The Journalism of Impact:

Stories That Made a Difference


Spring 2005


Residential College Tutorial




Prof. David Abrahamson

Fisk 201A

 (847) 467-4159


Office Hours:

Mon. and Wed., 11:00-12:00



What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing the dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have, and yet it is the tool of the worst men. But over a long period of time and because it is the product of so many men, it is perhaps the purest thing we have. Honesty has a way of creeping in even when it was not intended. 

--John Steinbeck

(letter to the U.S. Information Service)

E. Steinbeck and R. Wallsten, eds., Steinbeck:

A Life in Letters (New York: Viking, 1975), 256.





The subject of this course is the stories that changed the world. The students will undertake a critical examination of seminal print and broadcast reportage (from the late-19th century to the present), analyzing relationships between form and content, as well as the historical contexts in which the pieces were produced. An important focus of the tutorial will be the idea of outcome: changing public policy ( e.g. muckraking, the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate articles), introducing new issues (Silent Spring, The Other America, the Ms. Manifesto), altering public perception (Hersey's Hiroshima, Haley's Malcolm X interview, Langewiesche's American Ground, Hersh's My Lai and Abu Ghraib articles). The class will, in effect, examine journalism as a political, social and cultural instrument of conscience. In the latter portion of the course, we may be joined by a number of contemporary journalists as class guests. 





Many of the assigned readings for the course are available in a course packet. You will, however, need to purchase the following books, available in paperback, at the University Bookstore:


  John Hersey, Hiroshima a course workbook to be purchased in Fisk 109 (please bring to first




Recommended but not required works (all anthologies) you may want to purchase for your personal use include:


Lois Filler, The Muckrakers

Carl Jensen, Stories That Changed America

Judith and William Serrin, The Journalism That Changed America

Bruce Shapiro, Shaking the Foundations


The course will be conducted in seminar fashion, so you must be prepared to participate in the class discussion. It is essential that you complete all the assigned readings for each class meeting. We may not discuss every reading in class, but you will be responsible for all the readings on the exams and in occasional in-class written assignments. 



Midterm Examination


 The midterm exam is scheduled for Week 6. We will discuss the nature and format of the examination in some detail well before the exam date.



Homework Assignments to our Listserv


There will be a number of written homework assignments during the term, typically due the next class meeting. These will include recitations, analyses, formal paper proposals (plus written critiques of your fellow students' proposals), term papers, etc. All assignments will be submitted in both hard copy (in class) and posted to a dedicated listserv, J-IMPACT, via e-mail, by an agreed deadline. It should be noted that all assignments will be written to assigned deadlines which should be considered inviolable (see "Grading" below).


Because history has shown that there are major incompatibilities between the university servers and third-party e-mail systems such as Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL, it will be essential that, for this term, you use your university e-mail address and turn off all forwarding to other systems that might be in effect.


To sign up to our listserv, send a one-line message (no subject) reading:

<SUB J-IMPACT YourFirstName YourLastName> to the following address:

<LISTSERV@LISTSERV.IT.NORTHWESTERN.EDU>. Recheck your e-mail 10 minutes later, and if you successfully signed up, you will have received a "welcoming message" with specific instructions. Please follow them.



Major Writing Assignment


In addition to a variety of homework and in-class writing assignments, you will complete one major writing assignment. It will be a formal term paper (with bibliography and footnotes) not to exceed twelve double-spaced typed pages. It can be either a comparative essay on three or more authors discussing their respective points of view, styles, historical contexts and/or insights on a subject of your choice; or an interpretive essay on a single thematic topic that combines your own critical commentary on three or more of the assigned readings with that from other secondary critical sources.


Conferences: You must arrange an individual conference with me for approval of your major writing assignment no later than sixth week of the term. Your proposal should include a concise (one page or less) summary of your intentions and a preliminary list of sources and/or a bibliography. I will be glad to discuss the nature and formulation of the assignment with you, as often as necessary, as you set out to write it.



Optional Major Reading Assignment (extra credit)


You may also, if desired, take on an extra-credit reading assignment. Select one of the books from the list below; they are available in the library and/or most good bookstores. Read it closely, reflecting on two questions: why was it written (the author's intent), how was it written (the particulars of its execution, including reportage, structure, themes, characterizations, voice, language, etc.), and, finally, its impact. Then, prior to the ninth week of the course, write an analytical essay of no more than 1000 words explicating those aspects of the work you found unique, original and/or worthy of emulation.


Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

Tracy Kidder, The Soul of the New Machine

Nicolas Lemann, The Promised Land

Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker

Ann Matthews, Where the Buffalo Roam

Gay Talese, Thy Brother's Wife

Tom Wicker, A Time to Die





Because participation in the discussions forms a significant part of the course, attendance is mandatory. Missing class will lower your final grade, as will lack of preparation. If, for some very important reason, you will be absent from class, you must let me know beforehand.


There are many deadlines in the course for written assignments. I think it is reasonable to expect that, as a serious student, you do whatever is necessary to meet, without fail, without exception, every one of these deadlines. Each assignment deadline assumes the work will be turned in at the start of class, so promptness is essential. No late assignments will be accepted. 


