Description   |   Syllabus

Catastrophe, Conflict, Scandal: Longform and the Decoding of Reality
UC Berkeley
Spring 2015


Catastrophe, Conflict, Scandal:

Longform and the Decoding of Reality

Spring 2015, Wednesday 1:30PM- 4:30PM,

Room 142/ Library, North Gate Hall

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

Mark Danner

In this seminar, we will turn our attention to the longer forms of storytelling, beginning with a thorough study of the best that has been achieved in that realm, with an eye toward getting at the possibilities of longer form reporting and writing. Our premise is, that with long form in particular, "you write with your ears." That is, what you read and hear determines in large part what and how you come to write. We will be reading and studying articles, books and some films, many though not all concerning catastrophe, conflict and scandal: the fall of a dictator, the concealing of a massacre, the sinking of a ship, the onset of a plague. We will delve into the structure of narrative, the establishment of voice, the shaping of story, the creation and use of suspense. Those whose work we will study might include Bai, Boo, Bowden, Cullen, Danner, Herr, Kapuscinski, Langewiesche, Larken, Liebovich, Malcolm, Packer, and Pontecorvo, among many others.  


Class Requirements This is a seminar – a discussion class - which means the success of the class is dependent on student participation. The most important requirements are that students

*Attend all class sessions

*Do all reading and writing assignments

*Participate in discussions

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the thoroughness of his or her preparation, will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade.

Schedule Note that all classes will take place on Wednesday afternoons, 1:30PM- 4:30PM. Class sessions will be divided by a 15 minute break.

Reading. Our primary reading will draw largely from books and articles, some of which are listed below. I strongly urge you to obtain these books in your own copies, either from local bookstores or from online suppliers, so that you will be able to highlight and annotate them.

Writing The class will be focused toward students completing at least one piece of long form writing. This can be a thesis project or an entirely new project. We will discuss the final paper and its evolution more thoroughly in class. To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest reading two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” easily found on the internet, and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.

Presentations Students will make two presentations in class. One will involve pitching their stories to their colleague-editors. A second will derive from a long form piece each student will select and read with the class. Each will be asked to contact the writer and interview her or him on how the piece came to be, the history of its construction, and so on.

Office Hours: I will hope to meet with each of you individually at least once during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,

Grading.  Students will be graded on their preparedness and their participation in class, the strength of their presentations and the quality of their written work. For all of these reasons a solid record of attendance is most important.

Required Texts

Matt Bai, All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid (Knopf, 2014)

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House, 2012)

Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (Grove Press, 1999)

Dave Cullen, Columbine (Twelve, 2010)

Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote (Vintage, 1994)

Michael Herr, Dispatches (Knopf, 1977)

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (Vintage, 1978)

William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Chaos, Freedom, and Crime (North Point Press, 2002)

Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (Penguin, 2006)

Mark Liebovich, This Town (Blue Rider Press, 2013)

Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Vintage, 1995)

George Packer, The Unwinding (Farrar Straus, 2014)

Mohammedou Ould Slahi, Guantanamo Diary (Little, Brown and Company, 2015)

Useful Collections

Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, Literary Journalism (Ballantine, 1995)

Ian Jack (editor), The Granta Book of Reportage (Granta, 1993)

Ira Glass (editor), The New Kings of Nonfiction (Riverhead, 2007)

Tentative Syllabus

January 21--  Introduction: How To Teach, And Not Teach, Longform. Writing With Your Ears. The Reading List.

Introduction to longform writing (writing with your ears, creating narrative structures through experience, and how this differs from the short-form practice of “sailing close to the shore”).

Class Discussion: George Orwell’s “Marrakech”: narrative structure (5 “scenes”); narrative “motor” (human emotion, author’s internal conflict, withholding/suspense, accusation, second person); use of sight/inability to see as a proxy for power. Orwell’s themes: socialism; fascism as a final phase of capitalism; the decline of colonialism (death, insects, corruption); liberation/revolution (final scene/sentence).


