Description   |   Syllabus

First Year Forum: Fundamentals of Journalism
UC Berkeley
Fall 2018



Monday Eat and Meet

First Year Forum

J298 Fall 2018   Mondays 4:15 – 7:45 pm   North Gate Library

Mark Danner


This Monday evening gathering, beginning each week with a school-wide buffet at 4:15, provides a forum for class-wide conversation. Discussions will be rooted in key texts by Ida B. Wells, George Orwell, Rachel Carson, Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein, Barbara Ehrenreich and others and will address the evolution of journalism, the politics of inclusion, investigative techniques, and changing business models. This class offers the space to debate pressing issues, among them the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, the increasingly partisan character of the press, the problem of under-represented voices, and the controversy over "fake news." 


Class Requirements The Forum will be a mixture of lectures, discussion and debate, backed up by a substantial amount of reading. A faithful record of attendance is critical and students who miss classes will not do well.

In general, the most important requirements are that students


*Attend all class sessions

*Keep up with reading assignments

*Participate in discussions and debates


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



Schedule Note all classes will meet Mondays in North Gate Library. The full schedule for each Monday afternoon and evening Forum looks like this:


4:15 Drinks in courtyard

4:30 Buffet Dinner

5:15 Class Begins

7:45 Class Ends


The first meeting is Monday, September, September 10.


Notetaking We ask you to take notes by hand. No open laptops will be permitted in class.


Reading Our primary reading will draw from a number of books of classic reporting. They are listed below. I strongly urge you to obtain these books in your own copies and in the edition specified, either from local bookstores or from online suppliers, so that you will be able to highlight and annotate them.

Our secondary reading will comprise a set of articles, one required for each class, that are intended to draw out some of the issues raised in the primary reading. Class discussions will be focused first on the primary reading at hand, then on the work’s significance for the present day. The secondary reading is intended to bring this out. Note that many of these articles do not appear on this syllabus but will be sent out closer to the class sessions where they will be discussed.


Tracking the News Though our reading draws from texts written during the past century – and in one case older than that – a good part of the class will focus on contemporary issues and how they are covered. If you don’t already, we urge you to keep up with the news by following the major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as other daily media. We are hoping to foster informed debate on many of the issues of the day.


Expertise Sessions Interspersed among class sessions that take their departure from a classic work of journalism will be a number focusing on particular expertise, including investigative techniques, journalism’s evolving business model and the visual elements of journalism.


Writing For some classes we will ask you to bring with you to class a short piece, usually of no more than four sentences, responding to a question about the primary reading for that day.


To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest studying George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which can be found here:

I also strongly recommend Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.



Discussion Sections We will be looking to schedule a weekly discussion for those who want to talk more about the books. This will be led by course assistant Caron Creighton, who can be reached at We will talk about scheduling this discussion section during the first class.



Office Hours I will count on meeting with many of you individually at least once during the course of the term, as will Caron. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My office is North Gate 32. 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, and the quality of their written work, as follows:


Attendance            40 percent

Participation          40 percent

Writing.                 20 percent


The way to do well in this class is to show up and take part.





Required Texts


Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton, 2002 [1962])


Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (Picador, 2011 [2001])



Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (Vintage, 1994)


John Hersey, Hiroshima (Penguin, 2002 [1946])


Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (Vintage, 1990)


George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Mariner, 1980 [1938])


Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of An Anti-Lynching Crusader (Penguin, 2014 [1895])


Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men (Simon & Schuster, 2014 [1974])







Tentative Syllabus




September 10 – Investigating Massacre, Ignoring History


Mark Danner, Chancellors Professor of Journalism and English and former staff writer for the New Yorker, discusses his reconstruction of the El Mozote massacre, its suppression by officials of the Reagan administration and its relevance to today’s supposed “border crisis” of Central American immigrants. Magnum Photographer Susan Mieselas discusses her photographs of the aftermath of the massacre. Both talk about Central America then and now – and about how an event that was photographed and reported on the front pages of the nation’s two leading newspapers could have been successfully denied by the government. Who really owns the truth? And what, almost four decades later, has that truth produced?


     Required reading: Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote


  Mark Tseng-Putterman, “A Century of US Intervention Created the Immigration Crisis,” Medium, 20 June 18



September 17Let’s Journalize, Let’s News


Cyrus Farivar, Senior Tech Policy Reporter for Ars Technica and author of Habeas Data and The Internet of Elsewhere, discusses, among other things, how to pull paper records and chat up grumpy bureaucrats, how to tease nuggets out of dry financials, how to decipher legalities and scrutinize the slow wheels of justice, and how to scope old internet records. A seminar at the cutting edge of investigative reporting. 


     Required reading: Short articles to be announced




September 24All The President’s Scandals, Then and Now


Mark Danner discusses what made the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein different and how it was that a metro story of a “two-bit burglary” brought down a president twenty months after he had been elected in an unprecedented landslide. Charles Ferguson, Academy Award winning director of “No End in Sight,” “Inside Job,” and “Time to Choose,” talks with Danner about his new film, “Watergate: Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President” and about Watergate’s significance for our present age of scandal. Is the Watergate model of revelation, investigation and expiation still relevant? In the Age of Trump, can journalism and government institutions still combine to produce some kind of justice?