The penalties: Two (2) absences and/or one (1) missed deadline will, no matter what the quality of your other efforts, lower your final course grade one full letter grade. You will find me unusually intolerant of excuses, explanations, etc.


Your final grade in the course will be calculated from a combination of a number of factors. A grade for your participation in the class discussion will be assigned, and, along with your homework and in-class writing exercises, it will comprise 50 percent of your final grade. The major writing assignment will count for 30 percent of your grade, and exams (midterm and final) will count for 10 percent each for a total of 20 percent. You'll note that your efforts in the classroom (and the resulting homework assignments) account for a substantial portion of your final grade, so quite clearly both class attendance and class participation are important.


And finally, it is expected that all students will adhere to the Medill School of Journalism's Standards for Academic Integrity as outlined in the Undergraduate Handbook. If you do not have a copy, please obtain one from the undergraduate registrar, Fisk Hall, Room 104B.



Course Schedule


Mar 29 (Week 1): Introduction


A few questions worth asking: What constitutes "impact"? Why do some stories have it and others don't? Who decides? How important is context? Style? Media? Timing?


          Assignment: Autobiographical essay (due next class meeting).

          Assignment: Transformative Nominee (See listserv "Welcoming Message"; due on listserv t0morrow; Subject line: "YourName's Transformative Nominee").



Apr 4 (Week 2): Lincoln Steffens, Shame of the Cities selections.


Recitation: Steffens

Context & Impact Report: 19th-Century Industrialization and urbanization


          Turn in Autobiographical Essay (two copies, please).



Apr 11 (Week 3): John Hersey, Hiroshima; Ernie Pyle, selections.


Recitation: Hersey, Pyle

C&I Report: The Home Front in World War II



Apr 18 (Week 4): Edward R. Murrow, See It Now.


Recitation: Murrow

C&I Report: The Red Scare of the 1950s



Apr 25 (Week 5):  Rachel Carson, Silent Spring excerpts; Gloria Steinem,

                     Ms. Manifesto; Michael Harrington, The Other America excerpts.


Recitation: Carson, Steinem, Harrington

C&I Report: America before the 1960s



May 2 (Week 6): Arthur Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X excerpts.

                     Ralph Nader; Unsafe at Any Speed excerpts.


Recitation: Haley, Nader

C&I Report: The Early  1960s: Civil rights and Regulating Detroit


          Seminar: Issue Project Team A.


          Mid-term Exam.



May 9 (Week 7):  Seymour Hersh, My Lai (Vietnam) selections;

                     Daniel Ellsberg, The Pentagon Papers excerpts.


Recitation: Hersh, Ellsberg.

C&I Report: The Vietnam War.


          Seminar: Issue Project Team B.


May 16 (Week 8):  Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate selections;


Recitation: Woodward and Berstein.

C&I Report: The Election of 1972 and Watergate


          Seminar: Issue Project Team C.



May 23  (Week 9):  William Langewiesche, American Ground excerpts; Garry Wills,

                     "The Day the Enlightenment Went Out"; Seymour Hersh, "Torture

                     at Abu Ghraib," "Hearts and Minds," "Chain of Command," "The

                     Grey Zone."


Recitation: Langewiesche, Wills, Hersh.

C&I Report: U.S. Foreign Policy 1945-2001



May 30 (Week 10):


No class (Memorial Day)



Jun 3 (Friday): Course conclusion, evaluation and review.


          Final Exam.


          Turn-in Major Writing Assignment.




Initial Assignments



1. Autobiographical assignment.


Write an autobiographical essay. This is due the second class meeting. No more than two double-spaced typewritten pages, 500 words or less, to include, but not limited to: Your age, nationality and ethnic background, hometown of your youth, parents and their occupations and influence on you, your major and why you chose it, jobs you've held, your future professional aspirations, your hobbies and interests, the three most memorable books you've read and what makes them so, the magazine or newspaper you most admire (and perhaps might some day consider working for?) and why you admire it. Please conclude your essay with an attempt to write one perfect English sentence that includes the word "love."



2. Author Recitation.


During the term, you will be responsible for one or two brief (five-minute) class presentations on the authors on the reading list. In addition to general biographic information, these recitations should include summaries of their journalistic careers (see sample below). To prepare for these presentations, you should use both general reference sources (encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, etc.) and specific biographies.


In addition, please conclude your recitation with a "quintessential quote." It should be an example of one single sentence you have unearthed in your readings of the author's work that could be regarded as a consummately quintessential example of both their writing style and their world view; in effect, a sentence that could only have be written by them.


Please post your author's recitation on our J-IMPACT listserv before the day of its presentation and bring two (2) hard copies to class. You will turn in one copy of your recitation -- typed, double-spaced, with bibliography -- for evaluation.



3. Context and Impact Report.


During the term, you will be responsible for one or two class presentations which explicate the social, political, economic and cultural contexts in which the works were written, as well as the outcomes. A historical assignment, your task is to (a) define the existing context prior to the appearance of the author's work, and (b) discuss the actual impact and effects of the work. It may be useful to think of it this way: Your report should both set the stage for the coming societal changes and detail what changes the work had a hand in making happen.