  • George Orwell, “Marrakech,” (New Writing, 1939) (


  • Read Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor (Vintage, 1989)

  • Read George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language (1946)

January 28 –  Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor (Vintage, 1989 [1978]), 176

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Class Discussion: (Professor not Present) Why does all of Kapuscinski’s interview subjects speak the same? Where did the factual inaccuracies come from? What did Kapuscinski try to accomplish with this book? Did his “manipulation” of certain facts paint a picture of a larger truth? Does it matter? Why is no one identified by name in this book, except for one person?

Student Presentation: Brett Murphy – The Mark of a Masterpiece (The New Yorker, July 12, 2010) by David Grann

Suggested Reading:

John Ryle, “At play in the bush of ghosts: tropical baroque, African reality and the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski” (Times Literary Supplement, July 27, 2001)

Jack Shafer, “The Lies of Ryszard Kapuscinski: Or, if you prefer, the “magical realism” of the now-departed master” (Slate, January 25, 2007)

Ryszard Kapuscinski (Wikipedia)

February 4 – Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote (Vintage, 1994)

Class Discussion: the process of reporting in El Salvador; the three levels of (1) the massacre itself, (2) the US cover up efforts, and (3) the Cold War; cables sent by US embassy in El Salvador; the reporting of Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto; The New Yorker’s decision to cover the massacre and civil war in El Salvador; setting the scene with a long opening sentence; Danner’s offers to return to El Salvador.

Student Presentation: Harriet Rowan – Kidnapped by Iran (Mother Jones) by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd

Suggested Reading:

‘Guantanamo Diary’ by Mohamedou Slati – book review by Mark Danner (New York

Times, Jan 20, 2015)

“If You Read One Book Review This Month, Make It This One” by Steve Kettmann ( Feb. 1, 2015)

February 11– Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Vintage, 1995)

Class Discussion: writing biographies about the dead, without consent – are their entire lives now in the public domain and not protected from public scrutiny?; biographers as muckrakers, yet painting themselves as completely objective; Malcom’s cooperation/struggle with Olwyn Hughes; Plath’s public/poetic and private personae and interactions/correspondences with her mother; cultists and “libber” writers digging into Plath’s life; Anne Stevenson’s struggle and sense of loss of ownership of her own book;

Student Presentation: Alexa van Sickle – How To Lose $100 Million (Politico Magazine) by Luke O’Brien

Suggested Listening: Sylvia Plath Reads Poems


February 25-- Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House, 2012)

Class Discussion; using verbs to create movement and action; extensive reporting of events the writer is not present for; was the writer present or not for certain events?; would it matter if the author presented a source list and list of interview accounts and interactions – if so, how?; character pairs and how Kate Boo lays out their narratives; why report from an Indian slum – “intrinsically liminal” – easy to cover, but gives a picture of a microcosm of India; “telescoping” narrative views – Annawadi to Mumbai to India, and back down again; writing about the wants of different characters;

Student Presentation: Andy Mannix – The (Extremely) Long (and Sometimes Forgetful) Arm of the Law (Riverfront Times, Sept. 12, 2013) by Jessica Lussenhopp

Author video-conferences with class to answer questions about her reporting and process of writing the piece

Suggested Listening: This American Life (Start at 35 min 20 sec)

March 4 – Michael Herr, Dispatches (Everyman, 2009 [1977])  

Class Discussion: on the use of fragments, minute details, stream of consciousness, memories, and making one self out as a subject in order to tell the story; use of mis en scene and the lack of introduction; fear and war the subject – no beginning, middle, or clear end; influences from Heart of Darkness by J. Conrad, and influences on Apocalypse Now.

Video: Why Michael Herr Went to Vietnam as a War Reporter

Video: Michael Herr – The Heart of Darkness

Student Presentation: Molly Pierce - “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic)

March 11—Matt Bai, All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid (Knopf, 2014)

Class Discussion: was Gary Hart merely the first to walk into the path of the swirling vortex?; is it important for the press to report on (supposed) extramarital affairs of otherwise highly qualified politicians; do we have a right to know about the personal lives of public servants; when does rumors become fair game for reporters?

