Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ben Bradlee, Freedom of the Press and the Digital Age

Last night's passing of Ben Bradlee, the former editor of the Washington Post got me thinking about my favorite quotes from Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a free press.  Bradlee's leadership of the Post resulted in Watergate and the downfall of a president. But as the Post points out in their obituary of Bradlee, he was also responsible for deciding to print the Pentagon Papers--the Pentagon's history of the Vietnam War. (Click here for National Archives links to the papers, here for link to History Channel info about them.) It was that decision, Bradlee claimed, that paved the way for his decision to pursue the Watergate story. (see quote in abc's obituary).

Of course, we all know that newspapers have been "dying" for years now. But separating out "journalism" from "newspapers" and considering the role of the press in a digital age could be a really cool subject to study with kids. This morning, over my morning coffee, I found some materials that may be useful for this. They are very "rough draft" sort of materials, but this is, after all, a blog not a book, so I'm putting it out there. Hope you can find something interesting to do with this. I think it would work well in a lesson on the first amendment, on Thomas Jefferson, on Vietnam and the role of the press, or almost anywhere in the U.S. history curriculum, as the importance of freedom of the press to a vibrant democracy is a theme woven throughout our history.  Or try it in your government/civics class if you teach that.  And, as I discussed in yesterday's post, this could be a way to make the 1789-1830s period more engaging for students.

Potential sources to use with students:

  • documents to use with students - this is a link to a document I created that includes the Thomas Jefferson quotes about the importance of a free press and education as well as Justice Black's opinion in the Supreme Court case about the Pentagon Papers. I think you could use them as a DBQ type of exercise: perhaps create some overall question about the importance of a free press that uses the documents as support? Or just discuss with students in light of some of the resources below? Please use the comments to share any ideas you have! I also included in there a quotation from an article by in the The New Republic by Paul Starr, Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton. The last line of the article is a great continuation of Jefferson's view. He writes, "Our new technologies do not retire our old responsibilities." What a fun thing to discuss with students-- middle school or high school students! The link to the complete article (which is good background for teachers is here. And an interesting critique to the article by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Library and Information Studies Greg Downey can be found here.)
  • Check out this story, Why the press matters: 6 recent stories of civic impact from, a website produced by the Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. (I just found this website this morning, but it looks like a great resource for other topics, too. Read more about it here.) 
  • Consider a discussion or study of materials about how blogs, twitter and other online media have changed politics in the United States. Here is a link to Ben Smith from BuzzFeed discussing Twitter and other news models.
  • A Google search I did using the terms "importance of journalism" led me to this website I have never seen: online journalism website for teens that also has some curriculum materials for teachers (click here for those; no idea if it's any good, but a quick look seemed promising).
  • This article, reminded me that the Newseum is a good resource. Obviously if you live in the D.C. area, you could go there with or without students, but they have some interesting resources online. Check them out at:
  • Think about the election of 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon and the famous television debate in which Nixon sounded better (to those listening to the debate on radio) but Kennedy looked better on television. Discuss with students the role of changing media on the electoral process. Compare this to the recent elections of 2008 and 2012 and the role of the internet. I found this online course which gives a very good overview of the media and its impact on democracy. Discusses everything from Hamilton and Jefferson, to the yellow journalism that led to the Spanish-American war to F.D.R.'s use of the radio in his fireside chats to the new role of television and the internet in a few pages that would either work for high school students or as background info for teachers. It's really worth checking out.

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