feel about their research these days? Check databases for other studies and reports about the purported “road rage” phenomenon. Does this topic qualify as a media myth?
□ The Iwo Jima flag-raising myth: It’s sometimes said that the famous—indeed, iconic—photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima during World War II was staged. That’s apparently not the case. In pursuing this topic, you’ll want to consult databases such as LexisNexis to determine whether that misleading interpretation is widely reported. Also, what factors account for the tenacity of this myth? Is it because the flag-raising image somehow seems too perfect? Does a mistrust of the military account for the myth’s tenacity, at least in part? Is the account Joe Rosenthal, the photographer who snapped the image, persuasive in your view?
□ Nixon’s “secret plan”: Did Richard Nixon really say during his campaign for the presidency in 1968 that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam? Or, rather, were the news media intimating that he had such a plan? What is the derivation of this anecdote and how widely has it circulated? Does the evidence suggest that the “secret plan” story is apocryphal? And why does this matter nowadays? Because the “secret plan” anecdote stands as additional evidence of Nixon’s guile and deceit, perhaps?
□ The “wacko vet” myth: The notion is fairly tenacious that many Vietnam War veterans (or, more recently, Iraq War veterans) returned home to the United States as dysfunctional and mentally unstable. How have media reports fed this stereotype? (See a New York Times article in January 2008.) Is there evidence to support the notion of a “wacko vet” syndrome? What do veterans’ organizations have to say about this?
□ Oil-price hikes and recessions: Are they related? Or is the notion that they are related a media myth? Robert Samuelson, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, has said the correlation is a myth. (He wrote in 2006, for example: “It is conventional wisdom that big increases in oil prices usually trigger a recession—or at least a sharp downtown.”) Is he correct about conventional wisdom? Does this suggest that many journalists have only a tenuous grasp of the relationship of commodity prices and economic downturns?