The book may have started as a straightforward profile but became much more of an inquisition in political reporting--a type of self-inquisition. It reconstitutes a very brief period of time, using action scenes (eg p96). We discussed the watershed of “The Question” and the staging of that very dramatic, claustrophobic sequence. Careers/relationships between politicians and journalists--the two are inextricable. We also discussed, briefly, a feminist perspective on the narrative and changing attitudes towards extramarital affairs in general.

Student Presentation: Martin Totland – Lawrence Wright; “The Master Plan” (The New Yorker)

March 18 — Mark Leibovich, This Town (Blue Rider Press, 2013)

Class Discussion: did Leibovich maintain enough drive through the book without a set narrative? Characterization and humor as hooks for audience; author as an inside player in DC himself; use of anecdotes for storytelling; round vs. flat characters.

The redefinition of “what is news?”--examining the bubbles that exist in DC and a greater/wider definition of what merits coverage. Linked portraits of characters both notable and less well-known (Kurt, Tammy etc); chapters build thematically; we also discussed how the book is hyper-conscious of its own being, even to the extent of a discussion of its title in the epilogue.  

Student Presentation: Joshua Escobar – Yasmine El Rashidi;

Egypt: The Hidden Truth (The New York Review of Books)  -

Egypt: The Misunderstood Agony (The New York Review of Books) -

What We Learned in Tahrir (The New York Review of Books) -

Video: Interview with Yasmine El Rashidi

March 25: Spring Break, No Class

April 1—Dave Cullen, Columbine (Twelve, 2010)

Class Discussion: narrative structure of Columbine, leafing and overlapping narrative trains as seen from different characters, character portraits of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold; how the characterization varied - Eric as the unwavering psychopath, Dylan as the more relatable and lonely teenager; how author Dave Cullen built to different climaxes and where he placed the school massacre itself within the narrative of his book; complex and dense narrative structure that takes many different turns and jumps back and forth between characters; setting right and dispelling myths about the Columbine shooting - was actually intended to be a bombing, but the fuses failed, etc; could the book have been improved by cutting and amputating certain sections?

Student Presentation: Dorothy Atkins; Michael Hastings – “The Runaway General” (Rolling Stone)

Benjamin Wallace - “Who Killed Michael Hastings?” (New York Magazine)

April 8— William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea (North Point Press, 2002)

Class Discussion: themes of perceived security and actual disorder on the ocean; the harrowing account of the MS Estonia tragedy - how did Langewiesche reconstruct the event?; the hard transitions between parts of the book could have been better - somewhat unsuccessful; was the book built around the MS Estonia account, then the bookend parts added?; should Langewiesche have omitted the problem of Somali piracy?; author’s reporting must have been extremely careful and meticulous - his background as a pilot and writer for aviation publications set him up for very technical and precise reconstructions, and never rushes to conclusions, but lets his narratives unfold slowly and naturally.

Student Presentation: Zainab Khan; “Jahar’s World” (Rolling Stone)

Workshop Piece: Dorothy Atkins; 2nd Round of Aspen Suicide Story

April 15— George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar Straus, 2014)

Class Discussion: Packer’s five longer biographies vs. 10 short snippet profiles - did the short profiles work? why or why not? Dean Price, Tammy Thomas, Jeff Connaughton, etc; the collapse of the Rust Belt as portrayed by the collapse of Youngstown, OH; the deep and well composed biographies have a foil in the charicatured portraits occasionally seen in the shorter profiles; is the Unwinding the collapse of economic security?; if so, what happened?; was it just “institutional forces”? Is that a satisfactory answer? Packer’s inspiration from Dos Passos’ USA trilogy with fictional characters; lack of economic, sociological, and political analysis - more of a snapshot of different people’s lives in the American experiment, and no framework to hang it on; themes of widening inequality and stagnating wages, the 2008 recession, and unraveling of the national “fabric” (according to an NYT review of the book)

Class Discussion of UVA Campus Rape Story and CJR Review instead of student presentation: was the CJR report necessary?; how could RS have messed up this badly?; how come no one lost their job?; was the editors and publishers at RS asleep at the wheel so to speak?; the scandal is still on-going in so far as RS pretends issuing a report to find out “what went wrong” is enough to shield them from their own mistakes.