     Required reading: Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein, All the President’s Men




October 1 – Reporting the End of the World: Hiroshima and Us


A good case could be made that Hiroshima was the most influential single piece of journalism of all time, almost undermining, as it did, America’s newfound faith in a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons as the basis for global power. Before he became famous as the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg was a nuclear weapons planner, as he describes in his memoir, The Doomsday Machine. Mark Danner will discuss the reporting of Hiroshima, and Ellsberg will talk to him about the implications of the book, about America’s 70-year reliance on nuclear weapons, and the multi-trillion dollar effort to “modernize” the arsenal under the shadow of North Korea and other “emerging threats.” Ellsberg will also have a good deal to say about All The President’s Men and the implications of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.


     Required reading: John Hersey, Hiroshima




October 8 –Fighting For Law’s Protection, a Profession’s Inclusion


Long before Black Lives Matter there was the Civil Rights Struggle and long before that was the Anti-Lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Author of The Red Record and Southern Horrors, among other writings, Wells, who had been born a slave, was a fearless investigative journalist, an early Civil Rights pioneer, a newspaper owner and a founder of the NAACP. Her tireless work proved conclusively that lynching was a way to suppress all African-Americans, rather than a response to specific violations or crimes. Many of the arguments advanced today by Black Lives Matter and similar movements can be seen clearly in embryo in her work. We will discuss the life and work of Wells and trace her work’s influence on contemporary politics and contemporary journalism, with special attention to the problem of inclusion.


     Required reading: Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, pp. xix-xxxi, 1-145, 211-334




October 15 – Covering War, Creating Fake News


What makes George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia a classic? Yes, there is the war reporting done from ground level, the account of the tedium and confusion of war offered by an average man who began an idealist and finished as a much more knowing actor. Wisdom is gained as much through disillusionment as education, for what Orwell found in the Spanish Civil War was not only revolution and combat but a scaffolding of lies built around what was actually happening on the ground, most of it constructed assiduously by self-described journalists and supposed eye witnesses. He returned to write a book that not only reported from the war but that also analyzed fake news, and as such Homage to Catalonia is truly a book for our time. With Spanish Civil War expert Adam Hochschild, author of Spain in Our Hearts, King Leopold’s Ghost and many other books, we will discuss Orwell’s war and the lies that surround it.


     Required reading: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia------------------, “Politics and the English Language”



October 22 – Reporting the Poisoning, and Warming, of the World


No single piece of environmental reporting has been more influential than Rachel Carson’s study of the dangers of pesticides, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT. It is fair to say the book created modern environmental reporting, whose effect has been, however, distinctly mixed. In this session we will study Carson’s work and try to weigh her achievement, while tracing her legacy, in which a rapidly warming world is studied, reported on, warned against, even as the skepticism about science and science reporting, in the United States in particular, seems more pervasive than ever.


     Required reading: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring



October 29 – Come the Revolution: Journalism’s Business Model


At present The New York Times draws more “eyeballs” to its front page than it ever has in its history – but it is barely profitable. The country’s other great broadsheet, The Washington Post, was acquired by a tech magnate for an obscenely minute amount of money. What’s going on? Nicholas Thompson, editor of Wired and former editor of, discusses how contemporary journalism works, how over the last two decades the mechanisms of advertising, design and distribution have been revolutionized – and what good things, and terrors, are likely to come.


     Required reading: Articles to be announced


November 5 –Immersing Yourself, Becoming the Other


Journalism depends dramatically on sympathy, the ability to understand another’s point of view and convey it, in words, images, voices, to an audience. One method, extending back at least to Tolstoy or perhaps Xenophon, is immersion: a writer become the other and thus dramatizes both her distance and her proximity. What is it like to live life as one of the “working poor,” for example, a woman who works maniacally hard over punishing hours but can barely earn a living? One way to answer is to take such a low-wage job and find out, and then describe the results vividly to the reader. We will discuss and analyze how Barbara Ehrenreich, a middle class journalist, “becomes” one of the working poor and how similar methods might work, or not work, in covering Obamacare and other issues today.


     Required reading: Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickle and Dimed



November 12 – [Class to be Announced]



November 19 – The Revolution Will Be Televised


Jon Else, director of “The Day After Trinity,” “Cadillac Desert,” “Inside Guantanamo,” and many other films, talks about the journalism of the visual, short and long-form, the truth-value of images and the politics of what we watch and what we see. Fake visual news will be discussed along with the unearned power of the visual. Documentaries and clips will be provided for viewing ahead of time, others will be screened in class.


     Required reading and viewing: To be announced




November 26 – Are Journalists Treasonous Sleazebags?


Long before a president took to denouncing all journalists as “Enemies of the People,” the theory was advanced, by one of The New Yorker’s greatest writers, that “every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself…knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Thus Janet Malcolm, on the first of the one hundred sixty-three pages of The Journalist and the Murderer. Should we take these words seriously? Is journalism as presently practiced in some way immoral? Unpatriotic? The US president is far from the only American who would passionately answer yes to these questions. Why? We will discuss the moral entanglements of journalism as currently practiced and delve into the cacophony of criticism that has accompanied the Age of Trump.


     Required reading: Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer




December 3 - Final Debate: What Journalism Needs Now


The course concludes with a class-wide debate about the present and future of journalism. We will narrow down the topic and shape the debate as the class advances.





© 2019 Mark Danner