Read this: Mightier than the Sword by Rodger Streitmatter

mightier than the swordRodger Streitmatter first published Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History in 1997. It was intended to be both a textbook for his popular undergraduate journalism course at American University and a general reader for anyone interested in exploring the news media’s influence on our democracy. In his preface to the fourth edition, published in 2016, Streitmatter attributes the book’s popularity to the readers who “enthusiastically embrace its thesis: for more than two centuries the American news media haven’t merely reported and commented on the news, but they’ve also played a significant role in shaping this country’s history” (ix).

Streitmatter delivers on defending his thesis, with examples of how the news media has both championed and failed the American people, from our country’s founding to present day. Check out the table of contents for sixteen chapters in American history that get the treatment from Streitmatter. Each stands on its own and is designed to be readable and easy to integrate into the classroom. You and your students will recognize some of these chapters – yellow journalism, muckrakers, Watergate – but some are less well known, such as the discrediting of the movement for women’s rights in the mid-nineteenth century, standing up to the Klan in the 1920s, or the role the press played in electing our first African American president.

Streitmatter introduces each chapter with a clear, arguable thesis and then proceeds to cite evidence in support of his argument. This is not to suggest that the writing is flat; Streitmatter has written a textbook but it doesn’t read like one. High school students will find it engaging and history and English teachers can use these chapters as mentor texts to help model persuasive essays or research writing.

In many of these episodes in American history, the press was as much a help as a hindrance to our democracy’s health. In Chapter 10, we learn what a master Joseph McCarthy was at manipulating the press. “One of McCarthy’s most successful media techniques involved the timing of the accusations,” Streitmatter writes. “He calculated the exact hour of the day he could make a claim and be sure the wire services wouldn’t have time to track down a response from the accused person before stories had to be filed to meet the deadline for the afternoon papers. So the journalists, driven by competition, distributed one-sided stories” (135).

By National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the U.S. Information Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Streitmatter goes on to explain that “news accounts in the 1950s barred all interpretation, as the journalistic convention of the day was that news stories should provide a bare-bones recitation of the facts – nothing more. So McCarthy knew that journalists would report, without comment, any charge a US senator made” (136). We are still debating the value of objectivity in journalism today. How might revisiting this episode inform that debate?

Journalists helped give McCarthy power and in the end it was journalists who helped bring him down. Streitmatter closes the chapter recalling the influence of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS program See It Now in undermining McCarthy’s reputation:

Followed by the famous “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” courtroom TKO delivered by Joseph Welch, airing in 1954 to 80 million television viewers via ABC, NBC, and CBS news (141).

Once again we are reminded that when it comes to the press, we can’t live with them and we can’t live without them. Can students find other examples in history of the press failing the American people before returning to their defense? They certainly will in Streitmatter’s Mightier Than the Sword, and it would make an interesting research project. What about challenging students to find examples of press influence occurring after this 2016 edition?

Which brings me to the one million ways I would use this book in a classroom, of which I will share six:

  • Challenge students to do some research about the current news media’s influence on United States politics or policy and write a chapter for this books’s fifth edition.
  • Assign students (better yet, let them select) one chapter and ask them to do additional research about the topic. This could include anything from following Streitmatter’s ample source notes to finding primary sources and new, relevant material. Synthesize this research into some kind of media product (video, podcast, web comic, paper – again, better to offer students a choice in developing their product) that brings the topic into focus in an interesting, responsible way and with an audience in mind.
  • Have a class debate around one of the chapters’ central thesis. High school students will enjoy debating the news media’s role in the election of Barrack Obama over John McCain, or Streitmatter’s claim that the news media failed to put the tragedy of September 11th into context for the American people, with disastrous political consequences.
  • Challenge students to look for current analogies to historical events when the press figured prominently in shaping our democracy.
  • Read one or more chapters with high school students as a mentor text. Streitmatter models how to eloquently write and defend a thesis statement while citing evidence from several sources.
  • As a general text book for journalism classes, or for any teacher of English, history, government, or civics looking to incorporate news literacy into their curriculum.

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