“A Rape on Campus” - Sabrina Rubin Erdely (Rolling Stone)

“Rolling Stone and UVA: A Rape on Campus - What Went Wrong?” - Steve Coll, Sheila Coronel, Derek Kravitz (Rolling Stone)

Workshop Piece: Harriet Rowan; “Capitol City”

April 22: Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma (Penguin, 2006)

Class Discussion: dual narrative structure: 1) Larkin’s own travels in Burma, that 2) follows Orwell’s life in Burma--and Orwell’s writings function as a bridge between the two paths; Orwell’s time in Burma functions as a “time portal” that Larkin can jump into to compare Burma of old to the new Myanmar; suspense created by Burma’s ubiquitous state security and military intelligence impeding Larkin’s reporting; parallels between Burma’s military junta and Orwell’s single-party dictatorships in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four; contrasting the tourist-side image of Burmese as impoverished-yet-happy people with the ever-present MI and informants.

The lack of confirmed reports of what Orwell actually did in Burma, which Larkin reconstructs somewhat, add to the suspense of the narrative. The book’s deceptive simplicity--it looks like a modest travel book when it is actually deeply political. We also discussed how Larkin got her access and how she has been able to re-enter Burma since then, which may have been made possible by the fact that ‘Emma Larkin’ is a pseudonym, although this is not flagged up in the book.

Dorothy Atkins Story presentation: Ariel Levy - Trial by Twitter (The New Yorker)

Workshop Piece: Andy Mannix: “Staff sexual abuse reports on the rise in Washington prisons

April 29: Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Modern Story of War (Grove Press, 2010 Reissue)

Class Discussion: how do you leave Somalia?; the tick-tock structure of the story indicates very close and careful reporting by Bowden; how did Bowden persuade military personnel to talk about Mog?; by cultivating sources carefully and acquiring documents like transcripts of the battle, as well as the actual video shot from surveillance helicopters; the narrative structure that tells the backstory of the characters interwoven with the battle’s events; significant parts of the battle retold from different points of view - both US Soldiers and Somali civilians; some more reporting would have been useful, to clarify the question “why do they hate us?”; could the book have benefited from more pullback to explain the context in which Black Hawk Down happened, military decisions that led to US presence in Somalia, etc?; writing style very Hemingway-esque - short, precise, and to-the-point.

Student Presentation: Brett Murphy: Eli Saslow - “After Newtown Shooting, Mourning Parents Enter Into the Lonely Quiet” (The Washington Post)

Workshop piece - Molly Pierce: Women on the Money

April 30: Make-Up Class - Gillo Pontecorvo - The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Class Discussion: Pontecorvo’s use of mise-en-scene to drop the viewer directly into the action, then backtrack and eventually loop around to the beginning scene again; Pontecorvo’s documentary-style filming and editing was used to give the film a neorealism-type look; the film takes an even-handed approach to the war in the Casbah and shows attacks and terror plots by both sides - as a result of Pontecorvo’s aversion to romanticising the war; France’s ban of the film for four years because of the politically sensitive topic; the film’s screenings in various places, including the Pentagon as an illustration of problems in Iraq; the film’s epilogue showing that Algeria gains its independence from France, despite the French paratrooper’s victory in the Casbah;

May 6: Mohammedou Ould Slahi - Guantanamo Diary

Class Discussion: very simple and effective writing; to the point and humanistic; approx. one-sixth of the book was cut by the editor Larry Siems, and heavily redacted by the government; Slahi was briefly involved with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to fight the communists, then left the organization; Slahi has a close connection with his cousin that was on the Shura Council of Al-Qaeda, whom he helped with money transfers and other services; so the question remains, is Ould Slahi “guilty” in any sense, i.e. is there enough on him to keep him locked up?; hard to know if the book’s structure is due to the author, or the editor?; a large majority of detainees at GTMO was simply released, i.e. they never should have been there in the first place; incompetence of the redactions - easy to see through; the book details things that are still going on - the writer is still sitting in GTMO; incredible that the book actually exists at all - considering what it contains and describes, it shouldn’t, but it does.

Student Workshop Presentations: Brett Murphy - Port Disputes,  and Josh Escobar - Overcast/Untitled

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