You will also post your context and impact assignment on our J-IMPACT listserv before the day of its presentation and bring two (2) hard copies to class. You will turn in one copy of your recitation -- typed, double-spaced, with bibliography -- for evaluation.



4. Issue Project Seminar.


In the latter part of the term, you will be responsible for one "issues project." You will be assigned to work as a member of a team, and once your project is complete, you and your team will present the results of efforts in class -- in effect, leading the class in a seminar on your chosen issue. The objective of the project is to move beyond the historical facts to focus on a larger conceptual issue. Examples might include: Why does societal change happen? Why does it happen when it does? What is journalism's role in the process? What should journalism's role in the process be? Does it matter how, stylistically, things are written? Does is matter where they are published?


You and your team will present your issue project report in the last few weeks of the quarter. We will discuss the subject, nature and format of your report well in advance of the date it is due.


You will also post a report on your project assignment on our J-IMPACT listserv before the day of its presentation and bring two (2) hard copies to class. You will turn in one copy of your recitation -- typed, double-spaced, with bibliography -- for evaluation.









Author Recitation List


This is the list of journalists we will cover in the assigned readings. Please select two or three for your recitation assignments.



Lincoln Steffens

John Hersey

Ernie Pyle

Edward R. Murrow

Rachel Carson

Gloria Steinem

Michael Harrington

Arthur Haley

Ralph Nader

Seymour Hersh

The Pentagon Papers (Daniel Ellsberg)

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

William Langewiesche

Gary Wills



Context and Impact Report List.


19th-Century Industrialization and urbanization (Steffens)

The Home Front in World War II (Hersey, Pyle)

The Red Scare of the 1950s (Murrow)

A sociocultural summary of America before the 1960s (Carson, Steinem, Harrington)

The Early 1960s: Civil Rights Movement (Haley) and Regulating Detroit (Nader)

The Vietnam War (Hersh and Pentagon Papers)

The Election of 1972 and Watergate (Woodward and Bernstein)

U.S. Foreign Policy 1945-2001 (Langewiesche, Wills, Hersh)



Sample Author's Recitation


          Mark Twain (b. Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) was perhaps the best known American novelist of his time. Though the early death of his father, a Hannibal, Mo. shopkeeper, left the family destitute, Twain had two advantages: One was his mother's belief in education. "A Harvard or Yale graduate of Twain's time would have regarded him as unschooled," wrote biographer Oliver Howard, "but he had ten years of formal schooling from age four through 14, far more than the average person of his generation." The second was his older brother, Orion, owner of the Hannibal Journal, who introduced him to the world of newspapers. Starting as a 12-year-old assistant on the Journal, Twain quickly learned the typesetting craft and became a journeyman printer, traveling as far east as New York before he was 19.

   When the Civil War closed the river trade in 1861, ending a brief stint as a Mississippi pilot, Twain went west. Having occasionally contributed satirical pieces to his brother's Journal, Walt Whitman's New Orleans Crescent and the Keokuk (Iowa) Post in his late teens and early twenties, Twain soon decided on a career in journalism. Presenting himself to the owner of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in September 1862, he declared, "My name is Clemens, and I've come to write for the paper." Clearly, the raw, violent world of the Comstock Lode did not daunt him. Though short on actual journalistic training, he promptly found his way. Recalling his very first reporting assignment in Virginia City, Twain would later write, "I felt that I had found my legitimate occupation as last." Later he would work as a reporter for the Placer (Nev.) Weekly Courier, the San Francisco Call and the San Francisco Alta California, as a traveling correspondent for a number of California and New York newspapers and as a contributor to Harper's, The Atlantic and Galaxy magazines.

   Almost 25 years after beginning his newspaper career as a "printer's devil," Twain found his fictional voice, publishing his first narrative work, Roughing It, in 1872. This was followed by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court. These later novels not only established Twain's position as the master folk-writer of his era, but also secured the place of the colloquial voice of the Western frontier in American literature.


          Quintessential quote: "I am no lazier now than I was forty years ago, but that is because I reached the limit forty years ago. You canŐt go beyond possibility."



   Twain Bibliography:

Branch, Edgar M., ed. Clemens of the Call. Berkeley: Univ. of California

  Press, 1969.

Budd, Louis J. Our Mark Twain: The Making of his Public Personality.

  Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Connery, Thomas Bernard. Fusing Fictional Technique and Journalistic Fact:

  Literary Journalism in the 1890s Newspaper.  Providence, R.I.: s.n., 1984.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1953 ed. S.v. "Twain, Mark."

Hicks, Granville. The Great Tradition. New York: Biblio, 1967.

Howard, Oliver N. and Howard, Goldena. The Mark Twain Book. New London, Mo.:

  Ralls County Book Co., 1985.

Lauber, John. The Making of Mark Twain. New York: American Heritage, 1985.

Sanborn, Margaret. Mark Twain: The Bachelor Years. New York: Doubleday, 1990.